We asked admissions officers at 18 colleges for their grammatical pet peeves. Make sure your college essay is free of these errors by sharing this list with your proofreader. We also offer proofreading help through our awesome online tutors!
- Confusing its & it's; your & you're; or there, their & they're
- Run on sentences & fragments
- Verb/noun agreement and verb tense
- Singular articles before plural nouns like “an alumni”
- Misusing “me” and “I”
- Split infinitives
- Ending a sentence with a preposition
- Missing apostrophes
- Incorrect use of semicolons (Tip: If you’re not sure about semicolons, avoid them all together.)
- Overuse of contractions
- Poor use of the word “got” or “get” (Tip: Don’t write “get” when you mean “understand”.)
- Too many exclamation points
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Early college application deadlines are less than a week away, so we’ll cut to the chase: presentation matters. While we cannot definitively say that a misplaced apostrophe or a comma splice will cost you admission to the school of your dreams, we can say that proofreading as a preventative measure is always a good idea. We know: you’d almost rather slam your face against your keyboard and submit a page full of gibberish than scour for grammar mistakes four days before the deadline. Luckily, we made you a guide that will help you identify and weed out the four most common kinds of errors, easy peasy.
1. APOSTROPHES (’) AND QUOTATION MARKS (“” or ‘’)
- Apostrophes are used to make contractions, which combine two words (like you’re and I’m) and possessives, which demonstrate ownership.
- Examples: 1) Greyson’s hoodie is really cool. (possessive)
- 2) We’re confident he’s setting a cat hoodie trend. (contraction)
- Apostrophes are almost never used to make plurals, so DON’T DO IT!
- Example: The red hoodie’s unique color made it stand out from other hoodies.
- Double quotation marks are the American English standard for designating quotes, but you should use single quotation marks (or inverted commas or apostrophes) to indicate a quote within a quote. Ending punctuation almost always belongs inside the quotation marks.
- Example: “I heard Franklin say, ‘I want a hoodie just like Greyson’s.’”
- Proper nouns are the names of very specific people (Greyson Catterson), places (Cat Prep), or things (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe). These include, but are not limited to book and movie titles, cities and countries, celebrities, and even you! All proper nouns begin with capital letters.
- In multi-word proper nouns, capitalize the first letter of each word except for articles (like “the”), prepositions (like “in”), and conjunctions (like “and”).
- Your major should only be capitalized in three (3) specific cases: (1) it is a proper noun (like English or East Asian studies), (2) you are referring to the specific name of the department or school (like the School of Engineering or the Department of History), (3) it is the first word in a sentence. In all other cases, do not capitalize.
…are words that sound the same but are spelled differently and mean different things. Don’t let these common groups of similarly sounding words trip you up!
- You’re = the contraction form of “you are”
- Your = the possessive form of “you”
- Example: Your cat is awesome!
- It’s = the contraction form of “it is”
- Its = the possessive form of “it”
- Example: The T-Rex could not scratch its head. 🙁
- There = a place that isn’t here
- Example: My burrito is over there.
- They’re = the contraction form of “they are”
- Example: They’re going to steal my burrito!
- Their = possessive form of “they”
- Example: I am going to steal their nachos.
- Colons (:) can be used to make smiley faces :), but they can also be placed at the end of sentences to introduce elements like lists, amplifying details, or quotations.
- Example: Greyson loves all kinds of ice cream: vanilla, chocolate chip, and even rocky road.
- Commas (,) are versatile but deceptively simple. In general, they are a tool for separating words in a sentence more distinctly than a space, but less firmly than a period. Use commas to separate items in a list, an aside from the rest of the main sentence, or numbers in dates.
- Example: On December 31, 2015, Greyson filed his last college application. (And then ate an ice cream cone.)
- Commas can connect sentences ONLY when the complete sentence following the comma starts with a conjunction (like “and,” “or,” or “but”).
- Example: Greyson wanted to take a nap, but he decided to do some freewriting for his college admission essays.
- The Oxford comma is a special kind of comma that comes before the last item in a list, before the word “and” or “or.” Using the Oxford comma is a stylistic choice, but you have to make a decision and stick with it for your whole essay.
- Example: Greyson loves all kinds of ice cream: vanilla, chocolate chip and even rocky road.
- OR: Greyson loves all kinds of ice cream: vanilla, chocolate chip, and even rocky road.
- Hyphens (-) and dashes (–) are not the same. Hyphens connect words like “mother-in-law,” while em dashes are slightly longer than hyphens and act like strong commas to create breaks in sentences.
- Example: Greyson’s opinion on ice cream – if you ever ask him – is highly positive.
- Periods (.) come at the end of all your sentences. Period.
- Semicolons (;) are a great way to connect two sentences that flow logically from one to the next.
- Example: Greyson loves to write; accordingly, he wrote all five Common App essays for fun.
Remixed from the College Essay Academy Chapter 6 Cheat Sheet. Download the full version and keep it with you always.