What is the right tone to aim for when writing your statement of purpose (SOP) or other application essays? Should you try to sound more mature or intellectual than you actually feel? Or is it better to sound casual and friendly? Will boasting about your achievements hurt you?
It can be difficult to pin down the right tone, which will be different for and specific to each individual applicant. You want to aim for a tone that will offer a harmonious blend of confidence, professionalism, and positivity. Authenticity and maturity are also important, but frankly, if you nail those first three qualities, the latter two will more or less be automatically baked in.
You are writing to appeal to a small but crucial audience of adcom members. They read thousands of essays every year. While this is their job, they are also human beings who can get bored or even a bit jaded when reading personal statements that are boring and generic, or that sound inauthentic, braggy, or as though they were written by an immature candidate. The adcom is reading your essays to get a feel for who you are as a human being – and even as a potential future colleague. They are not just weighing your stats.
This means you need to do your best to capture – and hold on to – their interest, but for all the RIGHT reasons. If you succeed at writing that convince them of your confidence, professionalism, and positivity, you will have created the right tone and delivered a winning message to your audience.
Now let’s look at what you need to do to convey each of these traits.
Confidence is not conceitedness or arrogance. Are you certain you know where the line is?
Confidence lies in your ability to show what you did and how you contributed to your organization, team, or project. You can sound self-assured without diminishing your contributions. Write in clear, direct language that includes colorful and relevant details but avoids fancy words or superlatives that could make you seem as though you are patting yourself on the back.
Avoid making vague and unsupported boasts, such as “I have strong communication skills.” Instead, show those skills in action: “As a research assistant, I met regularly with all five members of the research team and made formal presentations of my findings each week.” Whenever possible, quantify your achievements and provide relevant, impressive specifics.
To sound confident in your writing, do not use words or qualifiers that weaken your message, such as “seems,” “appears,” and “maybe.” Use strong adjectives, such as “compelling,” “notable,” “dramatic,” and “inspiring,” but only if the situations or people deserve such descriptors. (If you’re talking about provisional research findings, provisional-sounding words are okay!)
Crossing the line from confidence to arrogance is an application killer, so make sure to root out any whiff of the latter in your essays. Because so many grad programs rely on teamwork, adcoms look for candidates who will be good colleagues. Include anecdotes that show that you are someone who works well with others. Even if you aren’t going into a team-oriented program, nobody wants a haughty or arrogant person as a classmate.
How to ensure you don’t sound arrogant
When describing your achievements and contributions, don’t minimize the contributions of anyone else on your team or in your group or make their work sound less important than your own. Don’t exaggerate or inflate your contributions, and do not explicitly state (or even imply) that you are smarter or better than your colleagues. If you think this sounds obvious, we can assure you that we have seen plenty of essays where people wrote some variation of “I left this job because I was so much more advanced than my colleagues there.” Even if it’s true (and it might not be as true as you think), don’t write that or anything close to it.
When writing about having left a position, express the decision in a positive way. Don’t say, for example, “I didn’t like the environment” or “My supervisor was an overbearing jerk.” Either or both might be true, but it’s far smarter to write that you moved to a new position to gain new skills, rise in levels of responsibility, and broaden your knowledge of the industry. Don’t focus on what you left behind; focus on what you were working toward.
You’re not the only qualified candidate for a seat in the class and are unlikely to be the very best of the bunch, so don’t say things like “I am the only one who has done X.” That will blow the arrogance meter sky-high! Avoid words that can connote arrogance, especially if you use them primarily in reference to yourself and your accomplishments. If you are truly “superior,” “exceptional,” “creative,” “industrious,” and so on, it will naturally come through in the way you describe your experiences, without your needing to hammer the point home.
This should go without saying, but never belittle other people (even the most annoying or passive-aggressive ones). Don’t even hint that other people from your school or company were not as successful, ambitious, emotionally balanced, or prepared as you were. In other words, do not write something like this: “Coming to college was a revelation, because I had been surrounded by unmotivated students all my life.” Instead, write this: “In college, I was in my element, surrounded by other motivated students.” Remember, you never need to put others down to raise yourself up.
Confidence will allow you to convey genuine enthusiasm about the program as one that you know is the right place for you. Arrogance will tempt you to write as though the program should be lucky to have you.
Last but not least, don’t boast about test scores, grades, or other info that probably shouldn’t be in your essay because it should already be on your CV or application form.
Let’s recap the main points in this section:
- Write about your achievements with clear details but without puffery or exaggeration.
- Avoid words that weaken your writing and make you sound uncertain.
- Find the source of your confidence: the reasons you’re applying to the program in the first place.
- Never belittle other people or the environments where you worked before.
Consider that you are writing for an educated, professional class of individuals: admissions officers and possibly professors and some alumni. While you do not need to sound stilted or overly formal, you’re also not writing an email or text message to a friend. Take a respectful tone, and remember that grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation all count.
Burnish your professionalism by following all the adcom’s directions. This means answering the questions as they are asked, keeping your essays and short answers to the requested length, and not submitting additional materials they haven’t asked for. Follow their lead.
Show your mature engagement with your field by describing your experiences, interests, and goals thoughtfully. For example, there is both a content and a tonal difference between saying you want to study a particular language because it will give you the skills to work in international development in country X, and saying you want to study that language because you’ve always liked the way it sounds.
Professionalism also involves showing your positive, collaborative outlook. When you describe work you did with a team, write in a way that reflects that cooperation (“we”), show what you gained/learned from your collaboration, and discuss how it prepared you for graduate school. Acknowledge mentors, supervisors, teachers, and colleagues you have admired and from whom you have learned valuable lessons.
We also cannot stress this highly enough: your professional tone should extend to every interaction you have with the school, whether written or spoken. Each email, phone call, visit, interview – every engagement with every person you encounter who is affiliated with your target school must affirm their overall picture of you as a courteous, professional, positive candidate.
Let’s recap the main points on coming across with a professional tone.
- Without being stuffy, write in a respectful tone to your audience of educated professionals.
- Write about fruitful collaborations by using “we,” and clearly explain what you have learned from your experiences.
- Maintain a high level of professionalism and courtesy with every interaction you have with the school, whether via email, over the phone, or in person.
If you have followed our advice so far, your confidence and professionalism will shine through. Now let’s add the icing on the cake by making sure you are also conveying the image of a positive candidate, someone the program would love to accept!
Compelling and successful personal statements present a positive perspective on your experiences, even those that had a lot of rough spots. As we wrote earlier, you might have left a job because of a very negative work environment. However, you should never trash-talk your former boss or the company. Instead, explain that you felt it was time to move on and develop yourself personally or professionally. You can hint at difficulties, and the adcom will understand without your risking coming across as complaining about something (or someone).
In the first section of this article about writing with confidence, we cautioned against using mealymouthed words and phrases that weaken your prose, such as “seems,” “appears,” and “maybe.” But many other qualifying words often end up as useless padding, too, especially adverbs (those “-ly” words).
Deployed carefully, adverbs can be effective, but too often, they can drag a sentence down and create the opposite effect of what was intended. For example, compare “In the end, I found the experience genuinely enjoyable” with “I actually enjoyed it.”
To say you “actually” enjoyed something makes it sound like you didn’t expect to. A more positive phrasing would simply be “I greatly enjoyed the experience.”
If you need to address a weakness in your profile, such as a low GPA or test score, employ the same direct language that you have used in all other areas of your application. A positive attitude won’t let you play the blame game or make excuses. Take responsibility and tell the adcom how you have worked to strengthen whatever weaknesses you’ve had, and detail any steps you have taken to avoid similar outcomes in the future.
Let’s recap our advice on presenting yourself with positivity:
- Don’t trash-talk a former employer or write negatively, even about negative experiences. Focus on lessons learned and how you have moved forward.
- Avoid qualifying words that make you sound halfhearted or grudging.
- When writing about a profile weakness, write about what you’ve done to grow and improve. Show a consistent growth mind-set.
How does it sound?
When you’ve finished your drafts, read your essays aloud. Hearing the words is a different experience than reading them. When you listen to your words, ask yourself: Do I sound confident? Are my descriptions of my experiences clear, distinct, and compelling? Am I being self-referential, using “I” too much when discussing a team project? Do I give credit where credit is due and refrain from ever casting blame?
After you run this quality check for yourself, ask a trusted reader to also look at your personal statements. Ask them to pay special attention to your tone and mark any places that sound negative or uncollegial.
Keep this article handy as a checklist for when you’re drafting and polishing your statements. Follow our advice, and you will ramp up your chances of acceptance!
There’s nothing like personalized guidance when crafting your essays and SOPs. The expert advisors at Accepted can help you ensure that you are projecting a voice of confidence, professionalism, and positivity in all your application essays. Learn more about our Admissions Consulting and Editing Services here.
By Judy Gruen, a former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University and is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!