College Myth: My Application Essay Should Sound Very “Grown Up”

Don't try to sound grown up in your college essay. Your essay is a reflection of yourself and your voice

Flickr user Michael Shaheen

Many college-bound students are thrown for a loop when it comes to writing the application essay. What should they write about? How should the write it? What shouldn’t they do? There are a lot of questions.

One thing that many students think is that the essay has to sound “grown up” or “adult” so much so that many of them ask their parents to write or rewrite the entire essay for them! The college essay is a very important piece of admissions, no doubt, but having a parent or guardian write it for you is not the way to do it. College is a time of learning and independence, you can’t start out by having your parents do the work for you.

It’s your essay.

Besides, here’s the most important takeaway: Your essay is supposed to sound like YOU! This is your chance to show the admissions officers who you are. Not just test scores, not just a GPA, not just a tidy application–the real bona fide you. The language in the essay should reflect that–it doesn’t need to sound adult, or corporate, or businessy in order to impress. Use your own voice.

Now, that doesn’t mean the language should be lax or too informal. You’re writing an essay to enter college, after all. You still have to be mindful of appropriate language, proper grammar, spelling mistakes, and good structural flow. You might use chat-speak while texting or messaging people on Twitter, but save that for your friends–keep it a bit more official when writing essays of any kind.

Here’s what a “grown up” essay looks like:

Let’s take a look at some examples. The first will be an overly adult, stiff-sounding essay that doesn’t really convey the personality of the student so much as the bare-bones of who she is.

In high school I was involved in marching band and show choir. Music is very important to me, and I hope to join the university’s marching band if I am accepted. Both show choir and marching band taught me many valuable lessons that I believe will be applicable to many things in my life.

Firstly, marching band taught me about the importance of punctuality. Our director always said, “Early is on time, on time is late, and late is not acceptable.” Timing is key in marching band, since everyone on the field has to be in a specific spot at a specific time in order for the formations to work.

Another lesson I learned in marching band and show choir was teamwork. For both activities, students had to play off of each other’s energy, dance or move around each other, and sing or play as one voice. We work as a group, perform as a group, and celebrate as a group. They say that a team is only as strong as the weakest link, so we made sure we were all equally strong.

A third important lesson I learned from them is the value of dedication. It is hard work to memorize the sheet music, movements, dance breaks, costume changes, and technicalities. We put in a lot of practice time. For marching band, we practiced every single day for an hour before school, first period, and some weekends. For show choir, we practiced every other day, some weekdays, and had many 8-9 hour double weekend camps. All of this, of course, was on top of our regular class schedule, so we had to balance our commitment to the activities with studying and homework.

While the subject matter might be interesting to the reader, and important to the student, the language here lacks emotion, expression, and vivacity. It feels stiff and lifeless. In a word: boring. Sure, there are some valuable lessons in there–admissions counselors want to know that you’re a dedicated student who can balance the challenges of college, after all–but the language is just too flat. (Not going to lie, it physically pained me to write this example).

Here’s an example of your own voice:

Let’s take a look at another example, this one with the student’s own voice. We’ll use the same subject matter–note the differences.

More often than not you can find me humming a song to myself or tapping out a rhythm on my knees. Half the time I’m not even aware that I’m doing it. Music is as common in my life as breathing. And it’s hardly surprising that I’ve got a song stuck in my head when I spend five or six hours a day singing or playing an instrument.

I’m involved in a lot of activities in school, but the two most important to me are marching band and show choir. What can I say? I’m a performer at heart. I love to entertain people and I love music. There’s nothing quite like being under the spotlights on a Friday night football game during halftime, playing and marching with my best friends to a show we’ve been working on for months. It’s hard to beat singing, dancing, dazzling an audience with quick costume changes, and throwing up jazz hands when a championship title is on the line.

Of course, both activities aren’t just fun and games–as fun as they are–they take a ton of time, effort, dedication, and teamwork. At our school, show choir isn’t really just an extracurricular, it’s actually a class–so is marching band (though our practice began an hour before the first period bell even rang). It’s a lot of work, and tricky to balance with homework, studying for tests, and keeping up my grades, but in many ways the dedication I had for show choir and band spilled over into other aspects of my life–I had to ace my classes so I could remain eligible to compete, I had to have a great GPA for my parents to let me continue. Let me tell you, I did not slack when it came to studying.

And besides, show choir and marching band are all about teamwork. If one person keeps moving while the rest of the band halts in place, it ruins the formation. If a dancer drops their partner, the judges will dock points. You work just as hard for the rest of your team as you do for yourself. I never wanted to let my teammates down–maybe that’s why you could always hear me humming a melody I had trouble with, or tapping out a rhythm that tripped me up.

Which was a more engaging read–the one that sounded “professional” or the one that had heart?  A bland, by-the-books essay is going to make their eyes glaze over–it’s forgettable. You want to make an impression, showcase your talents and personality, grab the admission officer’s attention.

Throw some humor in there, be a little relaxed with your language, make it your own! Keep good writing skills in there, of course, but it doesn’t hurt to have a little fun with it. Make this essay represent you–in both subject and voice.

Sure, you can have a parent read over it, or offer a few suggestions, but this is your piece. Write it your way.