College Essay Rhetorical Quirks (2021 Edition)

Josh Stephens
6 min readMar 23, 2022

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I could not, and probably would not, advise students on college applications if the English language did not fascinate me. Thanks to the volume of material I read and to my exposure to a particular demographic group — high school seniors — I get a privileged view of linguistic trends. Sometimes these trends reflect clever rhetoric or reflect cultural trends. Other times, they seem random. Sometimes they are welcome and effective. Other times, they hit the page with a thud.

This year, some trends were particularly acute. I have complied a few “greatest hits” in the hopes that this year’s applicants, and anyone who writes formal prose, can consider them and avoid them in their own writing.

Fortunately, most of these problems are eminently easy to avoid. Capitalization requires no more than the depression of the “shift” key. Graduation from “highschool” to “high school” needs only a space. “Ongoing,” “unique,” and “journey” are most useful in their absence.

I probably could have made the following list twice as long if I’d put my mind to it. But, I leave it to readers to consider this list and think of other trends on their own — recurring words that seem superfluous, imprecise, unnecessary, or otherwise awkward.

  • “Journey” has become the go-to euphemism for pretty much any personal process or event that takes place over time. A “journey” can be a trip to the supermarket, the discovery of a new hair care product, the development of a political conviction, or, of all things, the college application process itself. Just the other day I got a promotional email for a weight-loss app: “Noom Will Help You Get Started On Your New Health Journey.” Health is important, but this phrasing is melodramatic and grandiose. Focus on substance, and leave the journeys to Odysseus.
  • “Unique” is often used as if it’s synonymous with “good.” It’s not. Mr. Rogers was unique; Charles Manson was unique; Margaret Thatcher was unique; Lizzo is unique. You, I, and everyone else are unique. “Good” is beside the point. Moreover, most things that are accused of being “unique” are not unique at all. A college’s “unique” class on stem cells or social protest is likely to be…. a lot like classes on social protest or stem cells at other colleges.
  • “Grit” is one of those things that’s great to embody but not great to say about oneself. It almost always comes off as braggy. Applicants should describe situations that required grit and let readers make the right inferences.
  • “Highschool” might reduce an essay’s word count, but it’s jarring to readers. As far as I know, not a single secondary school in the world presents its name as one word. And yet, students routinely write it as a compound. My only explanation is that they’re spending a lot of time on social media, monitoring #highschool feeds.
  • “Those” is one of those demonstrative pronouns that, as my 10th grade English teacher explained, absolutely requires clear antecedents. Ninety percent of the time, an unmoored “those” can and should be replaced with, or followed by, a noun: “people,” “students,” “applicants,” “sea otters,” or whatever else fits. A recent headline about pending legislation announced, “Bill Would Allow Drive Thru Access for Those without Cars” — who or what other than people would use a drive-thru? Are lawmakers expecting space aliens to visit Taco Bell? Think of it this way: would you prefer to be called a “those,” or would you prefer to be called a student, parent, friend, classmate, or teammate?
  • “Interdisciplinary” is a word that is not naturally in any teenager’s vocabulary. It’s on this list and in many students’ essays — especially “why this college” essays — because applicants hear it ad nauseam in presentations from college representatives. Colleges like to brag about their “interdisciplinary” programs: biology and chemistry; business and economics; art history and aerospace engineering; and so forth. This is all well and good. But, applicants do not need to parrot back colleges’ sales pitches.
  • “Ongoing”: Seemingly, everything that takes place in present-tense has to be clarified with “ongoing” these days. For the past two years, the pandemic has almost always been referred to as “ongoing” — as if any of us have forgotten. Here’s a recent headline: “Restoring Ecosystems in a Time of Ongoing Global Change;” the writer seems not to know the definition of “change.” More recently, I got an email from a travel company: “The team at Priority Pass… [is] deeply concerned about the ongoing situation in Ukraine.” The “situation” is no more troubling or heartbreaking with “ongoing” attached to it than it would be without it.
  • “That”: One of the language’s most beguiling words, “that” can be five different parts of speech and serve a dazzling array of functions. I am most concerned about its use, and misuse, as a relative pronoun. This year, I have seen countless examples like, “The player that scored the winning goal…” Presumably, a player is a human being and not a hologram. So, “that” should be “who.”
  • Identity” is complex. The concept of identity is important. Groups and individuals are entitled to define their own values, beliefs, customs, ideas, styles, and all the rest. But, when it comes to first-person writing, the word “identity” becomes a superfluous abstraction. Writers should present key details that make them who they are — and how they relate to their respective demographic, national, and cultural groups — and then let readers make inferences accordingly.
  • Capitalization: This one is non-negotiable. Writers today must capitalize properly. I suspect that upper case letters have become dear because spell-check usually doesn’t attend to capitalization and because text messaging is rampant. It’s one thing to lazily text your friend william that you’re going to burger king to get a coke. It’s quite another to tell a college that you want to attend the walsh school of foreign service, that you hope to take ecclesiastical art of the middle ages, or that you’ve saved up almost $1200 to buy an apple from your job at seven-eleven.

Conclusion
The preceding recommendations may seem fussy. But one person’s fuss is another person’s precision. Students today embrace all sorts of precision. Every STEM field depends on it. An errant keystroke can cause computer programs to crash. A mismeasured titration can ruin a chemistry experiment. An inaccurate calculation can distort projections of a product’s profit margin.

If we accept, and expect, precision in these cases, then we can and should do the same with writing. Yes, there’s always room for creativity and personal style. But, those attributes should be knowing and deliberate, not accidental or gratuitous. They should depend on substance, not on thoughtless trends.

Moreover, admissions readers — who are also attuned to basic principles of rhetoric — will care. They will appreciate correct writing and they will look askance at incorrect writing. People who aren’t deliberately attuned to these principles will still appreciate clear, comprehensible writing. And, I can promise, not a single reader will object to any of these suggestions.

Image courtesy of Stock Catalog, via Flickr.

About Josh: Veteran educator Josh Stephens has advised students on college applications for over a decade. His students regularly gain admission to the most selective colleges in the United States. Admissions in the 2020 and 2021 application seasons include, for different students, Caltech, the University of Chicago, Stanford University, all campuses of the University of California, and Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and all five other colleges of the Ivy League.

For more insight into college application essays, please enjoy the following blogs.

College Essays and the Misuse of ‘Voice’

How College Applicants Can Go Beyond ‘Show Don’t Tell’

Ask, Memory: Interrogation and the College Essay

What Engineers Can Learn from Authors

To inquire about application essay guidance, please email josh@joshrstephens.net.

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Josh Stephens

Josh Stephens is a veteran teacher and college counselor based in Los Angeles. Josh can be reached at josh@joshrstephens.net.