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College Resources

College Essay Exercise: Finding Your Voice

Provided by Kim Lifton, President of Wow Writing Workshop.

As your junior year comes to a close, you may be stuck in a familiar quandary: You don’t know what to write in your college application essay, and you have no idea what it means to write in your own voice.

Everyone talks about voice, but how do you know what yours sounds like?

Relax. The summer before senior year is not the time to panic. Instead, look back at your experiences and reflect. Who are you? How did you get here? What do you want colleges to know about you beyond your grades, activities and test scores?

June is a great month to brainstorm ideas and get a head start on your essays. But before you search for ideas, you might want to try a warm up exercise we use in our online tutorial, Wow Online – College Essay, and in all of our college essay workshops.

We call this exercise Morning Writing. The goal is to get your creative juices flowing, help you to relax, and show you what your unique voice sounds like.

College admissions representatives tell us time and again that your voice is the only one they want to hear when they read your application essay. They read too many essays that have been sanitized after being edited and “fixed” by adults. When that happens, the essays no longer sound like 17-year-old students wrote them.

 “If the essay is sanitized, there won’t be any value added to the application,” said University of California – Berkeley Associate Director of Undergraduate Admissions Michelle Larkrith. “It won’t help you. The essay is the only opportunity we have to understand who you are. Take advantage of it.”

Added Brent Benner, Director of Admissions for the University of Tampa, “We want you to sound real and be true to yourself.”

So how can you sound real and be true to yourself? Start with this writing exercise:

  • Get out a piece of paper and a pen, or open a document on your computer. You are going to write fast – and messy!
  • Set a timer for 10 minutes.
  • Think about this prompt: What did you do this morning from the moment you woke up until you left your home?
  • Using all of your senses, begin writing. Quickly record as much as you can recall about your morning.
  • Be specific, but don’t worry about making sense or sounding clever.
  • Write fast, and do not judge what you write. You can write fragments, sentences, lists or run-ons. It doesn’t matter because you are not writing an essay; you are simply capturing details.
  • Don’t read it as you go along. Don’t erase anything. Don’t stop and think about what you will write. Keep your pen on the paper or your fingers on the keyboard at all times.
  • When the timer goes off, stop. Look back at what you wrote about your morning, and find three segments that truly sound like you. Each one can be anything from a short phrase to a multi-sentence description. They don’t have to be exciting or clever. They just have to sound like YOU.

You should be able to see that your writing voice is unique, and shines through when you relax and write freely. This is what you sound like when you are not trying too hard. This is the voice you should write in when you begin to compose your application essay.

Of course you want someone else to read your essay and offer feedback, but that feedback should come in the form of questions and reflections, not editing and revision. Revision is your responsibility. The only way to keep your voice front and center is to make sure every word in the essay belongs to you.

So listen to your voice. It’s yours, and a college essay is a great opportunity to share it proudly.

Kim Lifton is co-founder and president of Wow Writing Workshop, which developed Wow Online – College Essay, the first self-guided, online tutorial for college essay writing. Wow Online takes students from pre-writing through revision to ensure that each essay is written in the student’s unique voice.


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Don Munce