“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.
Tips for becoming aware of your tone
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.
Identifying the right tone for your application
What tone should you strive for in your admissions essay? We’ve pinpointed three voices that you should utilize when writing your statement of purpose: confidence, professionalism, and positivity.
For starters, you should ensure that your writing is confident, but not arrogant. How do you draw the line between these two similar tones?
Here are some tips for staying on the confident side of the confidence-arrogance continuum:
- 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.
- 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.”
- Quantify whenever possible and provide relevant, impressive specifics.
Saying “Led team of five on three continents” is better than “Led team.”
- Beware of words and qualifiers that make you sound uncommitted to your position.
Avoid iffy words like “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!)
- Remember what you’re interested in.
What truly attracts you to this program? Highlight your real enthusiasm, and let your confidence shine.
The flip-side of confidence
The negative flip-side of confidence is arrogance. It is an application killer and a quality you must avoid.
We can’t 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?
Eliminating arrogance from your essays
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. 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.” Don’t write that or anything close to it.
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.
Next, 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…”
It should go without saying, but 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, instead of: “Coming to college was a revelation, because I had been surrounded by unmotivated students all my life.” Try: “In college, I was in my element, surrounded by other motivated students.”
Last but not least, don’t boast about test scores, grades, or other info that probably shouldn’t be in your essay anyway (i.e., things that are on your CV or application form), and be sure to 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”).
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.
- 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.
- 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.
First off, what do I mean by “professional” tone in this context?
Think about whom you’re writing for: admissions professionals, and possibly professors (depending on your field). In other words: a) educated professionals; and b) members of the field you’re hoping to enter. This means that you should address them as you would someone you respect. No need for stilted formality – but this isn’t an email or text message to a friend, either. Grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation all count.
Additional tips on conveying professionalism in your personal statement:
- Follow all of the adcom’s directions.
This means several things: answering the questions as they are asked; keeping to the requested length; not submitting additional materials they haven’t asked for; etc.
- Describe your experiences, interests, and goals in a thoughtful way that shows your mature engagement with your field.
There is, for example, 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 just always liked the way it sounds.
- Let your tone show your positive, collaborative outlook.
When you describe work you did with a team, use language that reflects that cooperation (“we”), and take a positive tone (for example, show what you gained/learned from your collaboration and how it prepared you for graduate school).
- Remember that your professional tone should extend to every interaction you have with the school – whether written or spoken.
Each email, phone call, visit, interview – every interaction with every person you meet at your target school must contribute to their overall picture of you as a courteous, professional, positive candidate.
- Keep your audience in mind.
- Keep every interaction you have with the adcom professional, courteous and positive.
- One of the most common miscalculations in tone relates to this very issue of positivity. If your tone veers into the negative, the adcom will have reason to worry about your attitude. More on this in a moment…
Follow these tips for staying positive and avoiding negativity:
- Spin the negative into the positive.
We’ve written about how it’s more compelling to read statements that are phrased positively than negatively. In other words, if one experience didn’t work out, don’t say that you decided to do something new because it was not great or a negative experience; say that you chose to move on to a new opportunity in order to develop your skills or explore an area you were excited about or assume greater responsibility. This is important both for the energy and strength of your writing, and also for your tone. If you phrase statements in a negative way, you risk coming across as negative. It’s much better to be moving towards something attractive than fleeing something ugly.
- Pay attention to qualifying words.
I taught undergraduate composition – I know that writers sometimes use adverbs to pad their writing! And I’m not saying that all adverbs are bad. Deployed carefully, they can help you pinpoint exactly the description you’re looking for.
But sometimes, qualifiers can pull your sentence into territory you should probably avoid. Take these sentences as an example: “In the end, I found the experience genuinely enjoyable.” or “I actually enjoyed it.” These words can have the effect – not always intended by the writer – of making the experience sound not truly enjoyable or impressive.
To say you “actually” enjoyed something makes it sound like you didn’t expect to – and why risk raising the adcom’s doubts about your attitude? A more positive phrasing would simply be: “I enjoyed the experience.”
- Don’t comment negatively on your undergraduate program (or a company you worked for).
If you’re trying to explain a low GPA or other academic challenge, straightforwardly take responsibility for it and do not attribute your struggles to anyone else.
- Phrase sentences positively (focus on what you DID, not what you didn’t do).
- Avoid qualifying words that make you sound halfhearted or grudging.
- Make a tone check part of your editing process, and you’ll be on your way to finding the sweet-spot: professional, positive, and confident.
Remember, 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.
The expert advisors at Accepted can help you ensure that you are projecting a voice of confidence, professionalism, and positivity in your application essays. Learn more about our Admissions Consulting & Editing Services here.By Dr. Rebecca Blustein, former Accepted admissions consultant. Dr. Blustein has a BA and PhD from UCLA in English and Comparative Literature. She formerly worked as a Student Affairs Officer at UCLA’s Scholarship Resource Center where she gained experience guiding applicants in areas of admissions and funding. Dr. Blustein’s clients have been accepted to top Master’s and PhD programs in dozens of fields across all disciplines. Want an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!