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College Application Essays: 6 Grammar Mistakes That Drive Admissions Officers Crazy!

Finally, I Wrote My College Application Essay! Am I Finished?

We all agree that writing the college application essay is a daunting task.  Understandably, most students feel a great sense of relief when their brainstorming ideas find a home and subsequently turn into a viable essay.  While this in itself is an enormous achievement, unfortunately, the essay is not quite finished.

We know that colleges and universities scrutinize application essays carefully. So, once you have the essay to the point you believe it is completed, you must proofread, proofread, and yes, proofread!

As you re-examine your writing and organization, now is your opportunity to look for the most common grammatical errors writers make, which are also pet peeves of college admissions officers. Keep in mind that grammar mistakes often make up the fine line between mediocre or stellar work.

Review the 6 most glaring grammar mistakes below to make your corrections and turn your essay into a flawless gem. 

Grammar Mistake #1. Subject-Verb Agreement Errors

The subject and verb of a sentence must agree with one another in number whether they are singular or plural. If the subject of the sentence is singular, its verb must also be singular. If the subject is plural, the verb must also be plural.

Example 1

  • Incorrect:  The man with all the birds live on my street.
  • Correct:      The man with all the birds lives on my street.

Man is the subject and is singular, so it requires the singular verb lives.

Example 2

  • Incorrect:  The players, as well as the captain, wants to win.
  • Correct:      The players, as well as the captain, want to win.

Players is the subject and is plural, so it requires the plural verb want.

Example 3

  • Incorrect:    Either answer are acceptable.
  • Correct:        Either answer is acceptable.

Either is the subject and is a singular indefinite pronoun, so it requires the singular verb is.

Grammar Mistake #2. Sentence Fragments

Sentence fragments are incomplete sentences that don’t have one independent clause – a group of words that can stand on their own as a complete thought. In order to have an independent clause, you need a subject and a verb. A fragment may lack a subject, a complete verb, or both. Sometimes, fragments depend on the proceeding sentence to give it meaning.

Example 1

  • Incorrect:  On the table.
  • Correct:      The backpack is on the table.

On the table is a prepositional phrase without a subject or a verb. In the second sentence, we added both. The backpack is the subject and is is the verb.

Example 2

  • Incorrect:  The boys crept home late that night. Then waited for the consequences.
  • Correct:      The boys crept home late that night, then waited for the consequences.

Then waited for the consequences is a subordinate clause that is missing a subject. Who waited for the consequences? It should become part of the previous sentence, so it has the subject the boys.

Grammar Mistake #3. Misusing The Apostrophe With “Its”

You use an apostrophe with it’s only when the word is a contraction for it is or it has. Without the apostrophe, its is a possessive pronoun that means belonging to it.

Example 1

  • Incorrect:  I don’t believe its finally Friday.
  • Correct:      I don’t believe it’s finally Friday.

The second sentence is correct because I want to express that I don’t believe it is finally Friday.

Example 2

  • Incorrect: The cat was licking it’s tail.
  • Correct:     The cat was licking its tail.

The second sentence is correct because I want to express that the tail belongs to it (the cat).

*The same rules applies for your vs you’re and their vs they’re. Remember, apostrophes are short for is or are, while no apostrophe denotes possession.*

Grammar Mistake #4. Misplaced Or Dangling Modifier

A misplaced modifier is a word, phrase, or clause that is improperly separated from the word it modifies or describes. Sentences with this error can sound awkward, ridiculous, or confusing. A dangling modifier is a word or phrase that modifies a word not clearly stated in the sentence.

Example 1

  • Incorrect:  While walking on the sidewalk, Mary found a sparkly girl’s bracelet.
  • Correct:      While walking on the sidewalk, Mary found a girl’s sparkly bracelet.

In the first sentence the adjective sparkly is close to girl’s, so humorous and awkwardly, it looks like we are calling a human sparkly. The modifier is misplaced. The second sentence corrects this problem by putting the word sparkly next to bracelet, an item much more commonly described as glittering or shiny.

Example 2

  • Incorrect:   Hoping to make amends, the letter expressed my regret.
  • Correct:       Hoping to make amends, I expressed my regret in the letter.

The first sentence is confusing. Who was hoping to make amends? The letter? How can a letter hope for anything? This is a dangling modifier. The second sentence fixes this issue by adding the subject I next to the modifier hoping to make amends.

Grammar Mistake #5. Pronoun Problems

A pronoun can replace a noun, and its antecedent should be the person, place, or thing to which the pronoun refers. A vague pronoun reference (including words such as it, that, this, and which) can leave the reader confused about what or to whom the pronoun refers. 

Furthermore, just like subjects and verbs, pronouns must agree in number with their antecedents. A singular pronoun should refer to a singular noun, and a plural pronoun should refer to a plural noun.

Example 1

  • Incorrect:  When Jonathan finally found his dog, he was so happy. 
  • Correct:      Jonathan was so happy when he finally found his dog.

In the first sentence the pronoun he is ambiguous. Was Jonathan or the dog happy? The second sentence makes it clear that Jonathan, not the dog, was happy.

Example 2

  • Incorrect:  The Golden Retriever is one of the smartest breeds of dogs, but they would have trouble writing essays for college admissions. 
  • Correct:      The Golden Retriever is one of the smartest breeds of dogs, but it would have trouble writing an essay for college admissions.

The Golden Retriever is singular; therefore, use the singular pronoun it not they.

Grammar Mistake #6. Active vs. Passive Voice

In a sentence written in the active voice, the subject of the sentence performs the action. In a sentence written in the passive voice, the subject receives the action. You should use active voice when writing your essay.

Example 1:

  • Incorrect:   It is believed by the candidate that a ceiling must be placed on the budget by Congress.
  • Correct:      The candidate believes that Congress must place a ceiling on the budget.

The first sentence is written in passive voice.  Whenever you can ask the question: by whom? Or by what? Chances are the sentence has been written in passive voice. For this sentence, we can ask “believed by whom?”  The answer is the candidate. Since the candidate is the believer, he should be the subject of my sentence. 

The second sentence puts the candidate as the subject and creates an active sentence that is shorter and clearer.

Example 2:

  • Incorrect:   The class was loved by all the students.
  • Correct:      All the students loved the class.

Once again, the second active sentence is more straightforward and concise.

Final Note

These 6 grammar glitches may seem superfluous, but they make the difference between ordinary and outstanding essays. Plus, the mistakes can easily be remedied. Take the time to reassess your work and look for these particular mistakes.  Make your edits, and enjoy your awesome finished product!

For more expert advice, check out our Application Essay Writing Program. My fellow college essay coaches and I will help you write amazing college application essays guaranteed to impress admission officers.

Call 855-346-1410 or contact us here to get started.

We can’t wait to hear from you!

Michelle Sinno

Michelle is the Chief Mentor of Teachers at MEK Review. She initiated our Writing Lab and College Essay program and serves as a mentor for our teachers. For over 10 years, Michelle has led countless students to success in the College Test Prep and H.S. Test Prep programs. She helped create many of the standards for our English programs and still oversees and reinforces those programs today.


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