Personal Statement Tip: Use Vivid, Active Verbs

What was that flame doing?

What was that flame doing?

I watched a candle burn a few nights ago. It happened to have a particularly nice flame that conjured up many different images:

• The flame stood erect.

• The flame danced.

• The flame cavorted.

• The flame pranced.

• The flame swayed.

• The flame flickered.

• The flame fluttered

• The flame twinkled.

• The flame glowed.

• The flame glittered.

“The flame burned” sounds so dull next to the alternatives. It’s factual, but pedestrian. Ordinary. Blah. It does not convey any of the images that the other sentences do because it doesn’t have the visual impact.

In describing your activities, you want to use active verbs that convey sensory information. They will transform your readers into flies on the wall of your stories. Those well-chosen lively verbs will make your essays come alive.

When you edit your essays, examine at least some of your verbs. Evaluate replacing the humdrum ones. Choose muscular, powerful verbs that convey images, sounds, smells, and experiences.

Consider the following examples:

Did you “try,” “plan” “strive,” or “struggle” to complete your project on time? And what about that marathon your ran? Did you just “run” it?

Alternatively, did you limp across the finish line plagued by blisters, or did an adrenaline surge at the end combined with earlier weeks of training carry you, propel you, or thrust you across that finish line?

When editing your essays, take a minute to examine your descriptions. Do they bore? Are they common? If so, look at your verbs. Then look up the worst offenders in a thesaurus. You may find descriptive options far better than the ones you are so used to using. Looking in the thesaurus is like going to the store to buy a new pair of thick-soled, walking shoes. It means making the effort to turn in your trusty, worn-out pair for new ones.  Your walk will have new bounce when you pull just the right pair off the shelf. Your writing will also have restored vigor when you use the thesaurus to inject life into it.

Warning: To enliven your writing without making a fool of yourself, only use words that you know the meaning and connotation of. Don’t choose words to impress. Choose them to convey meaning succinctly and vividly.

Linda Abraham By , president and founder of and co-author of the new, definitive book on MBA admissions, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.

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