Describing Success

By Ryan Hickey + updated on November 19th, 2009

No matter what type of essay you’re writing, you’ll likely spend part of the piece telling a story. Whether you’re describing an athletic competition, a challenge you overcame, or a person who’s had a positive impact on your life, your essay should not only provide that information but also do so in an energetic and attention-grabbing manner.

So how do you strengthen your writing in this way? A common tip is to make your writing more active. Like many tips, however, this suggestion isn’t as clear as it might seem on first glance. Let’s take a look at some things you can do to make your writing more active and therefore descriptive.

To be, or not to be. While this choice proved difficult for Hamlet, it is a much simpler one for those looking to improve their writing. The verb “to be” in all its forms (is, are, was, were, etc.) should be used as infrequently as possible when writing an admissions essay. Think about it… can you get any more boring than a verb that essentially means “exist?” While the verb will inevitably find its way into even the most active, creative writing, you may be surprised by how many times you can replace it with a more original and descriptive choice.

Active verbs > Adverbs. The easiest way to add description to a verb is to add an adverb. Unfortunately, while adverbs can add color to a passage, they also add words. When you’re operating under a tight length limit (see my previous post), this may not be the best course of action.

Moreover, many students cram so many adverbs into their writing that it becomes hard to figure out exactly what is being said. Sentences become cluttered and hard to read.

Rather than adding adverbs, focus on verbs when working to make your writing more active. The right verb can literally make or break a sentence. Take a look at the following example to see this in action.


“I walked to the counter and asked to speak with a manager.”

Enhanced with adverbs:

“I boldly walked to the counter and firmly asked to speak with a manager.”

Effective use of active, original verbs:

“I swaggered up to the counter and demanded to speak with a manager.”

Can you be more specific? Nouns are an unappreciated part of speech. After all, there are more nouns than any other type of word in the English language… so why not take advantage of this massive pool of unique words?

As with verbs, however, many writers confuse “descriptive writing” with “lots of adjectives.” Adjectives have their time and place, but a more effective method of adding color to a statement is to focus on noun choice.

Again, an example serves to illustrate this in action:

“After waiting in front of the building for fifteen minutes, a car finally pulled up in front of me.”

Threw in some adjectives:

“After waiting in front of the brick building for fifteen minutes, a red car finally pulled up in front of me.”

A much more vivid scene:

“After waiting on the courthouse steps for fifteen minutes, a red Chevrolet Corvette idled to a stop in front of me.”

Keep this in mind when looking to enhance the language of your essay. The professional editors at EssayEdge are ready to help you review your essay and find places where you can improve your word choice. An essay filled with active language and dynamic descriptions will do a much more effective job of capturing and holding the attention of an admissions committee member. Check us out at if you’re interested in receiving one-on-one help with your essay.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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