MBA Essay Writing Tip #21: Using The Active Tense

The active sentences are SHORTER, PUNCHIER and CLEARER about who’s performing the action.

Using The Active Tense

If English is your second language, the variety of tenses can turn expressing a simple idea into a series of not-so-obvious choices.

You can save yourself a LOT of trouble in an essay, however, by sticking to the active voice.

In the active voice, the subject ACTS:

  • I called a meeting.
  • Thomas decided on a start time.
  • Veronica discussed time management.

In these active-tense sentences the subject (I, Thomas, Veronica) are performing the actions. Let’s contrast that to passive versions of the same sentences:

  • A meeting was called. (by me)
  • A start time was decided by Thomas.
  • Time management was discussed by Veronica.

So what’s the difference?

The active sentences are SHORTER, PUNCHIER and CLEARER about who’s performing the action. The passive sentences are LONGER, INDIRECT and the person performing the action is unclear or isn’t mentioned. That’s bad news for applications with tight word limits and where the focus needs to be on YOU – the subject performing the actions.

Sentences in the active voice are more energetic and engaging than the passive voice, so use it whenever possible! They’re also shorter, which can mean the difference between hitting your word count and going over. Though applicants occasionally write in the passive voice in an attempt to sound more formal, this strategy simply dilutes your message with unnecessary words; a critical mistake.

So how can you limit your use of the passive voice?

  1. Look for the word “was” in your sentences: that’s a sign of the passive voice. (The meeting was called…) Be careful, however – “was” is not ALWAYS a sign of the passive voice. (I was writing a report when…)
  2. Look for the word “by”: It’s another telltale sign of the passive voice. (The meeting was called by…)
  3. Keep it simple and direct: Don’t try to impress your reader with flowery language. By sticking to simple structures (subject, verb, object) you’ll communicate your message with minimal interference.

So remember:

  • Use the active voice for shorter, punchier and direct sentences.
  • Avoid the passive voice: it bogs down your writing with unnecessary words.
  • Be on the lookout for “was” and “by.”

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