Writing a Great College Application Essay: Revising with Vivid Details

There’s an old, old piece of writing advice that you may have heard: “show, don’t tell.” It’s fairly sound advice, by and large, but since it’s often simply repeated to students without concrete examples, “show, don’t tell” loses some of its effectiveness.

That’s why today, rather than telling you to “show” in your college admissions essays, I’m going to try to show you how to “show.” My focus won’t be on the kinds of revisions you might do in order to ensure that your writing is grammatically correct and has an appealing rhythm and syntax.

Instead, I’ll be discussing some ways you can make your descriptions and images more detailed, full, vivid, and engaging.

To begin, let’s look at a passage that’s in its first draft stage:

My interest in the fascinating subject of physical geography began when I was in junior year. I took an excellent class which ignited my passion in the subject and made me determined to pursue it in college.

The passage is perfectly grammatical, but it lacks vivid imagery; we understand what the author means here, but we don’t really learn anything specific. The author has chosen to use abstract adjectives like “fascinating” and “excellent,” and an equally abstract noun, “passion,” which—just between us—I think is a little overused.

If you close your eyes and try to imagine what the author is describing, you can’t do it! An “excellent class” could look like just about anything.

What can the author do here to make the statement more vivid?

In this case, the author should hold onto the ideas expressed by the original statement, and use them as a springboard to try to recover as many memories from that time in junior year as possible. The goal is to find something that sets the scene in a concrete rather than an abstract way.

Consider an episode of a TV show you like; you might be able to describe the main idea of the episode in a single sentence, but it would take you longer to describe the scenes that propelled that idea forward.

Try to think of your essay as a TV show episode with distinct scenes in which things actually happen. Then choose a memory that will be the center, or nucleus, of that scene. The more detailed the memory, the better.

Let’s say that the author of this geography-themed essay has a distinct memory of a huge relief map of Alaska that hung in the hall outside of the geography room. This map will be the nucleus of the scene.

In my junior year, I’d walk past a gigantic map hanging in the hallway—a map unlike anything I’d ever seen before. It showed my state, Alaska, but not in the two flat dimensions of a map on a screen or a page. This map was as bumpy and craggy as a real mountain range; it was as pitted and lined as a real river valley, or even the palm of my hand. Sometimes, when no one was looking, I  laid my hand over the spiky peaks of the Alaska Range, and wondered at the sheer amount of time and pressure it had taken the forces of nature to carve out that rock. I knew I had to learn more. I knew I had to take physical geography.

The resulting passage shows the root of the author’s academic interest in physical geography. Of course, the author still needs to say more about the class itself, and about future plans, but this scene gives momentum to everything that’s going to come later.

Note that the abstract adjectives of the first example have been replaced with more concrete ones rooted in sensory experience: “bumpy,” “craggy,” “pitted, “lined,” and “spiky” things are things we can actually see and touch.

Note, too, that the author uses a simile to further emphasize what the experience was like, comparing the lines in the map to the lines in a human hand.

To sum up, vague, abstract passages can be improved using the following revision process:

  1. Reflect: think about the ideas expressed in your first draft, and search for detailed, tangible memories that go with those ideas.
  2. Set the scene: use an especially vivid memory to express your idea in a way that’s specific to you and your experiences.
  3. Use your senses: search for words that evoke your sense of touch, taste, smell, hearing, or sight.
  4. Use similes or metaphors: help your reader to share in your experience by comparing it to something else.

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