Give your college essay a voice

Admissions advisors want your essay to stand out. Here’s how to make that happen

Give your college essay a voice

“I would rather learn from one bird how to sing than to teach 10,000 stars how not to dance.”

Quick, identify the grammatical error in the sentence above. 


Sorry, that was a trick question. The sentence is really a quote from e.e. cummings, the second most widely read poet in the U.S. Everyone knows he’s a genius who went to Harvard, and geniuses never make errors, especially errors like using only lower case letters all the time. Right? Wrong. 


e. e. cummings became famous and respected precisely because of his errors; he made them all the time. The difference between his errors and the ones that hurt your GPA is that his work had a system that became known as his signature style. But you’re facing a stack of college essays and have no idea why I’m going on about this oddball poet. I’m bringing up e. e. cummings because I want to make a point to you—think a little bit out of the box when you sit down to plan your college essay. 


Create a signature style, or voice, that works for you and gain some attention by submitting something unique to the admissions office. 


What do admissions advisors want to read? I recently surveyed close to 60 colleges and universities across the U.S., small to large in size, public and private, with top academic programs ranging from business to engineering to (yes) English and communications. 


First of all, 100 percent of them rated strong writing skills as at least an “important” contributor to academic success; 54 percent said writing skills were “critical” to success. Your essay is your first chance to convince them that you’ve got the tools and the talent to get the job done on their campus. No surprise that 93 percent rank your transcript as the most important factor in your application review. But what good does that do you when you’re sitting here facing your senior year with only one semester’s worth of opportunity left to prove yourself? One more discouraging nugget of data, 35 percent reported not using interviews in their admissions process. The increased number of applications and the economic burden that an interview can place upon a student who might not have the resources to travel to a campus, are reasons why the interview is getting dropped from the application process. The essay is your story in your voice. Take time for essay planning!


Jeff Williams, assistant director of admissions for Boston University, where they received more than 37,000 applications last year alone, said it best when he was speaking with my students, “Your essay is your interview.”


So what are they hoping to learn about you? In my survey, more than 80 percent of the admissions counselors rated learning about your character and personality as their top priorities when reading an essay. Only 8 percent want to hear about your accomplishments, so leave the list of activities to the application. And the No. 1 hallmark of a strong essay: ‘honest and genuine’ came in at almost 90 percent. 


Where do you start? Cummings relies on patterns in his poems that can become more familiar to a reader. These patterns became his signature style—his voice. You have a voice, too, use it when essay planning. All of us use predictable speech patterns depending on who we are, where we’re from and probably most importantly who we’re talking to. (See I did it just there – I said ‘who’ when I should have said ‘whom’; but hey, who talks like that anyway?)


Now, with all that being said, don’t forget that a lot of people still have a heck of a time understanding the poetry of e. e. cummings. The lesson for you: be true to your voice but make sure your message is clear and that you exhibit good grammar and strong writing in your essay, as well.


Have a clear message. Unlike cummings, don’t leave the admissions counselors struggling through literary analysis to get to the meaning; provide enough of a structure surrounding your voice to help the admissions counselors along. If you talk one way to your English teacher and another way to your grandmother and another to your best friend, you probably also wear different clothes to church and to school and while hanging out on the sofa. In your college essay, try to think about talking to your grandma and wearing a comfortable pair of good jeans. You don’t want to be wearing sweatpants, but don’t be so uptight that you can hardly breathe in that prom dress, OK?


And I’m going to close with one last quote from cummings: “We do not believe in ourselves until someone reveals that deep inside us something is valuable, worth listening to, worthy of our trust, sacred to our touch. Once we believe in ourselves we can risk curiosity, wonder, spontaneous delight or any experience that reveals the human spirit.” 


Believe in yourself! 


Clare Trow is the associate director of college counseling at St. Catherine’s School in Richmond, Va. 


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