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Should College Essays Be In Past Tense

Lesson Four: Style andTone
Verb Tense

As you write your essay, remember to focus on verbs and keep adjectives to a minimum. Pumping your sentences full of adjectives and adverbs is not the same thing as adding detail or color. Adjectives and adverbs add lazy description, but verbs add action.

Passive Tense

Our editors find that one of the greatest weaknesses of admissions essays is their frequent use of the passive tense. For this mini-lesson you will learn why the passive voice should be avoided, how to identify it, and how to replace it with the preferred active voice.

Overuse of the passive voice throughout an essay can make your prose seem flat and uninteresting. Sentences in active voice are also more concise than those in passive voice. You can recognize passive-voice expressions because the verb phrase will always include a form of to be, such as am, is, was, were, are, or been. The presence of a be-verb, however, does not necessarily mean that the sentence is in passive voice. In sentences written in passive voice, the subject receives the action expressed in the verb; the subject is acted upon. In sentences written in active voice, the subject performs the action expressed in the verb; the subject acts.

EXAMPLES:

(Passive) I was selected to be the tuba player by the band leader.
(Active) The bandleader selected me to be the tuba player.

(Passive) I will be prepared for college as a result of the lessons my mother taught me.
(Active)My mother taught me lessons that will prepare me for college

(Passive) I am reminded of her voice every time I hear that song.
(Active) That song reminds me of her voice.

 

EXERCISE #4: STRONG VERBS vs. WEAK VERBS

Fill in the blanks using the most descriptive or active verb phrase.

1. After working closely with my mentor, I __________ advanced techniques in oil painting.

a) was beginning to master

b) began to master

c) mastered

2. My newspaper article on the labor strikes __________ both praise and criticism.

a) generated

b) got

c) was the recipient of

3. Once I joined the debate team, I __________ the opportunity to compete every weekend.

a) sought

b) had

c) was exposed to

 

4. Samuel’s touchdown __________ the stadium crowd.

a) created much energy in

b) energized

c) really energized

5. Woolf’s essay __________ my opinion of gender inequality.

a) challenged

b) made me take another look at

c) was challenging to

 

6. As Jessica drew near me, I __________ the baton and took off running.

a) grasped

b) got

c) was given

 

7. Once my mother had fallen asleep, I __________ the dolls on her nightstand.

a) put

b) arranged

c) set up

 

8. Chris and I __________ an educational project for first-graders in our community.

a) began

b) started

c) initiated

 

9. "Why didn’t you ask me before throwing it away?" Jason __________.

a) hollered

b) said angrily

c) started to yell

 

10. Mr. Franklin __________ that he was our true father.

a) let us know

b) told us

c) revealed

Answers:

1) c; 2) a; 3) a; 4) b; 5) a; 6) a; 7) b; 8) c; 9) a; 10) c;

 

Changing Passive Voice to Active Voice

If you want to change a passive-voice sentence to active voice, find the agent in the phrase, the person or thing that is performing the action expressed in the verb. Make that agent the subject of the sentence, and change the verb accordingly. For many instances of the passive voice in your essay, you can follow these steps:

1. Do a global search for the words "was" and then "were." These words often indicate the passive voice.

2. Cross out the "was" or the "were."

3. Add -ed to the verb that follows "was" or "were."

4. If that changed verb does not make grammatical sense, it is an irregular verb, so change it to the simple past tense.

5. Rewrite the sentence around the new active-voice verb.

 

EXERCISE #5: MAKING SENTENCES MORE ACTIVE

Change these sentences from passive voice to active voice, or note if no change should be made.

1. I was taught by my brother the principles of barbecuing.

2. My father was given the title by the former head chief.

3. The house was wrecked by the party and the cat was let loose by the guests.

4. The house is a mess, the cat is lost, and the car has been stolen by Justin.

5. Unfortunately, my plan was ruined by Gerald, the building superintendent.

6. The roof was leaking. It had been leaking all week.

7. The ball was thrown by Lucy, who had been hiding in the bushes.

8. Francesca was placed on the first flight to Boston. Her father put her there.

9. "To be or not to be?" That is the question.

10. A feast had been created from nothing. I was astounded.

Answers:

  1. My brother taught me the principles of barbecuing.
  2. The former head chief gave the title to my father.
  3. The party wrecked the house and the guests let the cat loose.
  4. The house is a mess, the cat is lost, and Justin has stolen the car.
  5. Unfortunately, Gerald, the building superintendent, ruined my plan.
  6. No change.
  7. Lucy, who had been hiding in the bushes, threw the ball.
  8. Francesca’s father placed her on the first flight to Boston.
  9. No change.
  10. A feast had been created from nothing. This astounded me.
 

EXERCISE #6: PASSIVE-FREE WRITING

Write a 100-word essay on anything at all (preferably relating to your essay topic) without using any form of the verb "to be."

Continue to Transitions

Many college applications require an essay component to get to know prospective students as individuals rather than just lists of grades, accomplishments, and activities. The Common Application Essay offers prospective students a choice of five broad prompts from which they can produce a variety of topics. Nonetheless, it’s easy to fall into clichéd patterns of answering: for example, the prompt that asks applicants to recount a failure and what lesson was learned can lead to a trite answer about a brief setback or lapse of judgment with a moral tacked on at the end.

In my workshop, we’ll spend one day generating potential topic ideas from prompts I’ll provide that relate to the 5 common application essay prompts in interesting ways, to inspire original approaches to the essay. Not every prompt will be useful to everyone, but by the end of the day, participants will have several options to explore in revision.

There’s no “right” answer to these essays, except for the one that gives admissions committees a clear sense of who you are. We’ll work to identify what it is you want to communicate, and I’ll show you how all writing techniques are choices used to make that purpose clear to readers – what will get your point across most effectively?

Some of the choices we explore will be structural (sequence of events, shape of essay), some will be stylistic (vivid word choices, level of language used), and some will be grammatical (are your paragraph subjects also the main characters of your essay? are your verbs vivid and active where they need to be?) We’ll examine the pros and cons of each choice, and why they might work for your essay

One choice we’ll talk about will be verb tense – should you use past or present tense? Often, essays will default to telling a story in past tense. There’s nothing wrong with that, but you should understand that there are more options, and what the effects of those options are. If you tell a story in past tense, it’s already happened – its outcome is inevitable. Sincewhat happened is a given, past-tense stories should focus on how and why it happened, and why that’s important. Another option is to tell the story in present tense. This option can draw a reader into the action, since the story appears to be happening on the page – the outcome is not known, and the reader is discovering it alongside the writer. The effect is suspenseful, breathless. And still another option is to move between the past and present, combining these effects, though you should always signal time changes to your readers so they can follow you without getting confused. As an exercise, try taking a brief nonfiction scene or anecdote and write it in a few different verb tenses – how does it change the energy of the piece? What does each allow you to do? Which seems the best for how you want it to affect your readers?

"Writing the Common Application Essay" will be offered at The Loft Literary Center July 25-29, from 1-4 p.m, Mon-Fri, for students ages 15-17. More information may be found here.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and editor with 20 years of experience teaching creative writing at the college level and in community programs such as Writers in the Schools and Poetry Out Loud. She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page andA Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, the forthcoming essay sequence Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets.

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