What is the appropriate tone for a college essay?
It’s no secret that the college process can often feel like a numbers game. Depending on your relationship to standardized testing and numbered scores in general, this can be either a curse or a blessing. Regardless, if you’re hoping to apply to college, especially any colleges that accept the Common Application, chances are the college essay looms somewhere in your future.
In the same way that standardized testing might feel different for different people, whether or not the phrase “college essay” causes your stomach to drop from panic will depend upon your relationship and level of comfort with the written word. If you and the written word are already in a healthy long-term relationship, then you’re probably aware that one of the most important aspects of any piece of writing is tone. The right tone can allow your readers to understand you and your message even more—and the wrong tone, of course, can communicate an entirely different message than you might have intended. Luckily, CollegeVine is here to help. For tips and tricks on taking control of your tone in college essays, read on!
What is tone?
Tone is what helps us differentiate between “Yes, it’s totally fine! I understand and I’m not upset at all.” and “Yeah. It’s totally fine. I understand. I’m not upset at all.”
The dictionary defines tone as “style or manner of expression in speaking or writing.” In verbal communication, we can interpret the tone of a conversation based on one’s intonation (the rise and fall of someone’s voice when they speak), body language, as well as other nonverbal cues.
In written communication, however, you obviously aren’t standing face to face with someone interpreting what they say. In lieu of these nonverbal cues, we use things like diction, punctuation, capitalization and sentence structure to add to our message. The context of a given piece is also very important—in this blog post, we’ll mostly be discussing tone in the context of a personal statement to be submitted to college admissions committees, but it is important to note that the different circumstances under which you are writing something will greatly impact the tone of your piece and the way in which it is perceived by your readers.
One of the most important aspects of tone in writing to discuss is the fact that small details can make a huge difference. Think about the example above:
“Yes, it’s totally fine! I understand and I’m not upset and all.”
“Yeah. It’s totally fine. I understand. I’m not upset at all.”
Visually, the two sentences are not all that different, and theoretically, they should be communicating the same message. While the first sentence is straightforward and sincere, the second sentence would likely be interpreted as passive aggressive. Notice the small details that cause the two sentences to communicate two entirely different things.
In considering tone, it might also help you to think about how you would respond to a text from a friend versus how you would respond to an email from your boss. The two would likely be very different because in one case you would be taking a casual tone, and in the other you would hopefully be taking a professional tone.
The Dos & Don’ts of Tone in your College Essay
There is no “perfect tone” for a college essay — given that it should be a reflection of your personality, it will be different for everyone. This being said, there are some tips and tricks that you can follow to make sure that your vibrant personality will shine through in your personal statement.
Keep it real — One of the most important questions to keep in mind when considering tone in your college essay is: Is it true to who I am? Colleges want to get to know you and your personality through your essay. This means that the more unique and real you can make the tone of your college essay, the better. If you love to crack jokes, consider making a few (tasteful) jokes in your essay. If you’re more serious, take a more serious tone. If you’re sarcastic, try to include this (but be sure to be careful with this—run it by a few trusted readers first to make sure there’s absolutely no way that your words will be misinterpreted).
Flex your vocabulary knowledge — Your college essay is a great time to show adcoms your level of comfort with the english language, especially with higher-level vocab words. Watch out for the words in writing that typically fall flat or are overused — “good” can easily become “marvelous, wonderful, memorable, etc.” and “said” can transform into “stated, yelled, remarked, explained…” When it’s appropriate, don’t shy away from using some of the SAT vocab words you’ve likely spent long nights memorizing!
Keep it grammatically correct — Always pay attention to grammar in your essay, even when making choices to benefit your tone. There is nothing worse than trying to be stylistically daring but ending up just making a grammatical error. Short sentences can be a really effective rhetorical tool, for example, but you should never have a sentence without a predicate. Make sure that you understand the proper usages of semicolons, em dashes and colons before you use them in your essay.
Be patient and have fun — Don’t be afraid to play around and experiment with the tone of your essay. Almost everyone’s essay will end up going through multiple different iterations and drafts. If something doesn’t feel quite right, don’t be afraid to start over or make whatever adjustments you need. Though it may feel daunting and confusing, ultimately your college essay is an exciting way for adcoms to get to know you and determine if you’ll be a good fit for their school.
Be overly formal — Taking an overly formal tone in your college essay will appear stiff and out of touch with modern language. Adcoms will likely think that this sort of tone comes from an applicant that is trying too hard to impress them, or hiding behind big words and complicated language to make themselves seem smarter.
Take a stylistic risk that sacrifices grammar — This is mentioned above, but we really can’t stress it enough. Pablo Picasso once said, “Learn the rules like a pro, so you can break them like an artist.” While this is very much true in all forms of writing, messing up your grammar on a college essay demonstrates that you don’t even know all the rules in the first place. Be sure to exercise extreme caution when it comes to grammar!
Pump up your vocabulary artificially — In the same way that athletes who use performance enhancing drugs usually get found out, college applicants who use performance enhancing software are pretty easy to spot. Admissions officers know when you’re simply clicking on words and phrases in Microsoft Word and exchanging them for a fancier-looking synonym. Don’t do this! Keep it natural. There’s nothing more transparent and off-putting than someone that finds it imperative to inflate every term in a given expression. After all, you don’t want to appear supercilious. A good rule of thumb for vocab in college essays is that if you wouldn’t use a given word in a conversation (even with a teacher or an an academic setting), then you probably shouldn’t use it in your essay.
Be too colloquial — This may or may not go without saying, but you obviously shouldn’t get too casual in your essay. Avoid slang words, curse words, misspellings, or jargon that could be easily misunderstood.
Plagiarize — This one should also go without saying, but we figure we may as well say it anyways. If you plagiarize, chances are that eventually you’ll be found out, and any admission that results from your plagiarized essay will be rescinded! Colleges want to hear your own original thoughts.
While there is no perfect way to write a college essay, hopefully these tips have shed some light onto the subject. When in doubt, remember that this little 650 word piece of writing should be a reflection of who you are as a person! Think about a sentence or two takeaway that you would want a reader to have after reading it and try to convey that throughout the essay. It may seem scary at first, but in the end, writing is a powerful skill that can enrich your life, and tone is a very powerful tool that can be used to your benefit.
For more information about college essays, check out the following blog posts:
Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.