A couple weeks ago, I shared on LinkedIn a New York Times column about “annoying, overused and abused” words from 2013, and asked a group of college admissions experts for the most common offenders they found in college application essays.
The idea is that when you are editing a draft of your essay that you can try to spot words that don’t work, whether they were over-used, inaccurate, unnecessary, redundant or even not a word. And improve your essay.
When you first sit down to pound out your first draft, however, don’t even worry about what words you use. Just get it all out. This list is mainly for the process of self-editing, when you re-read your work and make changes to improve the clarity, flow and meaning.
These suggestions and the collection of “dumpster” words are from college admissions experts who shared their opinions based on what they have seen in their students’ essays over the years. The intention is that you can benefit from knowing what they have seen as the most common offenders so you can avoid them, if necessary.
Just because a word is on this list doesn’t always mean you shouldn’t use it. These are mainly the ones that pop up the most, and are worth double-checking to make sure you want to use them.
I put in bold the actual words so they would stand out among these comments. A huge thanks to all the generous college admissions experts from the Linkedin Group, Counseling For The Rest of Us, who contributed to this list.
FOR THE DUMPSTER
“Actually. ‘Actually is always redundant, actually.’”
–Bob Gilvey, Director at SelectPrep of NJ
“…live life to the fullest, 110%, my entire life, always, never.”
–Christel Milak-Parker, Owner, College Connections
“Avoid literally unless you literally mean it. Never use very unique or 110%. I could do without well-rounded. Show me well-rounded, don’t tell me. And I would stay away from selfie unless you use it in an interesting, self-aware context.”
“Here are a few courtesy of a Facebook friend: “I nominate “toolbox,” “skill set” and “wheelhouse” whenever talking about job-related talents. Also “organic,” as in “our decision making process is really organic.”
I used to, back when aps were on paper, circle vague intensifiiers. “Very” is the one that pops up most. Essays strewn with ‘verys’ very often do not show anything. Very adds to the word count but let’s people avoid concrete nouns that describe rather than point. ‘No ideas but in things’ as the poet says.”
–Parke Muth, Founder at Parke Muth Consulting
“Thanks for sharing, but can we add “conversate” to that list please? I tell my students all of the time that “conversate” is not a word! You don’t conversate, you converse. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to believe me.”
—Sonja Felton, Director of Graduate Support at Academy Prep Center of St. Petersburg
“Passionate, Legos, dream college, hard working, yolo, diversity, adversity, and a lot. I wish kids could just write freely about their experiences and lives without trying to fit mold.”
–Purvi Mody, Experienced Educational Consultant, Writer, and Business Owner
“…I recoiled when one of our colleagues just wrote “utilize” in a post rather than plain ol’ “use” – multisyllabic replacements for perfectly good plain words usually alternate between absurd and annoying.
—Joyce Vining Morgan, College Counselor at Educational Transitions
“I agree with all of the cliches noted by my colleagues, especially “passion,” “skill set,” “amazing” and intensifiers in general, and I nominate “plethora” and “myriad” to join the list!
—Marilyn Morrison, Independent College Consultant at Morrison Educational Consulting
— Josh Stephens, Director of International Development at ArborBridge
“Passion. Completely overused in information sessions, writing prompts and essay responses.”
—Yolanda Tanner, CEO – N2CollegePrep
“The constant use of “like” in verbal conversations. I’m down with that.’”
–Susan Breon, President at Compass for College
“I agree with all of what’s been shared, though my greatest frustration is with students who refuse to write with the vocabulary they know and use, rather than the one provided by thesaurus.com. My favorite example this year was the phrase “tear-soaked handkerchief” used by one of my male students. I said, ‘Have you ever spoken that phrase aloud in your life? Because I never have and I don’t believe I’ve ever met anyone who has, except in jest or as a line from a play.’ Fortunately, my student agreed and understood.’
—Kimberly Shepherd, Marketing | Counseling | Training | Social Media | Public Speaking | Non-Profit Management
“I am usually reading essays written by older applicants (in their mid-20s-early 30s) applying to business school, so I get a lot of “world class,” “like-minded peers,” and “skill set.” The only word I always delete from every single essay where it appears is “unique.” It is impossible for anyone to judge whether or not their experience is truly unique. And since admissions officers read thousands of essays every year, it is likely they will read another from someone with a similar background or experience. I mostly ask my clients to write clearly and not to fill the page with empty phrases. All those are best practices, you know
–Mennette Larkin, Co-Founder & Director at Admissions Unlimited
–Sally Elliot, Instructional designer/content writer/blended learning innovator
“Oops, another dumpster word maybe?”
–Kristin Borostyan, Creator of Straighten Up
–Kimberly Shepherd, Marketing | Counseling | Training | Social Media | Public Speaking | Non-Profit Management