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1. Basic Spelling Issues

There are a handful of little everyday words that people mix up all the time because they sound exactly the same (to, too, and two, for example). We totally understand how, when you’re quickly typing out a draft, you might type the wrong word without even thinking about it, but these are the kinds of errors that can make an admissions officer scratch his or her head. Here’s a quick breakdown of some of the most common mix-ups:

  • You’re vs. Your
    • You’re = the contraction form of “you are” (Example: You’re awesome!)
    • Your = the possessive form of “you” (Example: Your cat is awesome!)
  • It’s vs. Its
    • It’s = the contraction form of “it is” (Example: It’s a T-Rex!)
    • Its = the possessive form of “it” (Example: The T-Rex could not scratch its head.)
  • There vs. They’re vs. Their
    • There = a place that isn’t here (Example: My burrito is over there.)
    • They’re = the contraction form of “they are” (Example: They’re going to steal my burrito!)
    • Their = possessive form of “they” (Example: I am going to steal their nachos.)
  • Affect vs. Effect
    • Affect = generally used as a verb (Example: My healthy suggestions affected the school lunch options.)
    • Effect = generally used as a noun (Example: My attempt to make her laugh did not have its intended effect.)

2. Capitalization

This is a tricky one! When should a word be capitalized and when should it just be treated like any other word in a sentence? Students have a lot of trouble with capitalization in their college essays because the rules for capitalizing certain academic disciplines, programs, majors, and degrees are not consistent. To help clear up the rules, remember these two simple tips:

  • Your major should only be capitalized in three (3) specific cases: (1) it is a proper noun (like English or East Asian studies), (2) you are referring to the specific name of the department, school or course (like the School of Engineering, the Department of History, or Anthropology 101), (3) it is the first word in a sentence. In all other cases, do not capitalize.
  • Degrees should only be capitalized when you refer to their full formal name, like Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Science, Master of Arts, and so on.

3. Punctuation Problems

Hyphens, apostrophes and quotations marks are some of the most commonly used – and easily confused – punctuation marks that come with their own sets of rules, so listen closely.

  • Hyphens (-) are the dash-like punctuation marks that help you combine individual words into longer threads (like “dash-like”). When you are combining words to form an adjective, they should be hyphenated when they come BEFORE the thing they are describing, but not when they come AFTER. For example: I was a 17-year-old student, BUT: I was 17 years old.
  • Apostrophes are used to make contractions, which combine two words (like you’re and I’m) and possessives, which demonstrate ownership. They are almost never used to make plurals SO DON’T TO IT. For example: I like Beyoncé’s dance moves. They’re awesome.
  • Double quotation marks are the American English standard for designating quotes. Periods and commas should go inside quotation marks. For example: As Beyoncé always says, “I woke up like this.” On the other hand, question marks should go inside the quotation marks if the question is part of the quote and outside if it’s not. For example: Who said, “Beyoncé isn’t flawless”?
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