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I'm reviewing a scholarship essay for a younger cousin. In the essay, she has taken a tone that I would consider too "casual". I don't know if "casual" is the right word, but it is a style of writing that I was taught not to use when I was in school. In her essay she uses many of the following kinds of phrases:

  • "Well, ...."
  • "Nobody tells you, ... "
  • "..., to put it lightly."
  • "Let's face it, ..."

Whenever I've come across this style of writing in an academic or corporate environment, I've always assumed that the writer didn't recognize the amount of room between what they submitted and what I would consider "better" writing. If I see a comma splice, I can send a link to a thousand resources calling that out as improper. I have a harder time making an argument that using colloquialisms like the above are "wrong" and I'm afraid of stepping on the writer's voice. I've found resources on academic tone, but I'm afraid those suggestions may be too formal. Are casual phrases appropriate for a scholarship essay or would alternative word choice be advised?

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    Welcome to Academia.SE. Do you expect your essay to be read by admissions officers in the Office of Admissions, or by professors in a particular academic department? If your cousin is currently in high school, I would suspect the former, in which case we probably want to send this back to Writing. The reason being that the people here are career academics (professors, grad students, etc.); we are not involved at all with undergraduate admissions, and would only be guessing.
    – cag51
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 5:29

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I've helped a number of undergraduates apply for, and get, scholarships.

It is absolutely OK and desirable to be informal, but the examples you've given are colloquial. Your cousin needs to get rid of them. You can help her. The difficulty will be to get rid of the colloquialisms while remaining informal. Avoid the passive voice and under no circumstances use phrases like "the author..."

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If you want some less formal suggestions, as well as some explanations about why is that so, may I offer you some notes from the ThesisWhisperer (do check "more posts like that" as well). In short, it is absolutely acceptable in informal communication (blog posts, SE answers and such) but falls short wherever a certain jargon is needed. These "formal-sounding" verbal constructs are a part of it, they are needed to help conveying certain nuances. In particular, two of the arguably biggest quirks of academic writing - use of passive voice and avoidance of the common SVO order - help avoiding the writing sounding subjective (not desirable when communicating scientific ideas!).

I've also seen/written "Well, ..." and "..., to put it lightly" in reviews but not the actual papers, FWIW.

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    Review is much less formal than submitting a paper. When submitting, you are opening up to the world, presenting and discussing some novelty. When reviewing, you are discussing among peers, I think you can be as direct as you would be when talking to someone you consider your peer while discussing things on a bench at the park.
    – EarlGrey
    Commented Oct 14, 2021 at 17:16

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