Top 8 Writing Mistakes That Pre-Med Students Make in Their Application Essays

August 24, 2020

For many pre-medical students, grammar was a subject that was covered briefly in elementary school, if at all. In fact, American adults have lower literacy and language fluency rates than adults of many other OECD nations.

Fluent writing requires a comfort with the mechanical bits of written English, and glaring errors can detract from the meaning of your writing. Grammar mistakes should be particularly important to pre-medical students as they begin to write and submit their secondary applications this cycle.

Here, we take a look at some application writing tips to help as you figure out how to write your secondary applications. Read on to the end to find out the most common and most distracting grammar error that many students make, and see if you’re unconsciously doing it yourself!

Number 8: Then/Than

The English language is full of homophones, which are words that sounds the same when spoken but have different meanings. There are several dialects of American English that blur the different vowel sounds in “then” and “than”, meaning that many students will mix them up. (If you’re curious, explore your own dialect here!)

“Then” is a word that tells us about time, and “than” is a comparison word. While this may seem obvious to some, this mechanics error gets caught time and time again in students’ application essays, so watch out!


“First, I went to the market. Then, I came home and cooked dinner.”

“There are many more grammar errors than I had expected.”

Number 7: Affect/Effect

This error is another example of where English homophones go wrong. “Affect” is a verb, while “effect” is a noun. A great way to remember this is by remembering that “affect is an action.”

Someone out there might also know that we use affect as a noun, too, especially when discussing how patients may be acting. This is a great point! However, “affect” is a verb when discussing causes and effects. Here are a few examples of appropriate sentences:

“I was curious to see the effect of increased sunlight on the plant’s growth.”

“Sometimes patients experiencing clinical depression present with a flat affect; they may not show the usual signs of emotions like smiling or frowning.”

“My childhood experiences greatly affected my growth during adolescence.”

Number 6: Run-on sentences and comma splices

Contrary to popular belief, a run-on sentence is not just a very long sentence -- though you should try to tighten up your sentences, as we'll discuss in a moment. Run-on sentences are made by combining two independent clauses (complete sentences or ideas) without the correct punctuation between them. A comma splice is a run-on sentence that uses a comma to separate the two independent clauses. This is incorrect because commas alone cannot combine two independent clauses.

Examples of run-ons and comma splices:

“I am applying to medical school because I want to help people I have always loved science.”

“I am applying to medical school because I want to help people, I have always loved science.”

In the above examples, we have two independent clauses: “I am applying to medical school because I want to help people” and “I have always loved science” are complete ideas with subjects and verbs. Because of that, we need to combine them appropriately (with semi-colons or coordinating conjunctions) or separate them with periods.

Examples of appropriate adjustments:

“I am applying to medical school because I want to help people; I have always loved science.”

“I am applying to medical school because I want to help people, and I have always loved science.”

Number 5: Misplaced modifiers

A modifier is a phrase that tells us a little more information about the subject of the sentence. These are phrases like:

Having eaten breakfast late, Dan was already running behind for the rest of the day.”

Knowing that she was in charge of the team, Zoe stepped up to take responsibility.”

After seeing the student’s work, the teacher gave the student back some points on the math test.”

These modifiers refer to the subjects of each sentence (Dan, Zoe, and the teacher), and so it’s important to make sure that the subject is clear after the modifying phrase. A misplaced modifier, on the other hand, looks like this:

“Having eaten breakfast late, Dan’s schedule was behind for the rest of the day.”

In this example, it technically is unclear what the subject of the modifier is. Did Dan’s schedule eat breakfast late?

This is a very common error that many readers will notice, but it can be difficult to precisely identify what seems off. Make sure you’re checking your modifiers!

Number 4: Overusing the thesaurus

We all want to put our best foot forward when writing application essays, and using an expanded vocabulary is something that many high school English teachers reward. However, misusing large words will invariably cast your essay in a negative light.

Make sure to double check both the denotative and connotative meaning of any new words you choose! Try out the OneLook Reverse Dictionary if you’re really stuck looking for a word.

Number 3: Redundancy and concision

Many writers have a tendency to repeat themselves as they write, especially since most writing is a stream-of-consciousness activity. (Did you see what I did there?)

Keep your writing concise, and avoid repeating the same words or information unless absolutely necessary (like in a concluding paragraph). A better way to phrase the topic sentence for this section would be:

“Many writers tend to repeat themselves, especially since writing is a stream-of-consciousness activity.”

By removing three short words (“as they write”), the sentence becomes much less unwieldy. Further, replacing the wordy phrase “have a tendency to” with “tend to” makes the sentence more concise. Your secondary application essays will have tight character cutoffs, and good writing habits will help you use those characters to tell your story effectively.

Number 2: Who/Whom and That/Which

The issue of “who” versus “whom” is closely related to the error of misusing the thesaurus. Many students know that “whom” belongs in proper writing but aren’t sure where. Misusing “whom” is an error that will make your writing both grammatically incorrect and a little pretentious.

In English, pronouns can take on an objective case and a subjective case (and also a possessive case but if you’re really curious, give this a gander). The objective case is for nouns that receive an action, while the subjective case is for nouns that perform an action.

Here’s an example:

He gave the ball to her.

She hugged him.

In the first sentence, the male participant (subject) is performing the action of giving the ball to the female participant (object). In the second sentence, the female participant (subject) is performing the action of hugging the male (object).

“Who” is used as a subjective pronoun. To test whether or not you’re using it right, see if you can replace “who” in your sentence with “he” or “she”; if so, you’ve got it right!

Example: "That is the person who sat next to me in lecture." --> "She sat next to me in lecture."

“Whom” is used as an objective pronoun. To test whether or not you’re using it right, see if you can replace “whom” in your sentence with “him” or “her”; if so, you’ve got it right!

Example: "Are you the person whom I was bothering?" --> "I was bothering him."

Number 1: Apostrophes

Finally, we get to the number one most misused piece of punctuation: the humble apostrophe!

Apostrophes have one job, and it is never to denote plurality! Apostrophes denote possession, and only possession.

Singular possessive nouns have the apostrophe before the “s”, as in “person’s”. Plural possessive nouns have the apostrophe after the “s”, as in “boys’”. Decades, numbers, and letters do not receive apostrophes unless they are possessive.

Correct: “She was born in the 90s.” “His grades were all As and Bs.”

Incorrect: “She was born in the 90’s.” His grades were all A’s and B’s.”

As a note, possessive pronouns (like “hers”, “his”, and “whose”) never have apostrophes. This is a good way to make sure you’re using the correct for of “your”.

Remember, the content of your essays can be overshadowed by how you present them!

Make sure that you’re not submitting any of your medical school application essays with any of these 8 common grammar mistakes.

If you want to ensure that your content and mechanics reflect your medical school application, reach out to the experts here at AcceptMed! The members of our team of Harvard Medical School graduates are dedicated to the success of students like you, and will put together a personalized plan to help you achieve your medical school dreams. Contact us today for a free consultation!

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