Writing a compelling essay with words that draw you in and phrases that paint a vivid picture can often seem like an elusive skill: how do you describe your experiences in a way that sets you apart from those around you? How do you write with purpose, and choose words that “show” more than they “tell?”
Simply relying on a thesaurus to insert complex vocabulary in the place of mundane words can often confuse the reader more than it clarifies a story, and in the end, it creates a writing style that doesn’t quite flow. Instead, try reworking the way you frame your experiences, and explore some writing styles that can help you write in a coherent voice, with a clear purpose.
1. Build suspense: This can be a useful tool for creating interest in the eyes of the reader, without relying on new vocabulary that may not actually work in the context you want it to. Although you usually don’t have much room to build suspense or draw readers into your essay response (often times, responses are limited to 250, 350, or 650 words), you can write in a way that guides the reader through a vivid story, implying certain details without actually concretely recounting every moment in your story. In the end, this can actually save you some space when writing, and create a story with phrases that flow into each other naturally.
I did not know how much I actually loved art, since I had always been told to follow a lucrative career path rather than my passion. I focused on biology and chemistry and pursued a major in biology once I got to college, but realized after a year that my passions were elsewhere. I took classes focused on topics that were exciting to me, and slowly began to realize that design made me happier than any biology class ever had. It was then that I learned to prioritize my own happiness and follow my passions rather than begin a life centered around the desire to make money and succeed on a superficial level.
Despite my magnetic attraction to hands-on learning and arts & crafts as a child, it wasn’t until college that I developed the confidence to embrace my love for design, enrolled in classes that truly excited me, and followed a career path that prioritized my own passion and happiness over monetary success.
2. Use action words: One of the best ways to transform your writing from “telling” to “showing” is to use words that have more complex embedded meanings. Instead of using the words “worked,” “participated,” “was part of,” “helped run,” etc., try using words that encapsulate a bit more of what you did in the very meaning of them. Did you “enact” some sort of policy or rule in your student club? Did you “coordinate” or “execute” an activity, program, or event? Did you “design” or “prototype” a project, or “consolidate” a group’s database? Whatever you may have done, there are many words that carry weight in their meaning, and are more descriptive in the way that they show a certain impact you made or effort you put into something. In fact, this kind of language remains extremely helpful when it comes to resume and cover letter wording in the professional world as well, and is a great writing skill to practice early on.
I worked as a teaching assistant at my local youth center, assisting with curriculum planning and running activities to help teach children basic design thinking skills.
As a teaching assistant, I mentored children at my local youth center, proposing curriculum improvements, coordinating hands-on activities, and introducing them to new design thinking skills.
3. Impact: Many times, students writing college essays get caught up in explaining the process and every detail leading up to the punchline of their story. While this can give insight into your own mind and show the reader how you respond to challenges you face, it’s important to not get too caught up in explaining what you “wanted” to happen, what you “wish” would have happened, or what wrong turns you took to eventually arrive at the final takeaway. Try finding ways to describe these emotions and struggles in a few sentences or less, and you may find that you actually end up using more powerful words that efficiently encapsulate your thought process, leaving you more room to focus on your community impact, lessons you learned, and how they have made you who you are today.
When I was younger, there was always a part of me that thought I would be an artist. I always used to make sculptures, paintings, and drawings in my spare time, and as I got older, my love for art developed. I explored different mediums of art, even becoming interested in digital art and graphic design. I started to focus on the idea of graphic design in the marketing field, striving to help groups start a social media presence, get a bunch of followers, and be successful. However, I quickly learned that marketing wasn’t fulfilling, and I wasn’t able to use my skills in the way I wanted. I instead started to explore fields where I could use my skills but make a more socially conscious, positive impact.
REWORD TO: When I was younger, there was always a part of me that thought, “one day, I’ll be an artist.” As I grew up and made my way through elementary school, high school, college, and beyond, I explored different mediums of expression: sculpture, painting, digital and graphic design. I researched ways to apply my skills and follow my passion in the real world, taking career detours, volunteering for different groups, and exploring different outlets before centering on my true goal: I wanted to use my design skills for good; I wanted to make a social impact that benefited people other than myself.
These few tactics can help you write a more coherent and concise essay, with phrases that keep the admissions representatives hooked and interested in learning more about you. With these ideas in mind, you can start to play with ways to introduce your own style into your essay, and write a story that perfectly showcases all you have to offer to a university. Happy writing!
Sarah is a Consultant on the Study Hall College Consulting Team. Sarah graduated from UC Berkeley in the Class of 2020 where she majored in Architecture and minored in Spanish Language & Literature. For more college application and essay tips, check out our Study Hall College Consulting website at shcollegeconsulting.com.