Many students have trouble finding their “voice” while writing college application essays.

One of the biggest problems I see is that students want to sound smart and impressive, and they often lose their natural story-telling voice by forcing in big words and long, formal sentences.

Most students understand the narrative voice when they read it, but have a hard time capturing their own.

I always advise students to “write like they talk,” but this can be hard to do.

Here’s a technique I use to help them capture their natural language to use in their essays.

This is hard to do alone, but if you can rope someone else into helping you—a friend, teacher, college counselor, tutor, parent, etc.—it can be so helpful. 

What I do is ask students questions about their essay or topic, or even more general brainstorming questions, and then when the student says something that sounds good, I write it down.

Sometimes, I will stop them in the middle of talking and read it back to them, so they can hear how natural, insightful or engaging their own words sounded.


When students say what they think or feel without overthinking a point, it usually comes out in a way that captures their personality.

When answering questions, they are more likely to use common language that reflects their individuality than those clunky SAT words that sound awkward and dull.

For example, I was helping my son brainstorm for a core essay he had to write for the Common App transfer essay requirement.

He was writing about his interest in engineering. I asked him how he would describe himself, especially as someone who would make a good engineer.

He told me things like, “I find that I’m good at getting my head around complex subjects” and that “When I’m excited about a project, I make a commitment to follow it through to the end.”

This type of language is perfect to use in these essays.

If you can get someone to ask you related questions, and even write down some of your answers for you, you could capture some helpful phrases or sentences to use in your essay.

The trick to the questions is to ask a broad question first, and then depending on the answer, try to follow up with a more specific question to dig down for even better quotes.

The questions vary depending on the topic you are writing about.

Here are some sample questions to brainstorm core essays that are trying to learn about you: (Note the way you follow up once a student gives an answer.)

What are your core or defining qualities? (Answers: Creative. Innovative. Visionary…) Why do you think you are creative/innovative/visionary? How are you X?

What types of X things have you done recently? Can you think of some examples of when you were X? How do you feel when you are X?

What are some of your interests or hobbies? (Answers: Fixing old trucks. Origami. Birdwatching. Indian dance. Doodling…) What inspired your interest in X? What do you learn from X? What qualities do you express with this interest or hobby?

 What do you think you will study in college? (Answers: Nursing. Art. Chemistry…) Why do you like X? What qualities or skills do you have that would make you effective at X? How did you develop those? Why are they valuable?

What kind of thinker or learner are you? How do you handle problems or challenges? What qualities help you solve or face them? Where did those qualities come from? Why are they valuable?

Have they changed over time? Did anyone or any thing in particular inspire you to be this way?

Once you know the prompt or question, you can fashion questions that more directly address them, so your answers will be more helpful when you start writing your essay.

What you are trying to capture are your answers, but more importantly how you express your answers and your unique way to presenting them. It’s as much about what you say as how you say it in your own words.

This is what creates your individual voice. It’s not that tuxedo talk that uses big words and tries to sound smart. When I ask my students questions like these, and they give an interesting answer, I will stop them and say: “Hear what you just said?

Use those exact words in your essay!”

This approach is also very helpful when students are trying to craft an anecdote or relay a real-life moment to use in their essay.

You need someone to ask you about the event, and keep asking questions to fill in any gaps and flush out interesting details.

What happened? When did it occur? Where we you when it started? What did you do? How did you feel?

This is just one exercise on the brainstorming end of writing these essays. It has worked for me and many of my students. I hope it works for you.