Want to Date a Nice, Smart Girl? Want to Go to a Prestigious College? Watch Your Grammar!

I was happy to see the results of the 2013 Match.com survey, which reported that 69% of women judge men by their grammar. Poor English usage is ladies’ second-biggest turn-off. Though I’m long since out of the dating game, I see new hope for curmudgeons like me.

It was also nice to note that my alma mater, Boston College, now requires completion of an essay as part of the admissions process. The move has reduced the applicant pool by some 25%, to about 25,000 candidates for 2,287 slots. I agree with BC that the cadre of hopefuls should be of higher quality than before. Only the seriously interested students will make the effort to craft a 400-word personal response to one of four questions.

Not everybody sees it this way. A recent Boston Globe story pointed out that Boston University dropped its supplementary essay requirement after just one year. Many of the essays lacked originality and were “too generic,” as one of the admissions staff put it. It will be interesting to revisit the BC files after a year to see if anything like that happens.

Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson

Writing is hard. As Britain’s famed man of letters Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), put it “Every man has often found himself deficient in the power of expression, big with ideas he could not utter, and unable to impress upon his reader the image existing in his own mind.”

Composing a short piece is even harder than writing a long one. If you can succeed in giving the admissions officers a clear and convincing snapshot of something that is uniquely you – and do it in 400 words – I say you deserve a spot in the freshman class.

As someone who does a lot of writing and editing, I’d like to offer some advice to those applicants who have to submit an essay or craft a personal statement.

First, write your draft from your heart. Write it from your gut. Pour yourself into it. Make it yours alone.

If you have to tell about how some person or event made you feel, or how it affected your outlook on life or changed the way you do things, spill it. Don’t ask anybody else about it. Don’t try to anticipate what the school is “looking for” in your response. They want to know you. There’s something special about everybody, and that means you too.

I suspect that the bland, formulaic essays that frustrated the BU admissions staff weren’t written from the heart. Rather, the applicants probably built their responses around what they thought the people at the school wanted to hear. That’s a sure way to conceal who you are, to submerge yourself in the crowd. Don’t do it.

Jacques Barzun

Jacques Barzun

Second, after you’ve let your draft cool off for at least a full day, go back and revise it. Then do it again. In his book “Simple & Direct; A Rhetoric for Writers,” Professor Jacques Barzun (1907-2012) offers the following principle: “Read and revise, read and revise, keep reading and revising until your text is adequate to your thought.”

If you follow that advice, you’ll probably be surprised at how good your work has become. But you’re still not ready to submit at that point.

Go find someone else to read it, critique it, and help you to make a series of fine editorial passes. If there’s no one in your family who can do it, hire a professional editor. The fifty or hundred or two hundred dollars will be money well spent.

Rule of thumb: If I have to read a sentence or a paragraph more than once in order to figure out what it says, a rewrite is in order. Sloppy, imprecise writing indicates sloppy, imprecise thinking.

I don’t have the space to go into all aspects of a well-crafted piece of writing. But grammar is just one of them, and it includes topics like dangling modifiers, pronoun agreement, and logical comparison. A diligent editor will spot mistakes in those areas and will also point out weaknesses in word choice, idea flow, sentence structure, punctuation, and tone.

Here are a few examples of mistakes that I see all too frequently:

• Using “it’s” (which means “it is”) when you want to say “its” (the correct form of the possessive pronoun)
• Writing “your” when you mean “you’re.” “Your the greatest?” No, you’re not.
• Adding an apostrophe along with “s” to construct a plural.
• Describing a fierce storm that has thunder and “lightening.”

The correct spelling in the last bulleted item is “lightning.” That points up another concern: the inadequacy of spell-check. Don’t rely on it. “Lightening” is a perfectly acceptable word, but it’s not part of an electrical storm. Spell-check wouldn’t flag it, or hundreds of other mistakes of this nature. You need a gimlet-eyed editor or proof reader to do the job.

Think of it this way. In that brief essay, you only have one shot to look your best. It’s perfectly acceptable to get help to be sure you do.

The lovely Kate Upton couldn’t have looked any better in the recent Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue, could she? Kate didn’t go to her Antarctica photo shoot alone. Her entourage included makeup artists, hair stylists, wardrobe consultants, lighting technicians, and Lord knows who else. Just think of your editors and proofreaders as the makeup artists for your college essay.

And guys – when you make it into that college, you’ll be a big hit with all those gorgeous co-eds who fall hard for men with grammatical savoir faire.

Ladies – it works the other way too. The Match.com survey said that 55% of men considered good grammar a “must-have” for a second date. It’s not quite as high as your 69%, but it’s men’s second-most important trait as well.

The biggest “must-have” for both sexes? Good teeth.

So brush and floss before you sit down to write. Good luck!

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