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Articles / Applying to College / Authentic Voice in College Essays

Authentic Voice in College Essays

N Written by Nina Berler | Oct. 26, 2023
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Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Write an essay that sounds like you!

Myth: The Personal Statement is a way to show colleges that you are ready for academic, scholarly writing.

Fact: The Personal Statement helps colleges see what kind of person you’ll be in their community, so they want to see your authentic self.

That’s why you want to use your authentic voice when writing any college essay.

So what’s the problem? A student has shared an essay draft with me, whether it’s a personal statement or a supplemental (college-specific) essay. Maybe we’ve gone back and forth a number of times, and I’ve seen real growth and development in their writing. The student is addressing the prompt, and the style and tone is light and casual. Then somehow, the next version I see is different. Conversational words are gone, replaced by what you might expect from doctors, lawyers or parents!

It’s crucial for students to write essays in an authentic voice, as if they are speaking with the admissions reader (as opposed to a peer, so there’s no unacceptable slang or foul language). The essay sounds like the student because the student is the author. It flows like a delightful conversation, free of fluffy words and phrases, which make the essay harder to get through and may even make the reader question who wrote it—or was it AI? Take a look at the table below for examples of forced, unnatural words and phrases versus natural sentences in authentic voice.

No more fluffy words and phrases!

HTML Table Generator
You Forced... You could have said . . .
From my only seventeen short years of living, I can truly attest to the fact that putting yourself out there and getting involved is the best way to make the most out of life. Why not put myself out there? It’s worked so far!
XYZ University’s values of truth, unity and love are aligned to my passion for learning. I like the idea that I can create my own major. At XYZ University, I would be able to put together a program that brings together my interests in [subject] and [another subject].
I’m drawn to the competitive placement, study-abroad programs and experienced faculty who are advocates for learning. On my tour, I heard that XYZ has very helpful counselors at the Campbell Career Center. I’m also excited to do research with professors and study in your program in Florence.
 I’m inspired to join the highly rated College of Foreign Service because I think this is a school that embodies the values that are important to me. I would love to be a diplomat and help tackle issues like hunger and immigration that are important around the world. Studying at the  College of Foreign Service would help make that a reality. 
 I became the best version of myself. Nothing. Your examples speak for themselves. 

Myth: When you’re in doubt, ask a parent to edit your essay.

Fact: Essays reviewed by parents and other adults result in students who doubt themselves. If you provide editing access, your document might just come back looking different.

While it is understandable to seek additional input, sharing the essay inevitably leads to disagreement, excessive and unnecessary changes and a lack of confidence. Believe me! It happens every year, especially when students or parents are feeling the heat. I’ve had students give editing access to their siblings, teachers and counselors. It doesn’t help.

Editing Considerations

Punctuation is something students don’t always do well—or effectively. I remember when a student told me that no exclamation marks should be used in student essays, driving home the point that they need to understand the style and tone that works for college application essays. These essays are personal. They shine with anecdotes and dialogue, which include exclamation marks!!! While that adds to the authenticity, proper punctuation and a thorough review are essential. It’s not Instagram or TikTok!

Spacing between paragraphs should be used thoughtfully to separate conversations, speakers and ideas. Yet a student should not use two spaces between sentences, something their parents were almost definitely taught. (To the reader, it could be a sign that an adult might have had their hands in the essay.)

Points for the Authentic Student Reviewer

What’s not acceptable even though It’s authentic?

Everyday as a single word
Highschool as a single word
Impact as a verb (e.g., Time on lacrosse impacted my study habits.)
Me as a subject pronoun (i.e., me and my friends)

More About Authenticity in the College Process

Some colleges want writing samples and offer the student the opportunity to upload a graded paper. The problem with that: the essays are likely research papers and don’t show off what the student is all about! And while I was never a fan of the essay component on a standardized test, there’s something to be said for the authentic writing sample they could provide.

It makes sense that colleges like Brown or UChicago now ask for videos—unscripted, casual videos of under two minutes. They want to see you in your element. They want to get to know your authentic self.

A Word on AI

During the 2023-24 admissions cycle, college essays are under increased scrutiny because of the availability of ChatGPT and other AI-enabled software. In many tests of AI to generate college essays, at least those I’ve heard or read about, the AI tools generate very complete results. Yet they may also be filled with fluffy words and phrases. Recently, a student showed me what happened to his writing when he asked ChatGPT for synonyms. The results were fluffy! I asked them to tell me what he really wanted to say, then use that instead.

Both the personal statement (Common App Personal Essay) and supplemental essays for individual colleges are fundamental components of holistic admissions, providing college admissions readers with a unique understanding of your intellectual curiosity, thoughtfulness and creativity. So applicants: keep them in authentic voice!

Written by


Nina Berler

Nina Berler is a college counselor and founder of unCommon Apps. Her ebook, Supplementing the College Supplement, available on Apple Books, contains actual examples from student work. Nina has an AB with Honors from Brown University and an MBA from the Stern School of Business, New York University. She holds a Certificate with Distinction in College Counseling from UCLA Extension. Nina is a Professional Member of the Independent Educational Consultants Association (IECA) and a member of the National Association for College Admissions Counseling (NACAC).

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