Word Nerd: How the passive voice can ruin your college application

11 Sep

It is well known that the passive voice should be avoided. The question is, who does the well-knowing and the avoiding? The answer, of course, is you and me. But it’s not always that obvious.

When to use the passive voice

First, without getting bogged down in a yawn-inducing grammar lesson, let’s look at what the passive voice really is. It’s a way of emphasizing the action, rather than the person who is doing the action. By contrast, the active voice forefronts the doer, rather than the action.

So if we use the passive voice (“Jerry was chased”), we are assuming that people are familiar enough with the mouse’s career to understand the unspoken “by Tom” at the end. But if we want to say this in the active voice, we have to name the cat: “Tom chased Jerry.”

We need to use the passive voice when we don’t know who did (or does) the action. For example, “My pizza was stolen.”

The passive voice is also useful when the action is more important than the doer. A “Help wanted” sign in a store window is a common example (it would be odd to post a sign saying, “We want help” or “You help us”, right?)

When not to use the passive voice

Probably the most important reason to avoid the passive voice is that it conceals responsibility. Don’t you just hate “The inconvenience is regretted”?

Obviously, as passengers whose flight is canceled at the last minute, we regret it that our airline failed to do what it charged us money for. But wouldn’t it be nice for us to hear that the airline regrets it? “We regret the inconvenience” sounds so much more contrite than “the inconvenience is regretted”!

Sometimes, the passive voice conceals the responsibility for achievements too, not just failures. “The battle was won” sounds like a real waste of heroic effort by someone who never gets the credit for it. Why not just say who won it?

How the passive voice can hurt your college application

First of all, the passive voice is verbose: “I did this” has 40% less words than “This was done by me”. Now imagine an entire essay riddled with the passive voice. If you have a limit of, say, 600 words, and you waste words on the passive voice, that leaves you with that much less to properly describe your interests and achievements. Why do that to yourself?

Secondly, in addition to saving words, using the active voice will help you shine a brighter light on your achievement. For example, if some of your achievements were part of a team effort, the active voice could help highlight your contribution. Using the passive voice will make it harder for your reader to understand what you did, as opposed to what got done (or what happened).

And thirdly, the active voice makes for a faster-paced, more engaging, and more powerful narrative.

So take a look at your resume and essay drafts, and see if they’re “active” enough. Go over the drafts a couple times just to see where you can change the passive voice to the active voice. This will help you highlight your achievements quietly throughout your application, without the need to sound like you’re bragging, which could come off as a little desperate.

Got any questions, funny examples, or suggestions? Leave a comment below, or email us!

Read more Word Nerd posts here.


By: Uma Asher


For more on writing, check out these links!
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How a great essay got a high-school senior into 5 Ivy League schools and Stanford
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5 hilarious Hinglish habits and how to drop them
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6 resume mistakes that can make you look like a joke

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