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Don’t Reach for the Thesaurus: When Writing a College Essay, Less is More

Updated: May 7, 2021

One of the most common mistakes that students make when writing is the mistaken belief that more formal or more complicated words are always better than a simpler alternative. This is particularly the case when finding a “fancy” alternative for an otherwise fine word is as simple as going and plugging in whatever looks most fun. To be clear, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use a thesaurus. But, like any good tool, a thesaurus should be used and not abused. And I would encourage students and writers to reconsider the emotional strength of those less formal words. A vestige of classical studies that most students still learn is the division between ethos, pathos, and logos when constructing an argument. This well-known Aristotelian trope divides up arguments into three kinds, each relying on a different kind of argument that appeals to the human mind in a different way. Ethos appeals to the authority of the speaker or the source - “nine out of ten doctors recommend…” is a standard argument from ethos. Pathos relies on the emotional response evoked in the listener - the ASPCA commercial for abandoned pets with Sarah McLachlan’s “Angel” playing over it is a classic example of pathos. Logos is an appeal to logical reasoning and facts - “this policy has been shown to reduce poverty in the past and in other countries currently” is an argument from logos.

So what does all that have to do with college essays? Throughout their education, students are taught to focus most on logos. This makes sense. For a research paper, logos should be the primary or the only argument a student uses. But for a personal narrative essay, the kind that colleges ask students to write for their applications, students are asked to do more than explain or prove a point. They’re asked to show something about themselves and convince the reader that this story about them is important and relevant.

To do this, pathos is equally as important as logos. The goal is to make the reader, an admissions officer, not only understand why you would be a good fit for that school, but to feel that you would be a good fit as well. But if this is our goal, how do we go about it? What kind of language should we use to accomplish this?

“All the speeches of great rhetoricians... display a uniform preference for short, homely words of common usage.” - Winston Churchill
“Never use a long word where a short one will do. Never use the passive where you can use the active.” - George Orwell

Winston Churchill is often credited as being one of the English language’s greatest rhetoricians. And Orwell is, without a doubt, among its greatest writers. Both of them advocate for language that I would describe as “emotive” or simply “powerful.” In English, it’s often a good rule of thumb that the more formal and longer a word is, the less emotional impact it will have. That’s why the sentence “police detained a homicide suspect last night” is far less emotionally impactful than “the man shot him dead.” When we talk with friends or loved ones about our emotions, we don’t usually use these more formal words. When professing love to another, we’re more likely to say “I have a crush on you” than “I have a romantic interest in you.”

These, ultimately are questions of language register. It’s worth noting that all language registers are grammatically correct. Both example sentences I gave above are perfectly fine English. But they convey different levels of emotional attachment and formality. Professor Martin Joos, in his book Five Clocks, lays out 5 registers of language based on their formality. They are:

  1. Frozen Style: This style of language does not change; the unchanging nature of the words is important to their meaning. This is the case for quotations of songs, passages of holy books, and other ritualistic phrases. The “Pledge of Allegiance” is an example of this register of language. The language unchanging and, as a result, often far removed from everyday speech.

  2. Formal Style: This is the style of language which is used when giving a presentation. The listener does not respond and as a result, the speaker cannot change their speech based on the reaction of the listener. Giving a pre-rehearsed lecture to a work or school gathering is an example of this kind of speech. Language will be formal and include specialized vocabulary to express an exact point.

  3. Consultative Style: This style of language is often seen between two or more people with an unequal social relationship. But unlike the “formal” style above, feedback from the listener is possible. A teacher explaining something to a student is an example of this kind of speech. Language will be less formal, although may still include specialized, formal vocabulary.

  4. Casual Style: This is the style of language between friends or other social acquaintances. Slang starts to show up more and more here, and interruptions are common. This is the style of “short, homely words of common usage” that Churchill was talking about. A casual chat with a friend is an example of this kind of speech.

  5. Intimate Style: This style of speech begins to focus less on what is said than how it is said (intonation) and nonverbal additions (touches, gestures). This kind of speech assumes that participants are very familiar with each other and the background of the conversation. An aside between two family members in public would be an example of this kind of language.

This is not the only way to divide up registers of language. But it can be a useful tool to think about what kind of language you’re writing and why. Strictly speaking, you would assume that a college essay falls into the “formal” register of language. After all, an essay is like a speech - you don’t get to hear feedback from your reader as you write an essay, and it is natural for students to rely on precise language and arguments from logos to support their essay in this case.

However, as we have seen, formal language is not the best way to create an emotional connection, an argument from pathos. So, it follows that the job of anyone writing a college essay is to make a one-directional, formal exercise feel informal and familiar to the reader, in order to create that emotional response.

We do this by relying on words that have emotional impact - those short, common words that Churchill mentioned. Let’s take a look at an example:

“Going forward from that point, I was always cognizant of how differences between groups of people can fundamentally change the way in which they interact with the world and each other.”
“After that, I made sure never to forget how a person’s experiences can have such a massive effect on their lives.”

Both of these sentences say mostly the same thing, and might be the concluding sentence of a story in which a student learned to appreciate cultural differences. However, these sentences do not have the same emotional impact. The second sentence uses common words with emotional weight, like “lives,” “never forget,” and “experiences.” The first sentence uses more formal, academic words like “interact,” “cognizant,” and “fundamentally.”

Students may be tempted to write the first sentence since it sounds “smarter.” And for an academic paper, this would be the correct register of language. But for a story about understanding others and explaining an emotional journey, the second sentence is more appropriate.

You don’t need to stick to one register of language throughout the entire essay. In fact, going from more to less formal language can be a great way to emphasize the emotional impact of a less-formal sentence. For example:

“Throughout European history, Jews and other religious minorities were to greater and lesser degrees pushed out of mainstream, Christian society. Sometimes this extended to expulsion and violence and sometimes it was accomplished through more subtle methods of othering. However, this process ultimately culminated in the Holocaust under Nazi Germany. The Holocaust was the bloody fruit of this centuries-old plant.”

In this example sentence, right at home in an essay for history class talking about genocide and anti-Semetism in the 20th century, the language is mostly formal. It uses technical terms like “religious minorities” and “othering,” which explain with exact meaning the historical developments underway. The formal register of the language for most of this section contrasts with the informal, metaphorical language which follows in the final sentence. Both the use of simple, emotionally-charged words like “bloody,” as well as the contrast with the previous language register, emphasizes the emotional impact of this sentence.

I would hope that you’d be covering topics a little less depressing in your college essay, but this technique can be used to put emphasis on emotive language that supports a variety of feelings that you’d like to impress on the reader. The important thing is being aware of what register of language you’re using and doing so mindfully. If you’re going to write formally or informally, you should be doing it to elicit a specific reaction from the reader.

Knowing when to use which register of language is a vital skill for any kind of writing - especially writing that exists in a gray area between registers, like a college application essay. If you feel like you could use more practice in this and other aspects of writing, feel free to join us this summer for one of our College Essay Boot Camp sessions. See you then!

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