Writing a Great College Application Essay: The Importance of Voice

One of writing’s great paradoxes is that it sometimes takes several drafts before your work actually resembles your own voice. We often have this romantic idea that writing is a free outpouring of our true selves, but the actuality is more complicated.

When we sit down to write essays—especially important ones like college applications—our preexisting expectations of what “good” writing looks like can take over, practically guiding our hands as we type. If you’re not conscious of this invasive process, your work may end up with a “voice” that’s inconsistent with itself, inauthentic to your personality, or a mismatch with your subject matter.

The best way to avoid this result is to consciously reflect on your influences, your persona, and your subject.

Your Writerly “Outfit”

Before we go further, let’s try to pin down the idea of a writerly “voice.” It’s not quite the same thing as the voice you hear inside your head when you think, although it’s often related. It’s not quite the same thing as the voice you use when you speak, either, although it’s often related to that, too.

The truth is that we usually have access to several different writerly voices, and we can pick and choose from them depending on the situation—almost like an outfit made out of words.

The words you choose will determine the voice you use, just like the items of clothing you choose will determine your outfit for the day.

Some words are formal (expedite, transcribe, ascertain); some words are casual (move, write, learn); some words are gothic (blood-curdling, sorrow, woe); some words are country-and-western (brisket, sagebrush, reckon); and some words are sciency (nebula, telomere, amphibian).

In English, longer words with Greek or Latin roots tend to sound more formal and technical, while shorter words with Anglo-Saxon roots tend to sound more informal.

Accomplished writers will pick and choose words of varying degrees of formality depending on their goals, but there’s a secret that will serve you well both on your application essay and beyond: you can say everything you need to with short and simple words.

Don’t feel like you need to dig through a thesaurus to impress your reader; it’s more impressive to be simple and clear, especially if the complex words you’re tempted to use are a bit outside your comfort zone. This takes us to the question of influence, because many students write with the assumption that they should use bigger words than they need.

Close your eyes, and try to imagine a really good piece of writing. What kind of words does it have? Are the sentences long, short, or a rhythmically balanced mixture of both? Is the piece funny, serious, vivid, or spare?

More to the point, whose writing does this piece of writing resemble?

Perhaps a teacher’s instructions impressed themselves on you strongly, or you were influenced by students around you who seemed to have their act together. Or maybe there’s a fiction writer whose style you want to emulate. Your model could even be somebody’s speaking voice. It would be impossible to write without influences—the point is to be aware of those influences, and critically reflect on whether they’re the best fit for your college essay.

A Hypothetical Example

Let’s imagine a hypothetical student named Priya. She lives in Reno, Nevada, and wants to attend school in California. Her top schools are UCLA, UC Berkeley, UC Davis, USC, and Occidental. Priya isn’t totally sure what she wants to major in yet, but she loves comedy and she’s leaning towards something in film studies or theatre.

As she starts to prepare her college essay, Priya reflects on the persona she wants to come through in her writing.

One thing that all of Priya’s classmates agree on is that she is funny, but in a somewhat unexpected way. She seems quiet and tends not to be at the center of a crowd, but she knows how to make everyone laugh with a carefully-worded line that shows she’s been paying close attention the whole time.

Priya values this aspect of her personality, and wants to showcase it in her writing. To that end, she chooses an essay topic that will be natural fit with this persona: she’ll recount how she gained self-confidence as a shy ninth grader using humor.

Of course this isn’t the only topic that Priya could have picked to match her writerly persona, but it’s a more intuitive fit than, say, writing about volunteering in a hospital. This isn’t to say it couldn’t be done—just that it would be much harder to do well.

The next step for Priya is to consider her influences. She loves deadpan, dry comedians like Tig Notaro, Aparna Nancherla, Aubrey Plaza, and Steven Wright—performers who deliver their jokes in innocent-looking sentences that gradually fizzle into comic delight as the audience realizes the joke.

Priya has been instinctively modelling her own humor on that style for awhile, but now it’s time to delve into her influences explicitly. She reviews the comedians’ acts with a more technical eye to try to understand just what it is that makes their material work.

In doing so, Priya recognizes that a risk of this kind of dry humor is that her audience—the admissions committee—might not realize that she means to be funny, especially because she can’t read her essay to them out loud. She’ll have to land the funny parts just right, so that they’re obvious enough to elicit laughter, but not so obvious that readers can anticipate the surprise.

Priya also realizes that her writerly voice or “outfit” will need to be largely casual, with opportunities at surprising moments for stranger, longer, or more formal words that are funny precisely because they contrast with their neighbours. The comedian Stewart Lee is famous for this kind of humor—he is probably the only comic ever to have made a punchline from the phrase, “a comprehensive study of its causes.”

In Conclusion

Ultimately, Priya has reflected carefully on her persona, her topic, and her influences, all with the intent of building a consistent voice for her essay. If you can be aware of the ways your own writerly influences and personality guide your work, you’ll be similarly prepared to pick out a voice that you’re happy with.   

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