“Tone” is often one of the aspects of writing that applicants find most difficult to pin down. And yet, when you’re writing, it is also one of the most important to control so that you maintain an appropriate tone for your purpose.
One way to think about “tone” is to understand it as conveying your attitude toward your subject. Two key steps can help you become more aware of your tone. First, pause and consider who your audience is and what you are trying to communicate to them. Second, read your writing aloud: hearing your words can enable you to recognize connotations and overtones that you missed on the page.
What type of tone should you strive for in your admissions essay? And how can you ensure your writing conveys the right attitude?
Your tone should be confident, professional, and courteous. It should convey your spirit of intellectual curiosity/inquisitiveness and your collaborative mindset.
Let’s start with the issue of confidence.
How can you make sure your tone is confident – without sounding arrogant? Here are five tips for just-the-right tone:
1. When you describe your skills and qualifications, do so with self-assurance. Don’t diminish or hide your contribution – and don’t sound uncertain of yourself.
2. At the same time, focus on showing what you did, how you contributed, and what you learned from it, instead of simply making unsupported statements. For example, instead of just saying “I have strong communication skills,” illustrate those skills in action: “As a research assistant, I met regularly with all members of the research team and made formal presentations of my findings each week.”
3. Quantify whenever possible and provide relevant, impressive specifics. “Led team of 5 on 3 continents” is better than “Led team.”
4. Beware of words and qualifiers that make you sound uncommitted to your position. (“Seems,” “appears,” “might be,” etc.) If you mean “is,” say “is.” Better yet, use strong verbs. (If you’re describing provisional research findings, provisional-sounding words are ok!)
5. Remember what you’re interested in. What truly attracts you to this program? Highlight your real enthusiasm, and let your confidence shine.
• Back up your assertions with illustrations and details.
• Watch out for words that weaken your position by making you sound uncertain.
• Find the source of your confidence: the reasons you’re applying to the program in the first place.
The negative flip-side of confidence is arrogance. It is an application killer and a quality you must avoid.
We can’t really overstate how important it is to root out any whiff of arrogance in your essay. Since so many grad programs rely on teamwork, adcoms are looking for candidates who will be good colleagues. It’s critical to come across as someone who works well with other people. How can you avoid errors in tone that project arrogance?
Here are six tips to eradicate arrogance from your essays:
1. As you describe your contribution, don’t make your team’s work sound less important, inflate your work, or (explicitly or implicitly) describe yourself as being smarter or better than your colleagues.
a. Most people don’t make this error explicitly, but I have seen essays where people wrote some variation of “I left this job because I was so much more advanced than my colleagues there.” Please don’t write that or anything close to it.
b. If you’ve left a position, express the decision in a positive way: instead of saying, “I was more advanced than my colleagues there,” or “I didn’t like the environment,” write that you moved to the new position in order to do XYZ, or develop your skills in ABC, or because it gave you more responsibility.
2. Don’t present yourself as being the only qualified candidate. No matter how great you are, there are a lot of other great candidates. So don’t say things like “I am the only one to…”
3. Don’t belittle other people. If you excelled or had a great opportunity, talk about that opportunity and what you did; don’t imply that other people from your school or company were not as successful, ambitious, or prepared. In other words:
i. Instead of: “Coming to college was a revelation, because I had been surrounded by unmotivated students all my life.”
ii. Try: “In college, I was in my element, surrounded by other motivated students.”
4. Don’t boast about test scores, grades, or other info that probably shouldn’t be in your essay anyway (ie, things that are on your CV or application form).
5. Avoid words that can connote arrogance, especially if you use them primarily in reference to yourself and your own accomplishments. (Words like “superior” or “exceptional.”)
6. Similarly, make sure you convey genuine enthusiasm about the program: don’t write as though they should be lucky to have you, but as though you know that it is the right place for you.
• Don’t belittle other people.
• Don’t exaggerate your contribution.
• Remember the adcom is considering you as a potential colleague – not just weighing your stats.
As I said above, a helpful way to check your tone is to read your essay aloud. Ask yourself: Do I sound confident? Do I sound like I am making a judgment about something I don’t really mean to be judgmental about? Have I used “I” too much when talking about a group project?
This is also where it’s very helpful to ask someone else to read your essay. Ask them to pay attention to your tone, and mark any places that sound negative or un-collegial.
Next time, I’ll address how to maintain a professional tone.
By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, Accepted consultant since 2008, former Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center, and author of the ebook, Financing Your Future: Winning Fellowships, Scholarships and Awards for Grad School. Dr. Blustein, who earned her Ph.D. at UCLA, assists our clients applying to MS, MA, and Ph.D. programs. Want Rebecca to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!