What Voice Should I Use in My College Application Essay?
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As much as everyone compliments you on your dead-on Al Pacino impression, your college application is neither the time nor the place to let it out. Save it for improv night. Hoo-ah.
|Essay Writing||Writing Elements and Process|
This is not your everyday, run-of-the-mill persuasive essay.
Yes, you are trying to be persuasive… …but in this case you’re not trying to
form a clever argument. Instead, it’s your chance to present a true
portrait of who you are, and allow the admissions officers to simply revel in your awesomeness.
So, because you are basically just telling a story about yourself…
…you can use a narrative voice. In other words, you can write in first person.
So… say you want to tell a prospective college about the time you rehomed puppies who lost
their homes in the tsunami.
How could they not fall head over heels for you after hearing about that one?
Here’s what you don’t want to say…
“I will be a great asset to your school because I learned the value of hard work and
gained compassion by helping puppies in Japan.”
While it’s a nice sentiment, and the admissions office is probably thrilled to hear you weren’t
spending your time in Japan making Schnauzer tempura…
…they’re likely going to gag on a sentence like that one.
Rather, tell them the story of your puppy-saving mission, and let the work you did speak for
“The work was hard, and at the end of each day I would spend twenty to thirty minutes
just pulling splinters out of my hands and feet. I was exhausted – but each time I
would uncover a still-breathing puppy under a pile of rubble, I was reminded of the importance
of my mission.”
Still gets the point across, but… not quite as self-serving.
Because your Japanese tsunami adventure is your story…
…make sure to tell it as… yourself. You’re not your parents, a college graduate
of a literature professor, so put down the thesaurus and speak in your own voice.
If you wouldn’t say it, don’t write it.
Schools want to know who you are. At least… they think they do…
So… just ask yourself how much you’d want to read a sentence like this one:
“Through this excursion into the depths of human pain and suffering, I saw firsthand
the devastating effects of unfettered economic development spurred on by capitalistic and
It’s lines like that for which the term “ugh” was invented.
Instead, how about:
“After the tsunami, the sprawling coastal development which once housed thousands of
people was reduced to twisted metal, splintered wood, and lonesome teddy bears.”
Sounds less like you’re trying to impress with your vocabulary, and more like you just
want your reader to see… what you saw.
Plus, you sound more like an intelligent, thoughtful 18-year-old and less like a pompous
old fart who’s trying much too hard. Don’t fall into the McEssay crowd… a term
coined by University of Virginia admissions officer Park Muth<<mooth>>.
No, it’s not an antlered beast you’d find in Yellowstone, it’s just the guy’s name.
Anyway, he saw his fair share of application essays in that time, and his name for the
more mundane ones was “McEssay.”
You don’t want to write one. Or you’re going to make the reader… McSad.
There may be other applicants with puppy-saving stories… which doesn’t make your story
unimportant, but it does mean that you need to present your story in an interesting and
To do that… show, don’t tell. Paint a picture.
So none of this:
“Although I was just one person in a crowd of many, I really felt like I made a difference
in the lives of those affected by the tsunami.”
Who cares? It’s an obvious point, a little cheesy, and something that any other applicant
could say. Instead, lay it all out there and let the
reader form their own opinions, and don’t demand that they feel any particular emotion…
“Elbow to elbow with a hundred other aid workers, we slowly shuffled our way across
the thrashed coastline, literally picking up the pieces of other peoples' lives. A tea
set here, a porch swing there, and of course, plenty of helpless puppies.”
Above all, don’t be afraid to be yourself.
You are a unique individual, and there’s a college out there that’s just itching
to hear from you.
Not “Arthur Hornswallow,” your brilliant alter ego… you.
All right, that’s all you need to hear from us.
Go get ‘em, Tiger.