Style and tone tips for your college essay

Unlike an academic essay, the college application essay does not require a formal tone. It gives you a chance to showcase your authentic voice and creative writing abilities. Here are some basic guidelines for using an appropriate style and tone in your college essay.

Strike a balance between casual and formal

Use a conversational yet respectful tone, as if speaking with a familiar teacher, mentor, or coach. An academic, formal tone will seem too clinical, while an overly casual tone will seem unprofessional to admissions officers.

Find an appropriate middle ground without pedantic language or slang. For example, contractions are acceptable, but text message abbreviations are not.

  • Too casual
  • Too formal
  • Alternative
After watching Ali Wong’s comedy sketch on Netflix, I was, like, ROTFL. In conclusion, regarding Ali Wong’s undermining of Asian American stereotypes, I was capable neither of restraining my emotional reaction of hysterics nor of stopping my tear ducts from releasing saline drops of laughter. Ali Wong’s vulgar yet honest anecdotes caused me to burst into fits of tears, laughter, and joy as she shattered the quiet, polite, Asian American female stereotype that had always dictated my self-image.

Write with your authentic voice

Your essay shouldn’t read like a professor, parent, or friend wrote it for you. Use first-person singular “I” statements, appropriate vocabulary for your level, and original expressions.

Prioritize using the first-person singular

Unlike in some other kinds of academic writing, you should write in the first-person singular (e.g., “I,” “me”) in a college application essay to highlight your perspective.

Avoid using “one” for generalizations, since this sounds stilted and unnatural. Use “we” sparingly to avoid projecting your opinions or beliefs onto other people who may not share the same views. In some cases, you can use “we” to talk about a community you know well, such as your family or neighborhood.

The second-person pronoun “you” can be used in some cases. Don’t write the whole essay to an unknown “you,” but if the narrative calls for it, occasionally addressing readers as “you” is generally okay.

  • Bad example
  • Good example
As girls, we all like rom-coms, Häagen-Dazs, and shopping at Westfield Mall. In my family, we enjoy late-night Monopoly marathons, chatting for hours around the dinner table, and watching Marvel movies at their midnight premieres.
As humans, we all just want to have a loving marriage, a high-profile job, and an expensive house. From the countless Hollywood movies I watched as a child, I bought into the American dream: I wanted the perfect husband, a well-paid job, and a luxurious house with an infinity pool in Beverly Hills.
To give you a good picture of my mother, I first need to tell you about how she dresses. At first glance, my mother seems like a typical suburban housewife. However, if you look beyond the yellow rubber gloves and J.Crew ensemble, she’s much more.

Write within your vocabulary range

Creative but careful word choice is essential to enliven your essay. You should embellish basic words, but it shouldn’t read like you used a thesaurus to impress admissions officers.

  • Too simplistic
  • Too complex
  • Alternative
I didn’t wanna seem lame or basic like in all those rom-coms, so I did something nice for my girlfriend to ask her to prom. I cooked her food and took her to the lake. Recreating the piano scene from Twilight to ask Rachel to prom would have been fatuous and prosaic. Alternatively, I prepared an epicurean meal of Korean cuisine, escorted her to our favorite rendezvous, and inquired if she would accompany me to our high school’s prom festivities. Rather than recreating an unoriginal scene from a romantic comedy, I cooked my girlfriend her favorite dishes of bulgogi and japchae, took her to our spot near the lake, and asked her to prom.

Use clichés and idioms with discretion

Find a more imaginative way of rewriting overused expressions一unless it’s an intentional stylistic choice.

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  • Good example
That winter night in California, it was raining cats and dogs. That night in Sacramento, it rained so much that it should have been stored for the next drought.

Maintain a fast pace

Write concisely and in the active voice to maintain a quick pace throughout your essay. Only add definitions if they provide necessary explanation.

Write concisely

Opt for a simple, concise way of writing, unless it’s a deliberate stylistic choice to describe a scene. Be intentional with every word, especially since college essays have word limits. However, do vary the length of your sentences to create an interesting flow.

  • Bad example
  • Good example
Ever since we were kids, Charlie and I have worked really hard in order to go into the city. The reason why we loved going into the big city in the summertime was because Austin is a diverse, bustling city with many cafes, restaurants, and record stores.

Last summer, we arrived and walked out of the train station, heading toward the record store on Maple Street. We spent hours rummaging through each and every record of different kinds of musical greats. We took advantage of the free listening station until the employee demanded that we buy something. We settled on a rare, deluxe live album of B.B. King at San Quentin prison. Many famous artists, like Johnny Cash, recorded and performed for inmates there. We spent hours in a nearby café, looking over the list of songs while sipping on water and nibbling at the free bread basket while the waiter kept throwing dirty glances toward us.

One summer, Charlie and I used our hard-earned savings, from car washes and 5 a.m. newspaper routes, to venture into Austin, with the sole aim of visiting Breakaway Records. Once there, we perused aisles with all kinds of musical greats. We spent hours in the free listening booths, savoring full albums of Johnny Cash, Muddy Waters, and Billie Holiday until the employee demanded that we buy something. We settled on B.B. King’s Live at San Quentin. We haven’t stopped listening to it ever since.

Don’t provide definitions just to sound smart

You should explain terms or concepts that may be unfamiliar to the reader. However, don’t show off with several definitions to impress admissions officers.

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According to research by Max Planck and Albert Einstein, a photon, an elementary particle that is a quantum of the electromagnetic field, can be both a wave and a particle. According to research by Max Planck and Albert Einstein, a photon can be both a wave and a particle.

Prioritize the active voice to maintain a lively tone

The passive voice can be used when the subject is unimportant or unknown. But in most cases, use the active voiceto keep a fast pace throughout your essay.

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  • Good example
Trash was collected on my volunteer group’s annual cleanup day. I collected trash with my volunteer group on our annual cleanup day.

Bend language rules for stylistic reasons

You can occasionally bend grammatical rules if it adds value to the storytelling process and the essay maintains clarity. However, return to using standard language rules if your stylistic choices would otherwise distract the reader from your overall narrative or could be easily interpreted as unintentional errors.

Sentence fragments

Sentence fragments can convey a quicker pace, a more immediate tone, and intense emotion in your essay. Use them sparingly, as too many fragments can be choppy, confusing, and distracting.

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I looked down. Huge, wet, yellow stain. On my pants. I ran. Far away. As I looked down, I saw a huge wet yellow stain on my pants. I had to run. Far away.
I see Justin. In the corner of my eye. His hands are waving. He’s wide open. Defense rushes. He’s blocked. Scoreboard. Ten, nine. Three-pointer shot? Eight, seven. Better be safe. Six, five. Fake shot, spin, fadeaway. Two, one. Justin for the rebound. Scores! In the corner of my eye, I see Justin, with his hands waving, wide open. But suddenly, the defense rushes in front of him, blocking him from a clear pass. I glance at the scoreboard. Ten seconds, nine seconds. Can I make this three-pointer? Eight, seven. Better play it safe. Six, five. Who’s open? Someone, anyone! Four, three. I fake a shot, spin around my guy, and fadeaway. Two, one. Justin for the rebound. He scores!

Non-standard capitalization

Usually,  common nouns should not be capitalized. But sometimes capitalization can be an effective tool to insert humor or signify importance.

  • Bad example
  • Good example
That day at School, everyone was talking about what had happened. My mom told me that we needed to have a Very Important Talk that night.

Use American English

For international students applying to US colleges, it’s important to remember to use US English rather than UK English.

For example, use double quotation marks rather than single ones, and don’t forget to put punctuation inside the double quotation marks. Also be careful to use American spelling, which can differ by just one or two letters from British spelling.

Frequently asked questions about college application essays

What style and tone should I use for a college application essay?

College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing. Use a conversational yet respectful tone, as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.

Aim to write in your authentic voice, with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.

How do I write with my authentic voice in a college application essay?

Use first-person “I” statements to speak from your perspective. Use appropriate word choices that show off your vocabulary but don’t sound like you used a thesaurus. Avoid using idioms or cliché expressions by rewriting them in a creative, original way.

How do I stay under the word count on my college application essay?

Write concisely and use the active voice to maintain a quick pace throughout your essay. Avoid adding definitions unless they provide necessary explanation.

When is it okay to bend language rules in a college essay?

In a college application essay, you can occasionally bend grammatical rules if doing so adds value to the storytelling process and the essay maintains clarity.

However, use standard language rules if your stylistic choices would otherwise distract the reader from your overall narrative or could be easily interpreted as unintentional errors.

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Kirsten Courault

Kirsten studied political economy at U.C. Berkeley and has seven years of experience as a writer, editor, and English teacher. She cherishes helping students unearth their unique stories for college admissions essays.

1 comment

Kirsten Courault
Kirsten Courault (Scribbr Team)
September 21, 2021 at 5:29 PM

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