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Articles / Applying to College / The Tone of Your College Essays

The Tone of Your College Essays

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | July 20, 2018
The Tone of Your College Essays

Attention soon-to-be high school seniors: Have you seen the 2018-2019 Common Application essay prompts yet? If not, you can find them here, and you can find my tips on how to create a strong introduction for your essays here.

This year's seven prompts offer a wide variety of approaches for you to display your writing skills. Each one has potential -- either obvious or hidden -- for you to make a meaningful impression on your admission readers.

One aspect of essay writing that you may not be aware of is tone. In general, tone can be defined as “the general character or attitude of a place, piece of writing, situation, etc." The key word within that definition is “attitude." Ask yourself, “How will my readers discern the attitude of my essay?"

One way to think about tone is to imagine that your essay has an actual face that speaks your essay to your readers. As they watch that face deliver the words you've written, what do they see? A knitted brow? Impish eyes? Maybe a smirk? Sadness? A bored look? Drooping eyelids about to doze off? A big smile? Wide eyes?

That's what tone projects. I could write about all the different shades of tone, but the one that I would like you to consider today is humor. Humor is one of the most overlooked elements when it comes to application essays. There's a simple reason for this: Many (can I even say “most"?) high school seniors view applying to college as grimly serious business. I certainly agree that it's an important part of this stage of education, but I think “grimly serious" takes some of the fun -- and humanity -- out of the process.

Know Your Audience

Speaking of humanity, before you begin to plan your essays, stop and think about to whom you will be writing: Human beings. The people who will be reading your essay(s) are not machines programmed with artificial intelligence that will judge your writing on coldly objective criteria. The admissions staffers feel emotions, unlike machines (at least most of the machines we have today), so they can infer from the tone of your writing some elements about who you are and how you think, which is the prime mission of the application essay.

Back to humor. One of the cornerstones of my advice to college applicants about writing application essays has always been "make an admissions officer smile and you're halfway home." In my work with high school seniors applying to competitive colleges, I'm amazed at the dull lifelessness of the majority of essay drafts that I see. The core of the problem is the writers' insistence on producing mundane, “safe" text. They write what they think the admissions committee readers want to see rather than what they (the applicant) want to write. In other words, the tail wags the dog.

Tone Should Grab the Reader's Attention

How many times have you told someone what you think they want to hear instead of what you really wanted to say? Granted, there are common-sense limits to what you really should say, or in the case of application essays, what you want to write. However, put yourself in the shoes of a typical harried admissions staffer who is facing a mountain of folders and a crushing deadline. Picture this poor, exhausted man or woman struggling to stay awake at 1:30 a.m. on a freezing, snowy night, opening your application folder (or electronic equivalent) and, going straight to your essay, seeing this stimulating opening sentence: “Through soccer, I have learned the value of teamwork, perseverance and hard work."

Now there's a cure for insomnia! Granted, there are times when a serious tone is appropriate for your essays. In fact, trying to make light of a serious topic can sometimes backfire. In general, though, if you can create some kind of memorable “anchor" in the brains of your readers, you stand a better chance to win a favorable judgment about your case -- assuming, of course, that your other credentials are at least in the ballpark with your competition. They may just remember your humor and the smile it inspired.

Now that I've pontificated about the value of humor in essays, let me illustrate -- once again, because it's one of my favorites from over the decades -- using a real-life example. Years ago, I worked with an amazing young man who came from a difficult upbringing. I'll call him “Mike." What I liked about Mike was his ability to see the brighter side of some rather dark situations in his life. Although he recounted some of these difficulties in other places on his application, he didn't allow them to cast a dark cloud over his application.

As I got to know him better through our frequent email exchanges, I soon discovered that he had a great sense of humor, in addition to genuine sensitivity. When we began discussing ideas for essays, I encouraged him to choose a seemingly mundane event from his everyday life and develop it using his unique humor. As you'll see here (with Mike's permission), he followed my suggestion with smashing success.

Haircuts and Other Aviation Disasters

I felt the wheels of a cold 747 touch down on my head. I jumped and ran frantically to the bathroom. As I saw the familiar face peering back at me, I felt my stomach sink. There, peering from behind the mirror was Mike, with a brand-new airplane landing strip right down the middle of his head. Another crash landing.

The thing I dislike most in the world is long hair. I don't mean I dislike the style of long hair or people with long hair. I just dislike long hair on myself. I have very thick, curly hair that lends itself to certain discomforts. Sleeping causes my hair to lodge between the pillow and my skull, which incessantly tugs on my scalp all night long, leaving me with a sore head the next day. Combing proves futile since the comb hooks onto my curls like Velcro and the force required to break through the snarled mass is beyond my pain threshold. Styling products give me headaches. So, I prefer just to crop it all off, as if I'm in Navy boot camp.

This manner of hairstyle seems like a pretty good solution to end all my troubles, doesn't it? Nope, it's just a tradeoff. The shorter my hair is, the faster it grows. My hair grows so fast that every two weeks I need another trim just to maintain a bearable length. All I need is someone willing to take five minutes to turn on the clippers and do a few passes over my head. Solution: I let my mom cut my hair.

Having my mom cut my hair is like flying on an airplane. Sure, it's risky with potential deadly results, but it gets me where I want to go in a short time. But as my mom and the airline industry have proven, out of the many flights from Chicago to New York, there always are a few memorable crashes.

One Sunday morning four years ago, I sat on the barber-chair bucket in the garage for my usual biweekly buzz. The clippers humming above my head sounded like a benign turboprop cruising at 30,000 feet. The gentle buzzing assured me that I wouldn't have to endure long hair any longer. Everything seemed routine until I felt the sting of what felt like a whirling propeller. My hand instinctively reached toward the trauma site and found a small bare spot. I sprinted to the bathroom mirror and took a small hand mirror from the drawer, angling it so I could see the back of my head.

“And I have school tomorrow!" I shrieked. My mind raced, searching for some covert plan to feign my own death or hitchhike to Canada. After my fanciful plans died in committee, I sequenced some objective logic: “How can I repair this? My hair is black. A ballpoint pen would take off more skin than it would blacken. I need something like . . . a felt marker!" Thus, I proceeded to apply several artful layers of permanent magic marker to my bare spot, and -- voila -- no more annoying spot.

No one noticed the canyon on the side of my head during the two weeks that it took my hair to grow back. Somehow, I imagined that this experience would serve as an experiential warning and avert future haircut disasters. I was wrong.

This past winter, I once again stood in front of that mirror gazing at yet another calamity. This clear-cut strip would have pleased even the most maniacal lumberjack. It was way too large to repair with markers. So, to compensate, I was forced to shave the rest of my head, since I didn't really care for the inverted-Mohawk look. Beside that, the Sahara was too far for my coin jar to take me.

That winter I walked around in my big, warm wool sweater complemented by my glistening shaved head. This time, though, EVERYONE noticed. Such is life at Mike's Barber Shop Airlines.

Incidentally, for those of you obsessives out there who checked Mike's word count and discovered it to be 670 (including the title), keep in mind that this was not a Common Application essay. It was a major supplemental essay. It could have easily performed as a Common App essay, but Mike had other things to say about himself in one of those prompts.

Speaking of Mike's essay title, be aware that titles can lend real impact to an essay if they are carefully thought out. After you have finished your essay's final revision and you're satisfied that it can't get much better, reread it one more time. Look for one or two key aspects that you may be able to work into a title. They can be great tone-setters.

By the way, Mike was admitted to Yale and enrolled there. So, don't forget the power of a humorous tone in your essays. Keep your readers smiling!

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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