Perfecting “Show, Don’t Tell” in College Essays

on May 9, 2017

Take a look at our suggestions for writing an essay that shows the admissions officers your point without relying on tired clichés.


Make a Personality Map


Whether in list form or as an actual diagram, take the time to decide what you want colleges to know about you. This could include personal qualities, achievements or obstacles that you've overcome. When you begin writing your essay, refer back to these attributes as often as possible. This will ensure that you're communicating positive, relevant aspects of your personality and background without getting sidetracked. 


Tell Stories and Use Anecdotes


It isn't enough to say that you possess certain traits. One of the easiest and most effective ways to do this is by telling a story. Select anecdotes that convey key aspects of your personality or background. Sometimes, these stories will be more obvious or monumental than others, and that's okay. Even seemingly trivial moments can make for worthwhile essay fodder. The more your story stands out for its originality, the better. 


Include Supporting Details


Once you’ve settled on what story you're telling, it’s time to transition to how you're going to tell it. Don't just write something like, “Before the test, I was nervous.” Were you sweating bullets or breathing heavily? Had you studied for the test the night before? Was this exam particularly difficult? Details like these add color and depth, making for a more engaging and relatable essay. This is what “show, don't tell” is really all about. 


End with Reflection and Analysis


Even the most entertaining story isn’t complete without self-reflection — think about the moral of your story. This should implicitly explain why you chose to share this moment with admissions officers. And remember, it isn’t enough to write something like “as a result, I'm more independent.” Show readers your newfound sense of independence by relating additional details or another short anecdote — in other words, prove it.

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