Voice Essay Writing


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.


Check Out These Related Posts!

How to Give Your Writing the Appropriate Voice, II

by Owen Fourie

Active Voice or Passive Voice: Which Voice Should You Use?

Remember that in the active voice the subject of the sentence does the action of the verb:

The forestry company fired the woodsman.

In the passive voice, the subject of the sentence receives the action of the verb:

The woodsman was fired by the forestry company.

With this understanding of the difference between active voice and passive voice, let’s see which voice you should use in your writing.

Write in the active voice

When you write in the active voice, there are several advantages for the readers:

  • They are not left wondering about the subject, the action, and the affected party.
  • They find out immediately who did what to whom.
  • They appreciate your conciseness in getting to the point.
  • They appreciate the directness and the clarity of your writing.
  • They grasp your meaning more readily.
  • They more easily sense an involvement in the action or the ideas.
  • They find it easier to recall the details of your composition.

Write in the passive voice

When you write in the passive voice, your readers might find some disadvantages:

  • Conciseness suffers because you use more words in passive voice.
  • Clarity also suffers when more words are needed.
  • Closeness to the action or the ideas is not easily experienced by the readers.
  • Comprehension and recollection will require additional effort.

These disadvantages do not mean that passive voice should not be used.

The reality of life is that it consists of many things in alternation. Without such successive changes, life would be tedious.

Imagine all day and no night, or all night and no day. Imagine all work and no play, or all play and no work—h’m …

In the same way, active voice only, without the passive; or passive voice only, without the active would be the ruin of writing. You must have both.

Although the active voice should certainly be preferred, you must allow for the appropriate use of the passive. It has its place and purpose.

Your choice of voice as you write

It is necessary to use both voices. Using the active voice is an easy choice, but when should you use the passive?

Use the passive voice if

  • you wish to emphasize who or what received the action: The forestry company’s building was destroyed by the fire.
  • you wish to keep the performer of the action out of the spotlight: The president of the company had been forewarned of the potential danger by one of his associates.
  • you do not know who or what did the action: The fire was started in the basement.
  • you find that the doer of the action is not as important as the action: The woodsman was reinstated by the president of the company.

Carefully, weigh up the choice between active voice and passive voice for a particular sentence. If you find that passive voice serves one of the above criteria, use it.

This is simply one aspect of thinking critically about what you write. If you do this consistently, you will help your readers to grasp your meaning and purpose.

I am pleased that the woodsman got his job back. Aren’t you?


If there are any points about the use of active voice and passive voice in your written work that still puzzle you, ask here for clarification. Your comments, observations, and questions are welcome.

Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

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