Talking In Third Person In An Essay

Just recently, I sent out an email blast to the rising seniors with whom I work, urging them to begin working on college application essays NOW. If you are a rising senior (or a parent of one), I can imagine a few of you saying, "What! Aren't you being a little 'anal?' It's too early to do that."

"Au contraire," my friends. The reason to start working on essays now is that summer months are predictably less fraught with the academic, sports and other activities that fall semester usually brings. Summer, rather than later, is a good time to start because students have the time to:

  • Carefully think through how to answer essay questions
  • Brainstorm ideas
  • Write first drafts
  • And, do the all-important editing and re-editing

THE ROLE OF ESSAYS IN COLLEGE ADMISSIONS

To that point, I want to say a little bit about what role essays have in college admissions. While student grades and test scores are critical factors in admissions, application essays can be an even more important factor, especially for private, liberal arts colleges and the more selective universities. Like nothing else, essays give readers a sense for how students express themselves and especially how they are unique and different from other applicants. Essays help students stand out from the crowd.

And, much to the surprise of many applicants and even parents, writing good application essays takes time... a lot of time, and drafts and editing. This is because although writing can and often is fun, it is also challenging. As someone with five published books, and ongoing involvement with a number of blogs, I admit that sometimes I love writing and at other times I hate it.

Personally, I am always looking for that magic piece of advice another writer has that will get me through predictable writing blocks, and the students I work with have also repeatedly asked for advice on how to get started or continue. So, here is what different writers have shared with me about how to spend more time loving rather than hating writing. I hope you find this as useful as I have.

6 TERRIFIC PIECES OF ADVICE

1. Write as if you are talking to the reader.
I think that the best advice I have ever received about writing came as a result of attending a writing conference. A publishing executive said at the beginning of her talk, "To write easily and well, simply be yourself. Be natural; write as if you are talking to your reader on paper." As soon as I returned home from the conference, I started doing what she said and never looked back. You can do the same with your college application essays. Remember, the purpose of answering the application questions is to help the college admissions officers get to know you. What better way of doing that is there than to write as if you are talking to them?

2. Offer readers a story.
When I attend college admissions conferences, I almost always attend sessions on application essays, where college admissions officers talk about what they look for. Inevitably it is revealed that they love reading applicants' personal stories and anecdotes. Frankly, the stories can be about anything ranging from a conversation with a grandparent, to the best or worst day of your life, to a special talent or involvement or something that changed how you think. Stories help illustrate points that you may be trying to make to your readers and help show more about who you are as a person.

Every child in every family has stories about themselves. If you have trouble coming up with some, try having a brainstorming session with your parents at dinner some time.

3. Use the first person.
Many writers tell me that in order to write authentically, they had to unlearn a lot of what they were taught in school. Among their most important "unlearnings" was to limit using third person pronouns (he, she, they, it), and start using the first person, I. Because college admissions people want to hear about you, you need to write in your own, unique voice. And that means saying such things as, "I have loved numbers ever since I was a little kid. My mother tells me that at the grocery store, I would sit in the cart and add up the item prices she placed next to me to see if I could come up with the same amount as the cash register." This is a lot more personal and interesting than saying, "Some students have known that they were good with numbers since they were little kids."

4. Show, don't tell. Be specific, descriptive and offer plenty of details.
Skillful writers say that the key to alive, good writing is to "show, not tell." Rather than saying that you love animals, write something such as, "Whether a tiny, slithery salamander or a magnificent Arabian horse, I am simply nuts about animals. Since I was very young, I have spent a lot of my time rescuing, raising, caring for and loving them." Author Natalie Goldberg says, "...a writer's job is to make the ordinary come alive."

5. Avoid generalities, clichés and philosophical or psychological babble.
It is so easy to fall into writing something that ends up saying nothing or is trite. To not do that, keep in mind the following:

  • Generalities: Rather than saying, "I'm very hardworking," describe a situation that demonstrates how diligent you are. For example, "When it comes to special academic projects, I am the kind of person who both starts way in advance and at the end sometimes stays up all night to make sure that an assignment is the best that it can be."
  • Clichés: Rather than saying, "I like working with people and want to save the world," how about saying, "I joined the Diversity Club at school because I wanted to get to know students from different cultures, learn about their families, religion, traditions and even their food. I also wanted to find out how we are alike and unalike. I believe that when people really get to know one another, they have a better chance of getting along."
  • Psychobabble: Rather than saying, "I get really ADD when it comes to studying," say something such as "When I do homework in the evenings, I often find it difficult to concentrate, get easily distracted and don't seem to be able to focus." By the way, in case you didn't notice, the quote in the first paragraph about "being anal," is another example of Psychobabble.

6. Make sure that your essay is free of spelling, grammatical mistakes and improper use of words.
There are few things that negatively stick out more on college applications than errors. I cannot stress this enough! Grammar and punctuation errors are like a huge red flag on your application. Make sure that the final person to read your essay is a great proofreader, and ask them specifically to look for errors. Careless mistakes are one of the quickest routes to negatively impress application readers and may result in you're getting a rejection letter from a college.

College essays can reveal a lot about how you think and who you are, things that college admissions officers want to know. Students who take the time to pen original, thoughtful, well-written essays truly enhance their college admissions possibilities.

Next week I will show you how to write a captivating, one-of-a-kind application essay.

Follow Marjorie Hansen Shaevitz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/admissposs

In the past, you might have had problems getting that polished, professional feel to your essays, but you couldn’t quite figure out why. Are your ideas too underdeveloped? Is your thesis statement not good enough? Do you not have enough support for your arguments?

Sometimes the problem with your essay is simply the point of view you choose to write in. Using third-person writing can make a world of difference in giving your essay the right tone.

Three Different Points of View

If you’re not sure what the different points of view are, I’ll give you a run-down and some examples to help you see more clearly. And for an added bonus, I’ll give you a couple clips from the king of narration himself, Morgan Freeman.

First-Person Writing

When you write in first person, you use I and me. Think of yourself as the “first person”–any pronoun that indicates something you do or think is going to be first person. You see this a lot when you’re reading books from the main character’s perspective.

Typically, however, first-person writing is not very effective in writing essays. (We’ll get to why that is in a second.)

Example: I believe that third-person writing is the best point of view when writing an essay.

First-person writing or narration also uses us and we, as you’ll see in this example:

Second-Person Writing

Second-person point of view uses the pronoun you. Second-person writing is the equivalent to a choose-your-own-adventure novel or a self-help book. It speaks directly to the audience.

However, the conversational tone of writing in second-person is not usually ideal for academic writing.

Example: You would do better on your essays if you wrote in third person.

It is important to note that when you aren’t writing strictly in third person, the point of view can shift from sentence to sentence.

In the next example, you’ll notice that both first-person and second-person points of view are present. The lyrics Freeman reads shift between using “you/your” and first-person singular pronouns throughout the clip.

Third-Person Writing

Third-person writing uses the pronouns they, him, her, and it, as well as proper nouns. This is the type of writing you would see in a novel with an outside narrator.

Example: Teachers and students agree that third-person writing makes essays sound better.

Here’s one last video example, this one using third-person perspective, from the man with the golden voice:

Why Third-Person Writing is Important

Third-Person Writing Makes Your Essay Sound More Assertive.

If you write your essay in first person, you risk the chance of statements like “I think” or “I believe.” These kinds of statements sound more passive than just stating your facts. Notice the difference between the following sentences:

This is why I believe jazz is the first form of truly American music.

This is why jazz is the first form of truly American music.

The second sentence–the one that uses third-person–sets a more definite tone. You are presenting the sentence as a statement of fact instead of a personal belief.

Third-Person Writing Makes Your Support Sound More Credible.

On a related note, first-person writing makes your support sound like it’s coming from a non-credible source. Presenting facts or opinions with “I think” or “I believe” in front doesn’t give any validity to the statement.

Third-person writing encourages you to use other sources to validate your claims. The following two sentences will illustrate this further:

I believe that children should consume less sugar because it leads to higher risk of obesity.

According to the Obesity Action Coalition, children who consume a lot of sugar have an increased risk of obesity.

The second sentence pulls an authoritative source to support the claim instead of you, the writer. This makes the claim more credible to the reader.

Third-Person Writing Sounds Less Conversational and More Professional.

As I mentioned before, writing in the first or second person leads to a more conversational tone. While this may be good for some forms of writing (this blog post, for example), you want your academic writing to take on a more formal tone. Consider the following examples:

When writing a novel, you should think about what kind of tone you want to portray before choosing which point of view you want to use.

When writing a novel, authors should think about the kind of tone they want to portray before choosing which point of view they want to use.

The first sentence creates a more intimate and conversational tone with the reader, but the second sentence tells the reader what kind of person (authors) would benefit from reading the sentence.

It is more specific and, therefore, creates a more formal tone.

Exceptions to the Third-Person Writing Rule

I won’t ever tell you that it’s always a good idea to write one specific way. Third-person writing is usually a good idea in academic writing, but there are cases where first-person writing is a better call.

When You’re Writing A Personal Narrative.

Personal narrative essays are designed to tell the reader something that has happened in your life, so first-person writing would be the preferred choice here. Whether it be something that embarrassed you, angered you, or made you proud or happy, narrative essays are all about real-world life experiences.

When You’re Talking About Your Own Opinions.

Like narrative essays, using your own opinions in essays may sometimes require the use of the first person, especially if you are drawing on personal experiences. Usually, this will happen in persuasive essays.

It is important to note that you should still try to use third-person writing for your persuasive essays because, as I mentioned earlier, it will give a more formal tone and more credibility to your argument. However, if some personal experience is especially relevant, it would be okay to use the first person (unless your teacher says otherwise, of course).

When You’re Doing Other Informal Types of Writing.

Essays are not the only types of writing assignments you’re likely to receive. Short stories and poetry pop up in classes from time to time, and these can be written any number of ways. Short stories can take the first- or third-person perspective–they rarely use second person. Poetry can use any of the three points of view.

(For more, read When to Use First-Person Writing in Your Essays)

When you are concentrating strictly on academic essays, third-person writing is (usually) crucial. And it’s not hard to do. Just look at any references to yourself or the reader and change around the sentence to eliminate the I, me, you, we, and us pronouns. Doing so will make your writing stronger, clearer, and more professional.

If you still can’t quite get the hang of third-person writing, there’s no need to stress out over it. Just send your essay to one of the Kibin editors to help you out.

Now… go try your hand at third-person writing!

Psst... 98% of Kibin users report better grades! Get inspiration from over 500,000 example essays.

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