Your writing voice is the personality that comes across
when someone reads your essay. Your word choice, tone, and attitude
all impact the reader’s perception of you. Let’s look at what you’ll
need to know about using it once you start writing.
As you know by now, the admissions officers are your audience,
and they want to know that you can write. But what else are they
looking for? They really want to know what sort of person you are.
Will you be a considerate roommate? Will you add an interesting
perspective to the classroom? Will you be a thoughtful and productive
member of the school’s community?
Admissions officers want students who will contribute
to and positively shape campus life at their institutions, and you
want them to be interested in you.
You need to be comfortable with the language and tone
you use. If you end up sounding too much like the parent or teacher
who helped you with your essay, it could work against you.
Admissions officers expect the essay to confirm what they
have already learned about you from reading the rest of your application.
They view each part of the application as a piece of evidence. Just
like in a courtroom, to convince a jury all the evidence must make
sense and fit together logically.
Trying to sound like someone you’re not usually backfires.
Stick with being yourself.
Keeping It Real
It’s important to be authentic. If you have a certain
style, you should probably stick with it. Some people say, “I’ll
make a splash by doing something different or shocking.” That’s
fine if that’s who you are but if it’s not, you’re stretching, and
in an inappropriate manner. The essay is about showing who you are,
what you’re about, what motivates you, what you value, and your
ability to communicate these things in writing. It’s about the student,
the person, and the individual who’s going to be someone’s classmate,
roommate, and teammate. The essay is another dimension to who the
individual is. Some essays may be a little more whimsical. That’s
fine, if that’s who you are.
We all use different speaking styles depending on whom
we are speaking to. If you’re talking with your best friend, the
words and tone you choose are not the same as those you’d use when
speaking to your high school principal, your favorite aunt, or your
love interest. Without thinking about it, we all move naturally
between styles when we speak.
In your rough draft, your goal was simply to get the words
and thoughts out on the paper, so you probably used the voice that
is most comfortable for you. At times you might have even shifted back
and forth between styles.
Now you should go through your essay to determine whether
the voice you use in each section is the most effective way to convey
your point. Do you sound like yourself? Does your voice shift so drastically
that it sounds like two different people wrote the essay? That will
set off alarms and could possibly hurt your chances of getting in.
Changes in tone and inconsistent style could suggest that people
were helping you with parts of your essay.
Your tone isn’t set in stone. One way to think about tone
is to see it as the mood behind your essay. We all have many moods,
but we don’t necessarily reveal all our moods to just anyone. If, for
example, you happened to lose your cell phone right before you were
meeting your boyfriend’s mother for the first time, you’d probably
manage to speak to her in a pleasant and friendly voice even if
you were upset about losing the cell phone. In the same way that
we have to control our moods, we can learn to control our tone in
It’s not about being phony. It’s about presenting your
best self to the admissions officers. Your essay should sound like
your most inspired conversation.
Common Voice Mistakes
How can you make sure the voice you are using is your
own? First, read your essay out loud. Does it sound like you, or
does it sound like a machine trying to get into college? Don’t try
to impress the reader with big words or big concepts. Your writing
voice should sound a lot like your speaking voice, only more polished.
Don’t sabotage your essay with wordiness. Cutting back
on flowery language will only strengthen your voice. A thesaurus
is a good writing tool, but use it sparingly; too many big words
might make your voice sound phony or inauthentic.
Don’t say: As my grandmother’s physical
condition vitiated, I grew increasingly pusillanimous. When she
ultimately evanesced, I was, needless to say, infelicitous, yet
I remained obdurate that I would withhold from ululating.
Say: As my grandmother’s illness
became more serious, I worried how I would cope with her death. When
she finally died, I vowed not to cry in spite of my deep grief.
Ernest Hemingway was a master at getting his point across
and eliciting emotion with short words and sentences.
Look at this passage from A Farewell
In September the first cool nights came,
then the days were cool and the leaves on the trees in the park
began to turn color and we knew the summer was gone.
The power of writing is not in vocabulary; it’s in the
voice and the ideas. Words you think sound smart don’t sound smart
when they are not used well or when they are forced. Stick to words
that are already in your vocabulary (but you can throw in a few
that have been lurking in the back of your mind trying to work their
Recycling College Brochure Copy
No doubt you have been inundated with brochures describing
how “diverse” and “unique” each campus is and the “one-of-a-kind
faculty.” Don’t spit elegant clichés back at the college. If you
are going to talk about the college, insert your own experiences
or impressions; don’t tell the admissions officers something they
already know about the school they represent. It will come across
as a shameless attempt at flattery.
Don’t say: I want to go to Dartmouth
because it is one of the oldest and most respected universities
in the United States, with a long history of dedication to the highest
Say: On my visit to Dartmouth, I
was a guest at a class on the United States Constitution. I was
on the edge of my seat for the entire 90 minutes. I had never imagined
that a class could be so exciting and students so engaged. Later
on during my visit my host student took me to a party, where the
room buzzed with similar intelligence and energy. I knew before
the weekend was over that I wanted to be a part of the Dartmouth
Sense of Entitlement
Try to step back, get some distance, and make sure your
essay doesn’t come across as if you deserve to get in just because
you are who you are—even if you have a perfect GPA, SAT scores in
the 99th percentile, a dad who just donated a new gym to the university,
and several generations of alumni in your family. The admissions
officers are seeking to shape the personality of the class, and
they are likely to decide that an arrogant and entitled student
might not make the best classmate, roommate, or teammate.
There is a separate space on the application to bring
up that you are a legacy; no need to harp on it in the essay. If
you must, try to show some humility.
Don’t say: Ever since my granddaddy,
sitting in his Harvard rocking chair with me on his knee, spoke of
his days at Harvard, I knew without a doubt that I, too, would someday
be a part of the Crimson tradition.
Say: You might not find it surprising
that a kid who grew up in a house with a Harvard rocking chair in the
study, banners from the Class of ’57 and ’35 hanging in the attic
playroom, and Crimson needlepoint pillows on the couch in the living
room, would apply early-decision to Harvard. But the truth is that
until last year, I was adamantly opposed to going to Harvard. I
didn’t want to follow in my father’s and grandfather’s footsteps.
I wanted to be different, to forge my own path. Over the past year,
however, in spite of myself, I’ve developed an appreciation of Harvard
separate from my family tradition.
There’s a fine line between confidence and boastfulness.
Instead of talking broadly about how much you’ve grown, which can
come off as self-righteous, describe a specific event that taught you
Imagine you are meeting someone for the first time. Would
you dive right into a monologue about how wonderful you are? Probably
not. A person who is able to reflect on a specific experience with humility,
using words that come naturally, is much more likable. Admissions
officers say that students who try to impress them with a sales
pitch and formal prose end up sounding pretentious, arrogant, or
Don’t say: I’ve grown tremendously
in my four years of high school, academically, musically, athletically,
Say: When my freshman English teacher
gave me a C on my first composition, I thought my world had come
to an end. I was terrified to tell my parents, and I worried that
I would have to abandon my dreams of college and law school. I was
a bit melodramatic, I’ll admit, but up until that moment in my academic career,
I had only gotten As. That grade traumatized me, but it also taught
me several important lessons.
Another mistake is to oversimplify your argument. As we’ve
said before, you need to dig deeper so your true personality can
really shine through. Aim a little more at paradox instead of trying
to have everything fit neatly into clear categories. For example,
instead of writing “I turned a bad situation into a good thing,
and everything is great now,” write, “I turned a bad situation into
a good thing, but I still really don’t like x, y, or z about it.”
Here’s an opportunity for you to finally employ some creativity
and apply some of the more interesting writing techniques you’ve
learned in high school. Unlike an English paper or research paper,
everything does NOT need to be black and white or authoritative.
Don’t say: I have fully recovered
from any sorrow about my parents’ divorce. It taught me that everything
happens for a reason.
Say: Divorce brings pain to the entire
family. I’ll always wish that it hadn’t happened, but I am thankful
that my parents have been able to continue their lives and form
new relationships; I have learned to share in their new happiness.
Don’t bleach your personality. If you have trouble finding
your voice or being yourself, find a way to work in some habit you
may have. Perhaps you bite your nails. It’s okay to reveal something imperfect
about yourself. It helps the reader say, “This is a human being.”
Don’t say: I have always loved school,
new experiences, meeting people, and challenging myself, so I can’t
wait to go to college.
Say: While I have some talents, singing
on key is not one of them. So when my Italian host family begged
me to stand up on stage in front of 75 friends and family members
and sing the American national anthem, I scanned the room for possible
If you are capable of being funny, that always makes for
a good read. But all admissions officers warn against trying to
be funny when you’re not.
Certain kinds of humor work better than others. Humor
that debases someone else is not going to be appreciated. Instead,
strive for humor that exposes something comical or ironic about
yourself or the world in general.
Don’t say: The only way I can get
a date is if I pay the girl. Every now and then a girl is desperate enough
to buy a new pair of Seven jeans that she will go out with me. I
respect a girl who goes out with a guy for cash. After all, she
has weighed her priorities and decided that making out with me,
as unpalatable as she might find it to be, is something she can
put up with if it means she can wear cute jeans the next night on
a date with a guy she really likes.
Say: My mother can’t understand why
all the girls aren’t crazy about me. She assures me that once I
get to college my charms (skinny arms, pimples, thick glasses, mediocre
athletic skills, a passion for classical music) will be appreciated
by the opposite sex. So far, I have seen only evidence to the contrary.
When writing something flippant, you might think you’re
showing how unique you are, but in fact, enough people take this
approach that it is far from original or refreshing. The bottom
line is: if you don’t answer the question, or if you think you are
above the process, you’re taking a risk.
Don’t say: I don’t have anything
to say that you haven’t already read, so I’m not going to waste
my time or yours. Just look at my transcript and I think you’ll
see all the information you need.
Say: Anything else!
Your voice needs to have energy. A flat, depressed, lifeless
voice is not going to win anyone over. At the same time, going overboard
with your enthusiasm can be a turnoff too. Admissions officers will
certainly not be fooled by phony enthusiasm if deep down you really
don’t care. But if you are truly passionate about your topic (and
you should be), you don’t want to come off as being over the top.
Don’t say: I read everything I can
get my hands on! If I’m not at school or sleeping, I am reading.
I learned to read when I was two years old and I read The Brothers
Karamazov over one weekend. Reading has taught me so much, and I
would never be who I am if I didn’t read as much as I do.
Say: I am a voracious reader. My
relationship with books has always been perhaps a little more intense than
that of my peers. I cherish the way a book feels in my hands; I
love the smell when I bury my nose in the spine. At different times
in my life certain books have inspired me, kept me company, and
helped me to cope.
Tread with care when you talk about other people in your
essay, especially when writing about people in other countries or
socioeconomic classes. Avoid making sweeping generalizations, which
are often perceived as condescending and close-minded. Ask the person
reviewing your essay to read closely and keep an eye out for places
where your voice might sound xenophobic or patronizing—especially
if your essay is about your travels in a foreign country or volunteering
in the inner city.
Don’t say: In Europe, they don’t
care as much about cleanliness as we do in America.
Say: While I was living with a host
family in the French countryside, I was shocked to discover that
people only showered twice a week. But I quickly learned that the
reason for this practice had nothing to do with cleanliness. Families
in this old village have a limited supply of hot water, so they’ve
learned to adapt and conserve.