Tips to help strengthen your college essay
Four common mistakes that students in their writing include passive voice, run-on sentences, sweeping statements and plagiarism.
Below are details about these writing pitfalls and tips on how to avoid them.
An active sentence contains a subject that acts on a direct object.
Active voice example: Monkeys love bananas.
This is a clear, direct sentence. Monkeys (subject); love (verb); bananas (object).
You flip the sentence when you use a passive voice. It occurs when the object becomes the subject of the sentence and is the recipient of the action verb.
Passive voice example: Bananas are loved by monkeys.
This new sentence is awkward when compared to the active voice sentence.
In student essays, the passive voice tends to spring up when:
the "actor or doer" of an action is unknown
the student feels uncomfortable using pronouns like I or we
the result of the action verb is more important than who acted
In these cases, the passive voice may be acceptable, especially when rephrasing the sentence would make it more complicated.
Here are examples that illustrate when passive voice may be appropriate:
The actor is unknown
Complex hearth features in Eastern Alaska were used in the neo-glacial period.
(We don’t know who made them.)
You want to be vague about who is responsible
An error has occurred with the experiment, but every attempt has been made to correct it.
You are writing about a general truth
Happiness cannot be bought by money
(By whomever, whenever.)
The actor is irrelevant
An ICT hub will be built in Ireland.
(It does not matter who is building it.)
However, sometimes the passive voice can make sentences complicated and can sound too vague and even dishonest.
TIP: It’s good practice to look over your essay and identify the subject of each sentence (the actor or doer) and ensure the subject appears at the beginning, or near the beginning, of a sentence.
A run-on sentence occurs when the you join more than one sentence together without any punctuation, making the sentences and their ideas flow into one another. A simple sentence will contain a subject (what or who the sentence is about) and a predicate (says something about what the subject is doing or feeling). In college-level writing, sentences can get more complex, making it extra important to recognize where to make the proper, grammatical sentence breaks.
Mary and Sam were sitting and eating their lunch along came a spider that sat down beside them and frightened poor Sam away.
Mary and Sam were sitting and eating their lunch. Along came a spider that sat down beside them and frightened poor Sam away.
Mary and Sam were sitting and eating their lunch; along came a spider that sat down beside them and frightened poor Sam away.
Mary and Sam were sitting and eating their lunch, when along came a spider who sat down beside them and frightened poor Sam away.
Once you identify where the sentence needs a break, there are many ways to correct it.
create two separate sentences
use a semicolon. A semicolon is used when there are independent clauses (sentences that can stand on their own) on either side of it, and when the clauses on each side relate closely to one another.
use a comma + preposition or comma + conjunction
All of these will improve your sentence. However, in the above example, the third correction makes the most sense.
It is good practice to avoid sweeping statements or generalizations in your essays. This occurs when something that you write is too general and cannot be supported with proof or evidence. Words to include in your essay paragraphs that could to help safeguard against sweeping statements are: “tends”, “suggests”, “could”, “may”, “might”, “possibly”, “probably”. Better yet, include concrete details, examples and facts to support your points.
According to Sheridan’s Academic Integrity Policy (2016), plagiarism is "the act of presenting another person’s words, research or ideas as your own without acknowledging the source of the information used" (p. 5). Plagiarism, whether intentional or accidental, is treated seriously at Sheridan College. The best way to avoid plagiarism is to understand what it is so that you are not accidentally committing it. Even students with the best of intentions can get stuck in a situation that could lead to plagiarism. Here are some tips to help avoid being caught in a situation that could lead to plagiarism:
Start assignments early and read them thoroughly so that you understand the requirements
Use time management strategies to keep your project on track and avoid running out of time to properly complete your assignment: Time Management Guide
Take careful notes that include reference information for each source you access: Guide to Taking Notes
Learn to cite properly. Ask a Library Citation Specialist if you need help: Citing your Sources
Use Turnitin before handing in your assignments: Turnitin: Instructions for Students [pdf]
Integrate sources into your assignment properly. This includes paraphrasing, summarizing and quoting. Review our Research Guide on Integrating Sources or book an appointment for 1:1 help at the Tutoring Centre: Tutoring Centre
Contact the Academic Integrity Office if you have any questions on plagiarism: Academic Integrity Office
The short video below provides Sheridan student's perspectives on plagiarism (3m, 38s).
You have completed the Academic Writing module. We hope you found it useful. On the following tab, you will find a library of all Tutoring handouts used in this module. If you need help with your writing, please book an appointment with the Sheridan College Tutoring Centre or email the tutoring team at email@example.com
Grammarly Blog. (2020). Active vs. passive voice. https://www.grammarly.com/blog/active-vs-passive-voice/
SCRIBENDI Inc. (2020). Five habits to avoid in your academic writing. https://www.scribendi.com/advice/five_habits_to_avoid_in_academic_writing.en.html
Sheridan College. (2016). Academic integrity policy. https://policy.sheridanc.on.ca/dotNet/documents/?docid=917
University of Toronto. (2020). Passive Voice: When to use it when to avoid it. https://advice.writing.utoronto.ca/revising/passive-voice/