College Application Essays: Adding Pizzazz to Your Story

How to add style to an essay story.
College Application Essays: Adding Pizzazz to Your Story

Often, a first draft of a college application essay can come across as dry and lacking in feeling. There's no spark, no punch, no life to the words plastered on the page. Some people settle on their belief that they're just "not good at writing, and will never be," while others feel they're hitting the target while in the midst of writing only to face disappointment upon their first full read from beginning to end.

Life is full of emotion-filled moments, e.g., excitement, sadness, peacefulness, frustration, joy, anxiety, and wonder, just to name a handful. The common challenge is not whether or not we're able to fully experience life as it's happening, but being able to transfer our reflections, feelings, insights, and dreams into writing. If you're wondering if it's even possible for the average college-bound student to infuse a sense of life and flare into an essay, the answer is a simple, "YES!" Absolutely!

Luckily, there are several questions you can ask to quickly identify if your essay is in need of some "life fuel."

  • Does the essay aim to grab your reader's attention right from the start? (Hint: The goal is to hook your reader into your story right away!)

  • Are there any emotions you feel as you read through the essay? (Hint: One of the most effective ways to make an impression is to use emotions; they're universal across all humans!)

  • Can you picture scenes in your mind as you read your writing? (Hint: Help readers to "see" what you're writing about by creating pictures with your words.)

  • As you read it, does it feel like a story, technical manual, textbook, policy or rule book, or other? (Hint: You want it to read like a story!)

If, after you've reviewed the questions above, you're feeling reassured and inspired to continue writing, push forward with focus and purpose! For those of you who feel like you've been punched in the gut four times (once for each question), stop and take a deep, slow breath. In a second, you'll read about a strategy that anyone can use quickly and easily. It has worked consistently for other students we've worked with, so we're confident it can work for you, too!

Introducing the quick and easy strategy that anyone can use: Spice up your essay by tapping into your senses!

Writing with the five senses is a common tool that great novelists use to create compelling stories and to keep their audience wanting more. If you've ever read an intriguing mystery novel or a captivating romance story, you've likely already had more than just a sip of this technique in the past. But, you don't need to be a famous author or write a novel to tell your unique story. You just need to reset and come from a different angle. Tap into your senses (you have five at your fingertips that are of no cost to you!) as you reflect on your experiences. Combine the two--your senses and your experiences--and you may just be on your way to writing THE compelling story of the college recruiting season!

Remember, when answering a college prompt, schools are looking to learn more about who you are as a person. To create an impact with your reader--in this case, the admissions officer--using one or more of the five senses will help reveal your distinct personality, style, and possibly even perspectives.

Which senses you employ will vary depending on what your story is about. When used correctly, you can go from having a mediocre essay to one that is moving and unforgettable.

Using the sense of sight

The sense of sight is one of the easiest senses to use when writing. However, because it's one of the easiest, it's important to stay focused and concise--aim to keep your sentences from becoming longwinded with descriptors. You will have a finite amount of words to tell your story, and making every one of them count is extremely important.

Below is an example of how the sense of sight could be used:

  • "My friend came and told me he refused my proposal."


  • "My heart dropped when I saw my friend's face. I could tell he refused my proposal."

Can you see the friend's facial expression and the news he was just about to deliver? Are you able to see the difference between the two sentences? The first simply told you what happened. There is no connection with the author and no way to sympathize with the situation.

The second sentence jumps in and says, "My heart dropped..." Can you remember a time when you felt this sensation upon seeing someone's reaction? With this type of writing, it is easier for readers to put themselves in the author's shoes. It's as if they are standing there getting the rejected proposal themselves.

By crafting strong wording that uses senses, you are creating a bridge that helps to relate to, and therefore, connect with, the reader. Your goal should be to pull them in emotionally so they will be invested in your story. In the case of the second sentence, it's possible to elaborate how you conquered this failure and what you have learned from the setback.

If you can connect with admissions officers, there will be a good chance they will want to meet the person who went through an ordeal that they can relate to. Your odds of getting selected for an interview or being accepted will increase exponentially.

Using the sense of sound

The sense of sound, like sight, can be very easy to use in writing. It could be as simple as how the lyrics of a song changed your view in a profound way or how a teacher got your attention by scraping their nails on the chalkboard. Again, be careful to not overdo it. Provide enough information to bring out the feeling you are trying to convey.

Here is an example of how you could use sound:

  • "As the whistle blew, I ran and got first place."


  • "I could hear my heart beating as the whistle blew. Giving it my all, I was the first to cross the finish line."

If you are able to tell your story in a compelling way, the reader may even subconsciously fill in details that you didn't even consider. Not only is it possible for them to hear the whistle being blown, but may also fill in the sounds of the crowd as they cheered for you as you crossed the finish line. Don't just tell them the story, have them experience it with you.

Using the sense of smell

Depending on where you may be applying, the sense of smell may feel odd to use. Remember, senses can be used as emotional triggers to help pull the reader into the narrative. Look deeper into what you want the admissions officer to know about you and how you are going to relay this in a meaningful way. Your story should portray the type of individual you are and why their university should consider you over other applicants.

Here is an example of how you could use the sense of smell:

  • "I pulled the cookies out of the oven and took a bite; I could tell that I had followed the instructions perfectly."


  • "As I opened the oven door, the sweet aroma of freshly baked cookies hit me. I knew before I took that first bite that I had followed the instructions perfectly."

Did you pick up on what the second sentence was telling the reader? It wasn't that you baked good cookies; it was the fact that you can follow instructions and your results were very positive.

Using the sense of taste

Like the sense of smell, depending on what you are writing, this may seem awkward to work with. Using the previous cookie scenario, let's look at how we could rewrite it with the sense of taste.

  • "As I took a bite into the cookie, the sweet taste of chocolate reminded me of the first time I went to Disneyland. I knew before I had finished that I had followed the instructions perfectly."

Like the sense of smell, this sentence tells the reviewer that you are good at following instructions. It also gives insight of what you enjoyed at Disneyland. This may seem superficial at first, but it will give them a feeling that they know you. They may even feel the same way when eating a sweet dessert.

You must remember that a human being will be reading your essay, and therefore, the use of relatable flavors and taste perceptions can go a long way.

Using the sense of touch

Touch is one of those senses that, if you are not careful, can come across as a little creepy. Be aware of what you are trying to describe and how it has impacted your life, and use words and phrases that do not cross the lines of appropriate social etiquette boundaries.

Here is an example of how you could use touch:

  • "The group leader gave me a hammer and asked that I help nail together the framing for the walls. This was my first assignment for building houses for the homeless."


  • "I can still feel the woodgrain and heaviness of the hammer the group leader gave me. It struck me how a simple tool could have such an impact on those in need. Helping to frame a house couldn't have been a better first assignment."

Again, don't just tell admissions officers what happened--show them what you felt and how it impacted your life. In this case, a simple tool that most people have around the house stood for something much more important than its appearance. The hammer provided the means to give back to those in need.

Less is More When Purposefully Used

Using the five senses to help tell your story can go a long way if you use them purposefully and where appropriate. If you feel your essay comes across as dry or too technical, for instance, using this writing method may help to convey what you want an admissions officer to know about you beyond the logistical details of your experiences or thoughts. Sparingly used in meaningful ways and moments, you'll quickly see that it doesn't take much to add punch and excitement to your story.


Don't just tell readers what happens--provide a story for them to follow you along your journey. When writing for a college application essay prompt, give an admissions officer a glimpse into who you are and how you learn from the experiences of life, good or bad. Believe it or not, universities truly want to know who you are on a personal level. This helps them to make solid decisions about offering you acceptance to their school and community.

If this style of writing makes you feel uncomfortable and/or vulnerable, then all the better. This is a sign that who you truly are is coming out on the written page. Share your triumphs, the time you had to take the lead in a situation, or an experience where you fell and discovered who you really are as you revealed courage and strength to pick yourself up.

Remember, at the end of the day, you are the hero in your own story. Don't be afraid to show colleges who that hero is!

A final word…

Using one's senses is a quick and easy tactic once you understand how and when to apply it. Students often find much reassurance in this method when they realize how easy it is to gather ideas and how plentiful their options are even after just 15 minutes. A simple coaching and brainstorming session was all it took, and this can be the case for you as well! Reach out to the writers in your circle of family and friends to try out this method. Make it a game and have fun with it. It's when the pressure is off that you'll see the amazing potential in this tactic. If you'd like to touch base with us, as always, we're here to help as well. Contact us here and we'll get back to you as quickly as possible.