THE BLOG
12/09/2013 03:15 pm ET Updated Feb 08, 2014

Pesky Grammatical Mistakes That College Admissions Applicants Make (How and Why to Avoid Them)

I grew up in the San Joaquin Valley on a family vineyard and attended a four-room elementary school. There were a lot of things missing at that little school (that combined two grades into each classroom), but the proper use of English was not among them. I learned all about how to correctly use pronouns, whether to employ "such as" or "like" in a sentence and what to do with periods, commas and quotation marks.

As I look at college application essays these days, I am struck by how many of even the best and the brightest students seem not to know English grammar and punctuation rules. Moreover, I am shocked when I get emails and/or letters written by adults who should know better -- parents, grandparents and mentors -- using incorrect English. So naturally I decided to write a blog about that, offering a few right and wrong examples and common mistakes.

From my experience, here are the most frequent grammatical mistakes college admissions applicants make:

Of all the writing mistakes I see, probably number one is the frequent use of a word (or words) over and over. For example, students tend to overuse the word my, as well as names of people, places and things.

1. ENGLISH RULE: It is important for writers to use a variety of words in referring to a person, place or thing, in a given sentence, paragraph or entire essay.

Mistake: I fell in love with Tulane when I visited the campus last spring. I was attracted to Tulane because of how attractive Tulane was and also how outgoing the Tulane students were.

Correction: I fell in love with Tulane when I visited the campus last spring. I was attracted to the university (another way of referring to Tulane) because of how attractive it (yet another way) was and also how outgoing the (don't need to refer to Tulane again; leave it out) students were.

Mistake: When I think about what I want to do with my life, my goals are probably the most important thing in coming up with my plan.

Correction: When I think about what I want to do with my life, (don't need to use my again) goals are probably the most important thing in coming up with (use the word a instead of my) a plan.

2. ENGLISH RULE: "Such as" in a sentence suggests that what follows will be at least two examples of something. "Like" implies there is a comparison between one thing and another.

Mistake: When I look at Columbia's course description on topics like global health, food systems and the economy, my heart actually begins to beat faster.

Correction: When I look at Columbia's course descriptions on topics, such as (replace like with such as) global health, food systems and the economy, my heart actually begins to beat faster.

Mistake: I want to be a doctor such as my grandfather.

Correction: I want to be a doctor like (replace such as with the word like) my grandfather.

Sometimes "such as" and "like" are interchangeable, but have slightly different meanings, as in the following sentences. I love chocolate desserts, such as brownies, rocky road ice cream and chocolate-fudge pudding cake (these are examples). I love rich chocolate desserts like brownies, rocky road ice cream and chocolate-fudge pudding cake (brownies, rocky road ice cream, and chocolate-fudge pudding cake are being compared to other rich chocolate desserts).

3. ENGLISH RULE: Whether a period, comma, question mark or exclamation point, they all go inside, not outside, a double (") or single (') quotation mark.

Mistake: When I was a Boy Scout, my favorite part was the games we played on camping trips, especially "search and destroy"!

Correction: When I was a Boy Scout, my favorite part was the games we played on camping trips, especially "search and destroy!" (Exclamation mark should go inside the quotation marks)

Speaking of quotation marks, many students misunderstand the use of a double or single mark.

4. ENGLISH RULE: Use double quotation marks to show that material is quoted. Use single quotation marks for quotes within quotes.

Mistake: My teacher blurted out, "I am always so proud when I hear students say, I love reading the classics."

Correction: My teacher blurted out, "I am always so proud when I hear students say, ' (need a single quotation mark) I love reading the classics.'" (need both a single and a double quotation mark for a quote within a quote)

5. ENGLISH RULE: Use quotation marks for material that is less than three lines long. Use a block quote for material that is longer than three lines.

Quotation Marks Example: When Maya Angelou, author of Mom & Me & Mom, visited our school, she said, "I knew that I had become the woman I am because of the grandmother I loved and the mother I came to adore."

To create a block quote, change to a smaller font, indent the right and left margins and note the source at the end of the quote.

Block Quote Example: I love how real Maya Angelou is when she writes. For example, in the Prologue of her last book, she says:

  • Many times I have wanted to quote Topsy, the young black girl in Uncle Tom's Cabin. I have been tempted to say, "I dunno. I just growed." I never used that response, for a number of reasons. First, because I read the book in my early teens and the ignorant black girl embarrassed me. Second, I know that I had become the woman I am because of the grandmother I love and the mother I came to adore. (Angelou, ix)

(Forgive the bullet point; it should not be there, but that was the only way I could get the blog program to indent the paragraph.)

6. ENGLISH RULE: There are very specific ways to use subject pronouns, such as I, you, he, she, it, we, they, and object pronouns, such as me, him, her, us and them (and sometimes you and it).

Subject pronouns take the place of nouns. E.g.,

I (takes the place of Marjorie) like peaches
You (takes the place of another person) like peaches
We (takes the place of another person and Marjorie) like peaches
They (takes the place of a number of people) like peaches.

Object pronouns are also used instead of nouns and are the recipients of action by an object -- usually a verb or preposition -- by a subject (usually a noun).

Teachers (subject) usually like (verb) me (object pronoun)
Teachers (subject) usually like (verb) him (object pronoun)
Teachers (subject) don't usually like (verb) her (object pronoun)
Teachers (subject) don't usually like (verb) us (object pronoun)
Teachers (subject) really like (verb) them (object pronoun)

The use of object pronouns is where a lot of people get into trouble. You will often hear (or read) incorrect usages, such as:

Mistake: Mary is a better student than me.

Correction: Mary is a better student than I. (Should be I;think about finishing the sentence, "than I am.")

Mistake: John is a better student than him.

Correction: John is a better student than he. (Should be he;think about finishing the sentence, "than he is.")

Mistake: Me and Joanna went to talk to our teachers.

Correction: Joanna and I went to talk to our teachers. (Think, "Would me talk to our teachers? No. I would talk to our teachers. Also, good English dictates that references to others should come before oneself.)

Mistake: If it were up to Tim and I, we would abolish finals.

Correction: If it were up to Tim and me, we would abolish finals. (You wouldn't say "If it were up to I," you'd say "If it were up to me;" therefore, the sentence should be "up to Tim and me.)

Obviously, there is a whole lot more to grammar and punctuation that I can't cover in this one blog. My point is to simply bring these issues to your attention so that you can avoid them if you can. A couple of really good Internet grammar resources are GrammarBook, Grammarly and also the book, Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

I hope you find these rules useful. So that you have them handy when you need them, you might want to print this blog and keep it by your application materials. In my next blog, I will deal with when to use who or whom, which or that, neither or nor, its or it's, affect or effect, and also the all-important use of commas, semicolons and colons.

Bottom line: College admissions officers pay a lot of attention to grammar and punctuation. Why risk annoying them when you can do it correctly and impress them. Also keep in mind that grammar mistakes could someday keep you from getting a good job and using good grammar is a very useful skill for work.