College Application Essays: Finding the Right Words

Finding the right word to tell your story.
College Application Essays: Finding the Right Words

If your college application essay comes across as if you're reading an owner's manual of your personal accomplishments, you may want to consider better word choices to express your ideas. Take a moment to reflect on why a college would require you to write an essay from a prompt they provide. If all they needed was to know your accomplishments, wouldn't the application and a list of your extracurricular activities be enough? We've read many drafts of essays that tell facts about the students applying, but not their story. Questions that can provide clues into when to write in storytelling form include the following: Who are you? Why are you applying? What do you enjoy doing on your spare time? In other words, questions that can lead to details that aren't easily provided elsewhere on the application. Grabbing the attention of the admissions team is not only challenging, but has to happen in such a way that will leave them wanting to read your entire essay. This is no small feat, but don’t worry--with a few small adjustments to your writing and an emphasis on quality word choices, your story will come off the page with all your emotional intent.

Why is word choice important?

No matter your background, everyone has one thing in common: we all experience emotions. These emotions can be brought to the surface when the right words are used to form sentences, and ultimately, paragraphs. Using a relevant style of writing--in this case, specific word choices that bring out feelings--can express how you were disappointed or overjoyed with, or extremely proud of, an experience. When done correctly, you can give an admissions officer a glimpse into your personality and what makes you tick as a human being. Well-thought-out word choices will have a greater impact on a reader than unlively facts on an application form. Remember, like you, many students applying to universities are intelligent in their own ways and have academic records and college entrance exam scores to report. If you want to stand out, you will need to use strong word choices when writing essay prompt responses--be creative and use words that have the power to illustrate your uniqueness to others. If you're able to share your thoughts and ideas with the written word in a clear, concise manner, think of how much more of an asset you will be for any college, internship, or place of employment. Communication, oral and written, is an important skill to be proficient in for any circumstance.

Examples of how to create stronger sentences with quality word choices

Example 1:

  • "When I got the rejection letter, I was sad because I felt I could have been a great asset to the project."


  • "When I read the words "With regret," my heart sank. I truly felt that I could have been a great asset to the project."

The first sentence simply tells what happened. For instance, when you consider how everyone reacts to circumstances differently, the word "sad" may not express the depth of that emotion and the impact it had on that person. There is no story or use of words that refer to one or more of the five senses (i.e., seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, and tasting), and therefore, no way to truly connect with the author and how she or he felt. It's not completely void of emotion, but it doesn't pull the reader in to be able to sympathize with the individual in that situation. In the second sentence, the word choice is replacing "sad" with "my heart sank." A phrase like "my heart sank" can bring up strong memories for a reader because it taps into a physical feeling that many--if not all of us--have experienced in moments of despair, desperation, or disappointment. By recalling a time that they were emotionally hurt by using words that lead readers to relate with one or more of their senses, they can empathize more easily with what happened to the writer. This image and feeling of being hurt is then followed by an emphasis on the word "truly" in the next sentence. It's possible for the reader to get the impression that the author is passionate about the work they do. It's subtle, but very powerful in showing a side of one's personality.

Example 2:

  • "Everyone on the team was confused. I made a decision and said that this is what we should do."


  • "I had this feeling that everyone on the team, myself included, was confused. I weighed the options and offered the best advice that I felt was right."

The first sentence states that everyone is confused, which may or may not be true. By adding the word choice of "I had this feeling" the author is not stating facts, but how the incident was interpreted. The second half of the first sentence comes across not as bold, but arrogant. Instead, by using the word choice of "I weighed the options and offered the best advice that I felt was right," the reader will get a sense that the author doesn't just jump in without considering the facts; rather, she or he takes the time to evaluate a tough situation and then offers the best advice available. Bearing in mind that you may already have a strong essay, by adjusting a few sentences here and there, you could end up creating a much more powerful essay that will leave a lasting impression. Just be aware of your word count when you adjust your sentences. The second sentence of Example 2 is much better as word choice goes but could easily push the word count beyond the allotted limit.

Use words that are comfortable for you to speak naturally

Word choice is about getting your ideas out in a clear, concise manner while having an emotional impact to draw the reader into your story. You may have to sway an admissions officer who could be on the fence whether to accept you over another applicant. If you start using words that are completely out of your vocabulary, it's possible that you will come across as insincere. In the above examples, notice that the feel of the sentences was changed dramatically, but the type of language used was simple. Remember, it's not necessarily what you say, but how you say it. Complex vocabulary words do not necessarily work to your advantage. The goal when writing should be to effectively get your message across with authenticity and honesty.

Does your essay leave an impression?

Most people will remember a story over a list of facts, college recruiters included. If you use word choices carefully and with purpose, your essay could become unforgettable. If possible, have friends and family read your essay and relay back to you what the story was about. Did they get the meaning? Was it compelling or did they struggle to finish reading it? Were they there with you when making that all-important decision or feel your pain when you fell and had to pick yourself back up? This part of the essay process may be uncomfortable because the details you write about may be very personal; but, stepping out of your comfort zone to hear others' opinions and feedback could put a spotlight on weak areas of your essay that can easily be fixed.


Keep in mind that word choice isn't about changing what you are saying, but rather, expressing the emotion behind the words you have written. Sometimes we forget that our life is an ongoing journey that is unique and special to us, and colleges want to know about this journey. When there are hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants applying for the same schools, scholarships, or internships, being able to express who you are as an individual with strong word choices can be the difference between being considered or not.

A final word…

Often applicants will forgo stronger word choices and just tell, not show, a college admissions officer about their life experiences. This can be a big mistake! We understand that this style of writing may be uncomfortable or unfamiliar to applicants, but remember, colleges are looking for students who can bring their uniqueness to their college campuses. Their first impressions of you will come by reading that all too important essay you've written. Don't be afraid to show who you truly are when writing. If you're struggling to know if your word choices are working to your benefit or not, you may contact us here. Let's see if we can bring your story to life!