Before thinking about content, it is important that you stay away from common grammar mistakes. These mistakes are red flags for graduate school admissions officers. Because of the vast amount of reference material currently available to students (internet, library, online services, etc.), there is no excuse for bad grammar in your essay. We have compiled the most common grammatical mistakes that come up in graduate school application essays.
Understanding the following points is essential. If you fail to follow these tips, you will make egregious errors in your essays which the admissions officer reading your application may not be able to look past.
- Proper comma use
The comma is one of the most versatile punctuation marks. Unfortunately, this means it is easy to make a grammar mistake by misusing commas. Below are some of the most common usages of commas.
a) Commas are used to separate words or groups of words in a series of three or more.
EXAMPLE: I exercise by walking, swimming, and biking.
It is now considered acceptable to drop the Oxford comma (last comma in the sequence).
EXAMPLE: I exercise by walking, swimming and biking.
b) Commas are used between two adjectives that are interchangeable.
EXAMPLE: I am a happy, capable woman.
Or: I am a capable, happy woman.
c) Commas are used to join two independent clauses (complete sentences) that are joined by a conjunction.
EXAMPLE: I have worked hard to prepare for graduate school, and I will now concentrate my efforts on getting into my dream school.
d) A comma is not necessary if the subject is omitted from the second independent clause.
EXAMPLE: I have worked hard to prepare for graduate school and will now concentrate my efforts on getting into my dream school.
Warning: If there is no conjunction (e.g., and, if, but) you cannot join two complete sentences with only a comma. This is called a comma splice and is considered an egregious grammatical mistake.
e) Commas are used to set off interrupters.
EXAMPLE: He is, by the way, an extremely capable student.
This also applied to names in direct address.
EXAMPLE: Will you, Sarah, continue to apply to different graduate schools?
- Proper colon use
Colons are not commonly used. When used properly, they can add some nice variety to your writing. They typically follow an independent clause (a clause that contains a subject and verb). The most commonly used colons are for lists of particulars and appositives.
a) Lists of particulars:
EXAMPLE: In order to be considered for this position, you need to have the following necessary characteristics: enthusiasm, charisma, and a team-working attitude.
It is important to note that a colon should never separate a verb from its direct object. Take a look at the incorrect example below.
INCORRECT EXAMPLE: In order to be considered for this position, you need to have: enthusiasm, charisma, and a team-working attitude.
EXAMPLE: I have done everything possible to apply to my dream school: Princeton University.
An appositive is a noun or phrase following another noun in a sentence to provide clarification on the noun or to rename it. If you can put an equal sign between a phrase and a word or between two words, then you can use them as two appositives on either side of a colon. Take a look at another example below.
EXAMPLE: That day I learned an important lesson: never take on more than you can handle.
- Proper semi-colon use
There are two primary uses for semicolons: to link two independent clauses, and to separate complex list items
a) Linking two independent clauses
This is only necessary if the two sentences are thematically related.
EXAMPLE: There have only been thirty diagnosed cases of this disorder; there are not enough people for doctors to study.
b) Complex lists
Semi-colons can also be used as separators in a complex list. They are especially helpful if the separate components of the list have other types of punctuation within it, such as commas.
EXAMPLE: I have written three major poems: “Butterfly,” a poem about suicide; “The City with No Toothaches,” a poem about deceit; and “Exit through Tunnel,” a poem about lost love.
- Avoiding Dangling Modifiers
You want to make sure that it is clear what your modifier modifies. For example, consider the phrase “adored by thousands of fans.” You want to make sure that you mention both the word that this modifies and place the phrase as close as possible to that word.
INCORRECT: Adored by thousands of fans, his book will be published in 2015.
INCORRECT: He will publish his book, adored by thousands of fans, in 2015.
CORRECT: He, adored by thousands of fans, will publish his book in 2015.
In the first example, the noun that the phrase modifies is absent altogether, turning this phrase into a dangling modifier. In the second example, the noun that the phrase modifies is present. However, the phrase is placed after a different word, distorting its meaning (it implies that it is the book, not him, that is adored by thousands of fans). In the last sentence, the modifying phrase directly follows the noun. Sentence three is clearly the best option.
- Parallel Construction
You should make sure that your grammar is consistent when talking about several ideas within one sentence. This can apply to words and phrases, clauses, and lists after colons.
Grammar in Words and Phrases
a) You can use gerunds (“-ing” forms of words).
CORRECT: I like playing tennis, running, and hiking.
b) You can use infinitive phrases (“to” with a simple present verb)
CORRECT: I like to play tennis, to run, and to hike.
or CORRECT: I like to play tennis, run, and hike.
**Do not mix these form (a. and b.)
INCORRECT: I like playing tennis, running, and to hike.
INCORRECT: I like to play tennis, run, and hiking.
c) Make sure to use the same subject-verb construction in a complex list of phrases.
CORRECT: He was considered an excellent student because he worked hard, he always arrived on time, and he inspired the other students.
INCORRECT: He was considered an excellent student because he worked hard, he always arrived on time, and his effect on the other students was extraordinary.
Grammar in Clauses
If you have a list of clauses, they must all be the same type of clauses for clarity. Take a look at these examples:
CORRECT: My father told me that I should always be honest, that I should always be faithful, and that I should always challenge myself.
INCORRECT: My father told me that I should always be honest, that I should always be faithful, and to always challenge myself.
If you choose to use a relative clause (that…), then you must continue using a relative clause in this complex list. As you can see in the incorrect example, in the third element of the sequence, a complementary infinitive (to challenge) is used. Whether or not you are familiar with grammatical terminology, you may still be able see the way in which the beginning of the different clauses should align. Take care to make sure that all complex clauses in a sequence are introduced in the same way.
Grammar in Lists after a Colon
You must make sure to keep all elements of a list in the same form. Take a look at these examples:
CORRECT: I have been recognized for the following achievements: highest grade point average, captain of the volleyball team, and outstanding performance in mock trial.
INCORRECT: I have been recognized for the following achievements: highest grade point average, for becoming the captain of the volleyball team, and outstanding performance in Mock Trail.
Check lists after a colon by putting the items in a vertical column. If the components match up and sound similar, then it is likely that they are parallel.
Hopefully these five points will be helpful in constructing your graduate school application essays. For further details, be sure to check out a reference book such as the Chicago or MLA Manual of Style.