Don’t OD on Adjectives in Your College Essays


Mark Twain, one of the best prose stylists ever ever ever, wrote, “As to the Adjective: when in doubt, strike it out.” When we are writing narratives and striving for “descriptive” prose, many of us reach for those juicy adjectives. I’m trying to kick my adjective habit. I now understand that if I need two words to describe something, especially when I use a long adjective and a noun, I probably haven’t found the best noun yet.


In a letter to a friend, written in 1880, Twain said, “I notice that you use plain, simple language, short words and brief sentences. That is the way to write English–it is the modern way and the best way. Stick to it: don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. No, I don’t mean utterly, but kill most of them–then the rest will be valuable. They weaken when they are close together. They give strength when they are wide apart. An adjective habit, or a wordy, diffuse, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice.”

I recently stumbled across a sample college admissions essay that was actually recommended by Connecticut College from their sample “Essays That Worked.” Check out the first paragraph and see an adjective overdose for yourself. I don’t mean to pick on the writer, but adjective restraint is something we all can work on. By the second paragraph, she shifts into a much more direct style of writing and the rest of her essay rocks! See how many adjectives (and adverbs!) you would take out:

Olivia Rabbitt ’16
Bishop Feehan High School, Attleboro, MA

The bright blue eyes that alight with unfettered curiosity on the burgeoning bulletin board are not only my own. Nor are the ears that listen raptly to the hum of student life and the gentle sing-song of our tour guide’s voice. Almost in tandem, my companion and I tear ourselves from the vivid vignette of college life and return with unmatched strides to the vast expanses of the campus. As the tour continues, I am neither surprised by the eager questions my companion poses – “Where’s the baseball field?” – nor by the heightened interest painted so clearly across his face. Wandering amongst the tall stone buildings, I appreciate for the first time how much this visit means to my constant companion, my father.

Click HERE to read entire essay.

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Word Counts: Cut it out!

Most of the college admissions essays have word count requirements, as do other questions on the applications. Do not ignore them. Stick to their numbers. If it says 500 words, make sure your essay is under that number. If nothing else, it shows you can follow directions.

If your essay is too long, start cutting. This is a great opportunity to actually make your essay better. My dad, a retired English professor, told his students that one way to gauge the best length of a piece of writing was to think of it as a woman’s skirt: keep it long enough to cover the material, but short enough to make it interesting. (No intention there to be sexist–the metaphor just doesn’t work as well for men’s shorts.)

Seriously, when you trim your essay, you almost always improve it. Read it for redundant words and sentences. A lot of times you will find you say almost the same thing in back to back sentences, even though you might have thought one supported the other.

The best place to start slicing is when you read your essay out loud and you hear for yourself where it starts to get dull or wordy. Trust yourself and cut it out! Also, go through your essay word for word and if you suspect you might not need a word, take it out. Is your meaning still clear? Then chop it!