Introduction: Finding Your Voice

Each segment of Wow Online – College Essay begins with a Video Introduction. After watching the video, continue reading to learn more. Then you will complete an activity by clicking Try It Now

Note: the video tells you to “Click Read It.” There is no click! Just read the page.

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The Wow Method takes you through the writing process, but let’s be clear about what a college admission essay is in the first place before we talk process. At its core, your essay is a story – a story about you. It’s not about the orphans you met on a summer trip to Ecuador or your favorite novel. It’s not about your Great Aunt Lucy or the time you ran for student government. It’s about how that person, book or experience affected you. Are you different now? Did you learn something meaningful about yourself?

Mundane Moments

Some of the best essays we’ve read focus on the most mundane moments: two brothers on a bike ride through their neighborhood; a talented dancer choosing to drop all but a few of her dance classes; a boy and his sister stuck in traffic; a high school junior trying out for the pom-pom team at her new school. Frequently, we learn our enduring life lessons during these ordinary moments – the moments when our best and most authentic selves emerge. Everyone has a story to tell. If more students (and parents!) would relax and let those stories develop, the essay wouldn’t seem like such a stumbling block. Instead, it would be seen as the opportunity it is – a chance to tell people who may never meet you something compelling about you.

Who Are You?

The essay is the perfect place to demonstrate who you are. Let’s assume you participate in some extracurricular activities: sports, robotics or theater. Maybe you work after school, or you tutor middle school math and volunteer at a food pantry. All of these things are important, but they might not distinguish you from everyone else. There’s another girl similar to you in Florida; there’s another boy who plays drums and tutors algebra in Oregon. That doesn’t mean your accomplishments and activities don’t matter. They do matter. A lot. But they might not set you apart. Fortunately, you can stand out in your essay because no one can write your story the way you can.

The Essay as Interview

Beyond grades and test scores, admissions officers need ways to get to know applicants on a more personal level, and most do not have the time or resources to conduct personal interviews. The essay can substitute for that face-to-face meeting. Without an interview, how will you convince someone you don’t know – someone you may never meet – that you are the right choice for their school? First, think about your audience. It is not your mom or dad or your high school English teacher. Your audience is a college admissions officer whose job includes reading piles of essays every day. How can yours possibly stand out? Listen to your writing voice. That voice will set you apart.

Listen to Your Writing Voice

Your story, told in your own voice and in your own words, will show readers something genuine about you, something they can’t get from scores and grades and long lists of activities. What does your voice sound like? How will you recognize it? Just like your speaking voice, your writing voice is distinctive. Are you funny? Be funny. Are you serious? Be serious. Do you write in short, concise sentences? Then write this way in your essay. Don’t get distracted by the thesaurus. Don’t try to sound like Ernest Hemingway or Toni Morrison. And don’t try to sound like your mom or dad, older sister or science teacher. Just be yourself.

What do you think of this sentence for the first line of a college application essay? When I was little, I licked my cat.

Yep. Gross comes to mind. Others felt that way too when they heard a Columbia University college admissions officer read it aloud during a college night presentation. Parents and students reacted with a collective “eeuw.” It was a powerful line, one that made the admissions team read on and ultimately helped them decide to admit this student. The applicant did exactly what he was supposed to do: he told readers what happened in a way that made them want to know more.

Then he explained why it mattered that he licked his cat, in a compelling story about political power. We’re not going to get into the details of the essay. The admissions counselor who read it didn’t either. But he shared the line about licking the cat because it stood out. It was one student’s story, in his own words, in his own voice. And it worked.

“You can be bold in your writing, or you can be conservative,” he said. “Just give us your voice.”

Sound Like a Student, Not an Adult

Jim Cotter, former dean of admissions at Michigan State University, told us that voice is as important as grammar or spelling in application essays submitted to MSU. “The tone of a 17-year-old student is far different from the tone of a 40-year-old parent,” Cotter said. “I can tell the difference.” There is no magic formula to help you write your story; there is no rubric to define your style. Your voice cannot be copied. It’s your signature.

The examples here tell us something about the writer. They are written in different styles and different voices. Your voice will shine only if you put yourself front and center. The college essay is not an academic assignment. It is not a five-paragraph essay. You are required only to answer the question and put your story into perspective.


Read a few favorite lines from Wow students to see what we mean:

  • At home, we ate beans, rice and ramen noodles for meals, and I was always hungry.
  • I got my first pair of skates before I could walk.
  • I jumped into an empty Dumpster and scrubbed it with a heavy duty brush using Pine Sol and Comet cleanser.
  • When I was in tenth grade, I waged a campaign to save my district’s middle school French program.
  • I wanted to be a normal kid, just like them, not the kid with a sick dad.
  • I love the sound of the boat straining under the pressure of eight perfectly synchronized oars, and the copper taste in my mouth when I pull my absolute hardest.

What Should I Write About?

Many students are confused, unsure of what to write. Why? Because it matters. This might be the first time in your life that something you write will affect your future. Here’s a case in point: Hillary came to us asking for input on a few essays she had already written for the University of Michigan. Her mom thought something was missing; she said the essays didn’t sound like Hillary. The essays were grammatically perfect, and the young woman had a knack for writing. But her mom was right. The stories read as if Hillary were standing on top of a mountain talking about someone down below. What was missing? Hillary’s voice – her essence, her personality.

“I don’t like writing about myself,” she confessed. We noticed immediately that three of her essays included quotes from Dr. Seuss. Did she want to write about a Dr. Seuss book? Would that feel more real? “Can I do that?” Hillary wondered. Of course. As long as the essay is genuine and is about you, you can write about almost anything. Hillary seemed relieved. She was excited to write about Dr. Seuss because the author inspired her. (Her dad remained doubtful.)

Fortunately, she had plenty of time to rework the essays, and we were able to guide her through a process that required several drafts. In the end, the Dr. Seuss essay about Oh! The Places You’ll Go was beautiful. Her voice shined through. No one could have written that story the way she did. She later showed her essay to an admissions officer for the University of Michigan. He loved it, and Hillary’s dad forgave us. Many students can relate to Hillary’s experience. Her essays evolved, and she became more confident as she immersed herself in the process. As soon as she relaxed, she didn’t mind writing about herself. When she was done, Hillary’s essays sounded like her: A bright, interesting 17-year-old girl.

Try It: Finding Your Voice

Estimated time to complete this writing task: 30 minutes

Try It: Finding Your Voice

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