At Wow, when we use the term voice, we are referring to the tone, sound and feel of a college application essay. The most successful essays sound like the people who wrote them: your students!
Many students submit essays to us for review that do not sound like them. Your job is to make sure they do, and if not, point it out to them.
Consider the story of Hillary, a delightful, smart young woman who was applying to the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Hillary came to us asking for input on a few essays she had written for her application package. Her mom told us up front that the essays didn’t sound like Hillary.
While the prose was grammatically perfect, and the young woman had a knack for writing, her mom was right. The stories read as if Hillary were standing on top of a mountain, talking about someone down below. What was missing? Hillary’s voice — her essence, her personality. She enjoyed writing, but like so many students, she was uncomfortable writing about herself.
We reviewed her essays and noticed she liked Dr. Seuss. The author clearly made an impression on Hillary. In fact, she quoted him liberally in all of her essays. One supplemental essay prompt asked students to write about a favorite book. We asked if she wanted to choose something by Dr. Seuss.
“Can I do that?” Hillary asked. She assumed she should write about something weighty, like great literature, science or social criticism. Her mom had picked the book she had originally written about, but Hillary had no personal connection to it. It wasn’t a favorite, but it felt like an appropriate choice for such an important assignment. We assured her that of course she could write about Dr. Seuss.
This prompt was not a trick question. It asked about a book. Period. As the essay was genuine and was about her, she could write about almost anything. Hillary seemed relieved. She was excited to write about Dr. Seuss because the author inspired her.
We guided her through a process that required several drafts. In the end, her story about why Dr. Seuss’s Oh! The Places You’ll Go was beautiful. Her voice shined through. No one could have written that essay the way she did. She later showed her essay to an admission officer for the University of Michigan. He loved it. Hillary’s dad, who expressed skepticism at first, was proud, too.
Many of our students relate to Hillary’s experience. Her essays evolved, and she became more confident as she immersed herself in the writing process. As soon as she relaxed, she didn’t mind writing about herself. When she was done, Hillary’s essays sounded like her: a bright, interesting 17-year-old girl.
Take a moment to think about voice. Voice can set your students apart, too.
A student’s story, told in their unique voice and words, will show readers something genuine about the writer, something they can’t get from scores and grades or a long list of clubs, sports and other activities. That is one of the first issues we address with the Wow Method, the step-by-step writing process we use with every student.
Just like a speaking voice, a person’s writing voice is distinctive. Yours will not sound the same as a teenage college applicant’s. Theirs should not sound like yours. That doesn’t mean your student can’t sound sophisticated or intelligent. If a student is funny, they should be funny. If a student is serious, they can sound serious. Does that student write in short, concise sentences? That’s how they should write their essays. Does that student write long, complex sentences full of vivid details? Then that style should show up in their essays too. Please don’t let your students get distracted by the thesaurus. And don’t expect them to write like you do. A college essay should be written in the authentic voice of a high school student who has something to say.
Read a few of our favorite lines from Wow students, and you’ll get the idea:
- At home, we ate beans, rice and ramen noodles for meals, and I was always hungry.
- I got my first pair of skates before I could walk.
- I jumped into an empty Dumpster and scrubbed it with a heavy-duty brush using Pine Sol and Comet cleanser.
- My body trembled as I heard the words, “If you hear the siren, you have 15 seconds to save your life.”
- When I was in tenth grade, I waged a campaign to save my district’s middle school French program.
- Because I am short, I managed to wiggle my way through the crowd to the front to see the list.
- I wanted to be a normal kid, just like them, not the kid with a sick dad.
- It was an overwhelming smell that reminded me of a thrift shop filled with unwashed clothing.
- I love the sound of the boat straining under the pressure of eight perfectly synchronized oars, and the copper taste in my mouth when I pull my absolute hardest.
These examples tell us something about the writer. They are written in different styles and different voices. Your students’ styles and voices should tell you something about the writer, too.
Our Gift to You: A Free Book for You and Every Parent in Your School
We’d like to give you a free electronic copy of our book: How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents. After you click on the link, you’ll find out how to get free books for every parent in your school, too.
How do you approach the college essay? We’d love to hear how you talk to your students when they panic, and what your biggest college essay challenges are. Feel free to email me firstname.lastname@example.org.
Kim Lifton, a 2018 Top Voice in Education, LinkedIn, is President of Wow. We are a team of professional writers and teachers who understand the writing process inside and out. The Wow Method has been used by students to write application essays and resumes; by business owners to create blogs, websites and other communication materials; and by English teachers to improve student writing skills. We can even help you write a great poem or short story. If it involves words, we can help!