Should College Essays Be In Present Or Past Tense

Verbs: Past Tense? Present?
by Melanie Dawson & Joe Essid
(printable version here)

General Advice

When you write an essay, an exam answer, or even a short story, you will want to keep the verbs you use in the same tense. Remember, moving from tense to tense can be very confusing.

eg. Mrs. Mallory sees her returning son and, in her excitement, twisted her ankle rather badly. Her sister calls the doctor immediately.

In this example, the verb "twisted" is the only verb that appears in the past tense. It should appear in the present tense, "twists," or the other verbs should be changed to the past tense as well. Switching verb tenses upsets the time sequence of narration.

"The Literary Present"

When you quote directly from a text or allude to the events in a story (as in a brief plot summary), you should use "the literary present." We write about written works as if the events in them are happening now, even though the authors may be long dead. Quoting an essay, you would write,

eg. Annie Dillard wrote Pilgrim at Tinker Creek when she lived in Virginia's mountains. In the book's chapter, "Seeing," Annie Dillard contends that "vision... is a deliberate gift, the revelation of a dancer who for my eyes only flings away her seven veils" (17).

Here, both "wrote" and "lived" are in the past tense since they refer to Dillard's life, not her writings. "Contends," however, appears in a statement about Dillard's writing, so it is in the present tense.

When you write about fiction, you will also want to use the present tense.

eg. At the end of Of Mice and Men, Lennie sees an enormous rabbit that chastises him, making him think of George.

eg. Mrs. Mallard, in "The Story of an Hour," whispers "'free, free, free!'" after learning of her husband's supposed death.

The above examples are a plot summary and a direct quotation, both of which use the literary present. You can remember to write about literature in the present tense because you are currently reading or thinking about it. Every time you open a book it seems as though the events are currently happening; every time you read an essay it is as though you are currently speaking to the writer.

Non-English Papers

If you are writing a paper in another subject, notably the sciences and social sciences, these rules will not necessarily apply. Check with your professor for guidelines in your course.

In history classes, for example, the events you are writing about took place in the past, and therefore you should use the past tense throughout your paper. However, if you are citing articles in the paper, as you probably should, then you should check with your professor to see if he or she would prefer that you use the literary present or the past tense when referring to these articles.

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Few things intimidate high school seniors more than writing their college essays. Perhaps it's the thought of "summarizing" yourself in 650 words (an impossible task) or the vision of a grumpy, elbow-patched, pipe-smoking admissions officer reading it and wielding a big red REJECT stamp on your work (real life is not this dramatic). Whatever the reason, writing the college essay is a daunting task -- and one that requires time, care and thoughtful consideration. It pays to get started early; be willing to discard drafts that aren't working and to give yourself enough time to share your writing with people who can provide useful feedback. Remember: nothing you ever enjoyed reading was a first draft! So it makes sense that the summer before senior year is a good time to begin the process.

Here are five tips from my new book,B+ Grades, A+ College Application, to help you get your creative juices flowing, discover good ideas, and put them onto paper for a piece of writing that genuinely stands out in a sea of clichés.

1) The essay must add something to your application.

There are only so many things that an admission officer can learn about you from your high school transcript and your official test scores. While these are just numbers, you are most definitely not. The essay is your chance to show the admission committee what makes you a unique individual. While it may be tempting to write your life story, keep in mind you have already had the opportunity to detail your background and activities in your application. So what else can you write about? Some of the best essays are actually about personal observations and experiences that may have seemed insignificant at the time, but exhibit your true character. Still stumped? Here are a few questions you can ask yourself to help you reflect on what makes you a unique and interesting individual:

What single achievement are you most proud of?
Where do you think you will be and what will you be doing ten years from now?
What's the most difficult thing you've had to do in your life?

2) Don't bite off more than you can chew in 650 words.

Even the best's authors can't tell their whole life story in 650 words, so don't even try! The common application word limit may sound confining, but the key is to express an idea or story in a concise and compelling manner. Instead of overwhelming your reader with every detail of your high school experience, focus on something particular that is illustrative of a larger quality.

3) Show, don't tell.

This is an English class cliché for a reason -- good personal essays need details that make the reader feel that she is coming along on a journey with the writer. Anyone can call himself adventurous but only an individual student could describe the sounds, images, thoughts and emotions he experienced when jumping out of an airplane for the first time. These details show the reader that you are adventurous. They make the essay personal and authentic.

4) Grab your reader in your first paragraph.

Most admission officers read upwards of 1,000 applications each year, which is why it is imperative that your essay stands out among the sea of other qualified high school students. I suggest beginning your essay with active language, in the present tense that draws the reader into a specific time and place. Think of your opening paragraph as "setting the stage" for how you're going to tell the rest of your unique story. If you don't hook your reader in the first paragraph, your essay is likely to get skimmed or looked over.

5) Mark your territory.

Simply put: your essay is yours. It should contain unique and personal details that only you could know and describe. Though the importance of this rule may seem obvious, it is actually very difficult for most students who are new to writing essays about themselves. How do you know if you have successfully marked your territory? Ask yourself, "If I dropped this essay on the street and my good friend picked it up, would she be able to tell that I wrote it?" If the answer is yes, then the essay is truly written in your unique voice and there's nothing generic about it.

Follow Joie Jager-Hyman on Twitter: www.twitter.com/joiejagerhyman

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