How to Use Tone Effectively in Your Personal Statements and Other Admissions Essays


Tone is more than what you write, it’s how you write it, and the tone of your personal statement can significantly impact your college application. Your choice of words, level of formality, and the writing style you choose to use comprises your writing tone and can reveal a significant amount about how you view yourself, your academic/career path, and your community. It’s easy for an essay reader to forgive flaws in your writing style as multiple styles can work. It’s less easy to forgive a tone that is too harsh,  moralistic, or pretentious.

Writing a personal statement usually calls for a semi-formal, conversational tone in order to convey the right attitude to admissions readers.  Think how would I tell my story to my YouTube audience vs. how would I tell it to my best friend. The difference is, with an audience, there’s still some separation between you and the people you’re talking to, whereas with your best friend you’re not really holding anything back. In personal statements, you should be vulnerable and introspective. With your best friend, you can be a sloppy crying mess.  

Too informal and generic: When I was in 9th grade, me and my friends used to get together to work on math homework after school.

Better: As a freshman, my friends and I would often stay around after school ended, working on our math homework, and forming what we liked to call our “Math Club”.

How to Use Tone in Your Personal Statement:

  • Avoid an overly formal or ceremonious tone

  • Avoid sarcasm or being highly condescending

  • Don’t make generalizations

  • Don’t “otherize” your peers or people from different backgrounds or cultures

  • Don’t use slang, especially words that are regional or generational

  • Avoid pop culture references. Often times, what you think of as universal knowledge, really isn’t and the reader will have no idea what you’re referencing

Tone Can Be Established in a Number of Ways:

  • How you talk about yourself

  • How you talk about your peers

  • How you talk about your community and the world around you

  • What you choose to reveal about yourself

  • What people you choose to include in your essays

Other Notes on Tone:

Be specific

It’s better to discuss one interesting and relevant experience than to gloss over a bunch of mediocre events that don’t really add to anything to your narrative.

Communicate confidence, without being arrogant

It’s important to demonstrate your confidence in your ability to be successful in adding to the campus culture and completing the curriculum. Don’t go overboard though in describing your qualifications. As an example, you can say you that “I was happy to be among the top students in my graduating class” instead of stating that you were “among the most accomplished and educated scholars within the graduating class at my undergrad institution.”

Everything in moderation

The key is not to be too extreme in your commentary as you typically don’t know who will end up reading your college admissions essay. You shouldn’t take on the task of explaining the rationale for any extreme ideologies, good or bad, that it would be impossible to really explain the nuances of in 650 words or less.

Overall, the tone you use in your personal statement should mirror the tone you would use when giving a briefing or presentation - be interesting, and be aware of your audience. With this combination, you’ll do great when writing your personal statements and college admissions essays.