Idea in short

If you're applying to an institution of higher study, it is extremely important that you maintain an appropriate tone in your admissions essays. This article provides some tips for checking your tone, specifically for finding a confident tone and avoiding arrogance.

Tone refers to a writer’s attitude toward their subject and their readers. Your tone comes across in your choice of vocabulary, whether you choose formal or informal language, and so on. It can be subtle, yet very important. A strong statement of purpose (SOP) or personal statement communicates confidence and professionalism. Furthermore, this document communicates your spirit of collaboration, your intellectual curiosity, innovation, and inquisitiveness.

It has the ability to keep the admission committee glued to your application, making it easier for them to quickly assimilate in your writing. The universities generally receive thousands of applications, so you have to make sure that your application stands out in its content and tone. But, how can you ensure your writing conveys the right attitude?

Here are five pointers for a professional tone:

What is a “professional” tone?

Think about whom you’re writing the SOP for: admissions professionals, and possibly professors (depending on your field). In other words:

  • Educated professionals
  • 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, punctuation all count.

Follow all of the admissions committee’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. 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.

Describe your experiences, interests, and goals in a thoughtful way

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. 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).

Don’t be too casual

The tone of your SOP must be balanced and moderate. It shouldn’t be casual because it can give an impression of non-seriousness of you as an applicant – just don’t sound naive. Do not use colloquial expressions, sentence fragments or slang. Your language should be serious; words should come out naturally and not overwrought. The statement below describes an overly casual tone which is highly NOT recommended:

Yo, the way I look at it, someone needs to start doing something about this sensor. What’s the big deal? Power Plants have started running into issues. But the average organization doesn’t think twice about it until it affects them. Or someone they know.

Don’t be too formal

Some people err on the other side and use an overly formal tone. They become too objective and write as if they were providing some logical evidence for a research paper. They even use such arcane vocabulary that a reader gets flustered and dumbfounded by every single sentence and word. Try to avoid such a tone – make sure your writing is easily understood the very first time someone reads it. Your goal is to make your SOP sound personable and active rather than detached and passive. In the pursuit of using a formal tone, you shouldn’t forget to write in the first person.Use transition words, such as however and therefore.

My father, the lepidopterist and the author have been treated as discrete manifestations of a prodigious and probing mind. To say the my culmination would not have coalesced into the current incarnations had his vocation been, say, cricket is simply reaching too far.

Sound confident

Your personal statement should have a passionate, and enthusiastic tone. You shouldn’t sound as if you are applying to ten other places and another rejection won’t make a difference. Downplay the negative aspects and highlight the positive aspects of your career. You should be sure about your goals and the reader must be able to sense this through the energetic and positive tone of your SOP. The following statement clearly indicates an ambiguity in author’s tone:

I was not sure what to do next, but then a great internship opportunity came up.

Instead, this statement could be written as:

I explored a wide range of career opportunities and then came across this internship opportunity that intrigued me the most

Don’t be arrogant

You shouldn’t be vigorously persuasive or pushy in your statement of purpose. While you should be positive, you should avoid boasting and bragging about your strengths and accomplishments. Avoid using a pushy tone as a pesky merchandiser trying to ‘sell’ his product. Use a humble and a polite tone and honestly present your strengths, talents and skills. The following statement is too condescending and should be avoided:

I admired him at one time because he reminded me of when I was young and stupid.

Summary

  • Keep your audience in mind
  • Keep every interaction you have with the admissions committee professional, courteous, and positive
  • If your tone steers into the negative, the admissions committee will have reason to worry about your attitude