Lesson Four: Style and Tone

While the structure of your essay affects the clarity, coherence, and impact of your content, writing style affects presentation in an even more fundamental way: It determines how engaged your reader is from sentence to sentence. Poor writing can make fascinating experiences a dull read, while strong writing can transform mundane details into an exciting tale.

The best advice we can give is to be simple and straightforward. Occasionally an essay will sound choppy or unsophisticated because of too many short sentences, but usually the problem is the opposite scenario. Applicants think that flowery prose and large words will make them sound more intelligent, when in reality their expression ends up being muddled and tedious. A direct style is not only more efficient to read, but also more enjoyable because it allows a steadily moving pace.

The tone you use should be conversational, not too formal or informal. The sentences you write should be sentences that you would actually say. This is not to suggest that you should not spend time refining your writing carefully, but the ultimate goal should be a natural voice.

In this section of the course, we will cover the major weaknesses and mistakes most applicants are guilty of and show you how to turn them into strengths.

EssayEdge Extra: Achieving Genuine Style

In a sense, the advice covered in this section is remedial. We are trying to teach you to avoid the common mistakes of bad writing that even smart people can make. The goal is to achieve a clean, readable, and enjoyable piece of writing. Very few writers in the entire applicant pool will have the kind of style that will make them stand out on the strength of writing alone.

Developing such a style requires time and investment, and some may argue that it cannot be taught. If you want to undertake a more long-term investment in your writing aptitude, here are some tips:

  1. Immerse yourself in good writing. Read publications such as The New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly. Even without conscious effort, your writing will improve because you will begin to think in more vivid language.
  2. Imitate good writers. Try a broad range of styles, from Faulkner to Hemingway. This will get you thinking about writing on a higher level and prepare you to forge your own voice as you begin to master the nuances of language.
  3. Keep a journal. No matter what you choose to write about, your writing will improve simply because you are practicing the craft. Keep to a steady schedule.
  4. Become a good editor. Whether you are rewriting your own piece or someone else's, the process of editing will help you learn to pay attention to subtleties and keep an eye on the big picture.
  5. Have your work critiqued by professionals. Using a service such as EssayEdge will not only help you improve the essay you submit, but also teach you to recognize your general strengths and weaknesses as a writer.

Words of Wisdom from Admissions Officers

"In terms of style, don't worry if writing is not your strongest ability. A student whose SAT verbal score or classroom writing is not at a high level may nevertheless have a lot to say and can say it quite effectively in a manner that is comfortable, given his or her writing level. On the other hand, when I read an English recommendation that describes an applicant as the best writer ever to come through that high school, I will read the essay with an expectation that I will be seeing some powerful writing. So if you are a very good writer, show us the power of the pen."—Admissions Officer, Columbia University

"I always remind applicants: 'Be yourself. Be authentic.' The essay is the only opportunity for applicants to express their ideas about what excites them—academically, in extra-curricular activities, and in life generally. If there were any time during your life for you to 'let the cat out of the bag' with regard to your accomplishments and what is important to you, this is it!

"Yale's admissions officers are interested in authenticity, creativity, and personal expression. They want to read essays that engage them in a way that allows them to know who you are as a person."—Admissions Officer, Yale University

Next: Sentence Variety