College admissions committees are a tough crowd and have high expectations for your college application essay. You won’t gain their acceptance with generic, hastily prepared essays; they want insight, solid examples of your experience, quality writing and a genuine voice, to name just a few. Voice, especially, can offer admissions counselors insight into who you are as an individual. It’s a way to stand out from the pack—just be sure that it is your voice you’re using, and not something forced or heavily adopted from someone else.
What Exactly Is Voice?
Here are a few things to consider when crafting your unique writer’s voice for your college admission essay.
You’ve heard it before:
“Let them hear your voice.”
“Sound genuine when you write.”
“Write from within!”
But what does all that actually mean, and how can that be done in a college essay?
First, consider your speaking voice. It is comprised of tone, pace, inflection and articulation. Your writer’s voice conveys these same elements but shapes them using features such as syntax (word order), diction (word choice), punctuation, and sentence structure. Your deliberate control over these techniques creates a voice that ideally should stand out to whoever reads your essay.
Grammar vs. Style in Your College App Essay
We all know someone who is a stickler for grammar and writing mechanics. For some, it might be an overzealous aunt who loves finding missing commas; for others, it’s a friend who refuses to split infinitives. For most, though, I’m guessing the strictest grammarians you know are your English teachers. As a former English teacher myself, I know a fair number of classroom teachers, and each understandably has a particular writing style preference. Indeed, your English teacher is undoubtedly an experienced writer, but I’d advise you to consider his or her particular style choices as guidelines rather than rules.
And speaking of rules, here are a few that may sound familiar:
- Prepositions are not to end sentences with.
- While you mean well, don’t use “while” when you mean “although.”
- No fragments ever.
- And never start a sentence with “and” or “but.”
(See what I did there?)
Even I was a stickler for always using “more than” instead of “over” (e.g., more than 100 people, not over 100 people) – there’s still an ongoing debate about that one. However, these are more style preferences than hard-and-fast rules. Clearly your college essays should adhere to the rules of standard American English – so text speech, lol, and emotions won’t do here. Remember that this is a chance to not only showcase your writing ability but also to provide a glimpse of your unique voice. Take advantage of the flexibility you’re given as you write, but please don’t go off and write a haiku for your college essay.
Haikus make merry
But not for college essays –
minimum word count.
Imitation Is the Sincerest Form of Flattery
No, you may not plagiarize, but it is OK if another writer’s voice influences your own. Often as we read, we discover new words or clever phrasing. This after all is how our writing evolves.
American novelist Stephen King said, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time to write or the tools to write”.
So if you’re still seeking your voice, take King’s advice and read something. I suggest you try a few current non-fiction articles or well-respected short stories for examples of various literary styles. Find a style that matches yours (or what you want yours to be), and take note of specific elements such as syntax, diction, and punctuation. Then use what you learn to practice giving expression to your writing. This technique isn’t new—many successful writers can name other writers who have had major influences on their work. So as you read and continue developing your writer’s voice, keep an eye out for style elements that engage you.
Content and organization are key ingredients, but your own voice is often the kick your essay needs to stand out from the rest and, most importantly, it’s what makes your work uniquely yours.