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Tip #8: Too Much Passive Voice in College Application Essays
Too Much Passive Voice in College Application Essays

Too Much Passive Voice in College Application Essays

Image by Allen Grove
Teaching students to recognize passive voice in their essays is one of the more challenging tasks I've faced as a writing instructor. Passive voice is not a grammatical error, but overuse can lead to essays that are wordy, confusing and unengaging. To identify passive voice, you need to map out a sentence and identify the subject, verb and object. A sentence is passive when the object takes the position of the subject. The result is a sentence in which the thing performing the action of the sentence is either missing or tacked onto the end of the sentence. Here are a few simple examples:
  • Passive: The window was left open. (we are left wondering who left the window open)
  • Active: Joe left the window open. (now we know that Joe is the one performing the action)

  • Passive: The ball was kicked into the goal by Wendy. (Wendy is the one doing the kicking, but she isn't in the subject position in the sentence)
  • Active: Wendy kicked the ball into the goal. (note that the active form of the sentence is shorter and more engaging)
In the example in the image above, the writer is narrating a dramatic moment in an important soccer game. The writer's use of passive voice, however, entirely robs the passage of its dramatic effect. The passage is wordy and flat. Consider how much more effective the essay would be if revised to use active verbs: "As the opposing team approached the goal, a striker kicked the ball towards the upper right corner. If I didn't block it, my team would lose the regional championship."

The revision is slightly shorter and far more precise and gripping.

Again, the passive voice is not a grammatical error, and there are even times when you will want to use it. If you are trying to emphasize the object of a sentence, you may want to put it in the subject position in a sentence. For example, let's say a beautiful 300-year-old tree in your front yard was destroyed by lightning. If you write about the event, you probably want to emphasize the tree, not the lightning: "The old tree was destroyed by lightning last week." The sentence is passive, but appropriately so. The lightning may be performing the action (striking), but the tree is the sentence's focus.

Continue to Tip #9...

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