College Application Essay Series: Tone

By An Li and Lynn Horowitz

When you apply to college, you will definitely be writing at least one essay, so we’ve thought about some pointers that can help you write a strong application essay. It is important to remember that while the essay you write is integral to your application, in holistic admissions, it is not the only thing that matters. However, writing a strong essay can set you apart from other applicants by telling a compelling story well. There are three main components to keep in mind when writing your essay: technique, topic and tone. 

This overview has to do with your main essay, like the Common Application essay or Coalition Application essay, meaning that almost every school you apply to would see it. However, you can use these tips on any essay that is required as part of your application to specific schools.

Key Questions:

Does the essay sound like you?

How did you make the reader feel?

What kind of community member will you be on campus?

What is Tone? 

While technique and topic are the foundations of your essay, tone is what makes the essay YOUR essay–it brings your voice to the writing and sets the mood. Think of it like this, if you are building a house, while technique and topic go more towards the foundation of the house, the tone is the outer appearance and interior design, such as the color of paint, material, room layout, and later on the furniture placed inside to distinguish your style and taste. This is where you get to personalize your essay and make it your own. Some key points to remember are:

  • Identify what kind of tone you are going for.
      • For example: funny, sad, happy, excited, sentimental, etc. 
  • Be careful about expressing strong opinions on more controversial subjects such as politics, religion, and gender. 
      • If you really do want to go down this route and have an important story tied to these, write in such a way that if the admissions officer reading your essay had the exact opposite views as you, they would still find what you said respectable and digestible. You do not want to leave the reader with a sour feeling from your essay.
      • It’s how you say it, not necessarily what you say that can make the reader doubt you or your character.
  • End on a positive note with forward momentum. 
      • If your essay is about a challenge you’ve overcome, you need to demonstrate how you’ve grown from the experience in a positive way.*
  • When reading your essay, imagine you are a student from the school reading it.
    • As the student, would you want the type of person who wrote the essay to go to your school? 

Bad Example: One of the reasons why I am thrilled about going to the University of Chicago is because of the “life of the mind” motto. This means that instead of having to deal with frat bros wasting away their lives, I get to interact with intellectuals who actually care about Descartes.

  • Why you should avoid this: The phrase “frat boys wasting away their lives” is derogatory and condescending towards a group of students that exist on campus. An admissions counselor reading this might wonder if the person writing this would be able to get along with other students or she would cause issues. Remember, the admissions counselor is considering how you as the applicant would add to the university to make it a more diverse and welcoming community. 

Better Example: One of the reasons why I am thrilled about going to the University of Chicago is because of the “life of the mind” motto. This means that I will be surrounded by students just as excited about learning as I am. Through the Core Curriculum, I look forward to interacting with students across all majors as we bring our diverse perspectives to class discussions.

  • Why this is better: This emphasizes what the prospective student is excited about and qualities that make the school special to her without trashing other people. 

*A note about writing about any academic challenges in your essays: Both the Common App and Coalition App have a specific section that is designed to allow students to talk about academic challenges they have faced. This means that you can explain your academic journey there, rather than using your general essay to address any challenges that have come up during your time in high school. When submitting a piece of writing on those challenges, it is important not only to explain what happened and the context of those hiccups, but also to take ownership of what happened no matter what and state how you’ve changed and improved since those moments. 

We hope this overview has been helpful! The most important thing to remember is that the college essay is about you, and whatever you choose to write about, remember to stay genuine to who you are.

Leave a Reply