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Last updated May 11, 2023

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4 Ways to Show Not Tell in a College Essay

Key Takeaway

Personal statements are deeply meaningful personal reflections. But they're also exercises in creative writing. Using sensory language, emotions, and syntax to "show, not tell" can level up your college essay.

You’ve heard it again and again. You should “show, not tell” in your writing. This adage is especially important in your college essays.

Before we get into the “why” behind it, let’s take a quick detour for a thought experiment.

Imagine that you’re an admissions officer. It’s late on a Tuesday night, your eyes are tired from looking at a screen for hours, and you just opened your 40th application of the day. You let out a big yawn and steel yourself. You’re excited to get to know another student, but this is your last application before you get to call it a night.

You look through the background information, take note of the activities section, and click through to the essay. Before you start reading, you take a deep breath. Just one more application, you think, and then I can get some sleep!

You begin.

Suddenly, you’re transported. You lose all sense of time and place. You forget that you haven’t had dinner yet, and you realize that you’re not even tired anymore.

The writer has captured your attention. They’ve brought you into their universe and immersed you in a vulnerable reflection. You’re transfixed. You can’t wait to admit this student—they are just who your campus needs. You tell your colleague about the essay as soon as you get to work the next day.

Now imagine that you’re the same admissions officer, but that 40th application essay you read was a snooze-fest. You rush through it to get to bed. The next day, you honestly can’t remember whether you voted to admit or deny them.

That’s why showing, not telling is so important. The stakes are high in your college admissions essay. Your admissions decisions can hinge on whether or not you’re able to engage your admissions officers.

In this post, I’ll go through what it means to “show, not tell,” and I’ll give you a few strategies to write the most memorable essay possible.

What does “show, not tell” mean?

At the heart of “showing, not telling” is the idea that good writing should be a sensory experience for a reader. You want your writing to make a reader feel like they are there with you. They should experience what you experienced and feel what you felt through your writing alone.

Think about the most memorable lesson you’ve ever had in school. What is a monotone lecture, or was it an animated, engaging, and interactive lesson? Of course it was the latter. You remember it better because all of your senses were engaged. We are creatures who rely on our senses, after all.

So if you want to write a memorable essay, you need to “show, not tell” your reader your story.

Before we talk about what it means to “show,” let’s go over what you shouldn’t be doing—”telling.”

To “tell” in an essay means simply stating what you want to say. There’s no creativity, no vivid detail, no intentional effort to transport your reader anywhere.

Here’s an example:

I was elated the first time I wrote an annotated bibliography. I felt like a scholar. I had never written anything so professional before. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to be a historian.

This anecdote is simple and straightforward. It says exactly what it means. This version is endearing, but it doesn’t quite hold a reader’s attention.

Instead of telling a reader what to think, we want to show them what happened using descriptive language and detail so that they can have a genuine emotional response. Evoking emotions in your reader helps them connect on a deeper level with your writing (and, by extension, with you).

Here’s the same anecdote, but this time shown instead of told:

My nose got closer to the screen. I squinted, trying to remember whether to use a comma or a period. The book was heavy across my lap as I wedged its spine in between my leg and the table, keeping it flipped open to the copyright page. This was my first annotated bibliography. I could hardly wait to write my second. My fingers tapped away at the keyboard, cementing my place in the lineage of historians before me.

Much better! The “shown” version has a creative flair. It’s more interesting, and it takes its time to set the scene. Its descriptions convey the significance of this moment to the writer. We feel the weight of the book on our own legs. We get a sense of drama.

While it’s fairly easy to forget the first writer, it’s hard to forget the second. We’ve already begun picturing them in our mind and envisioning ourselves feeling what they felt.

Using the following four strategies, you can create these experiences for your own readers.

4 Strategies to Show, Not Tell in Your College Essay

  1. Reflect on your own sensory experiences. Detail them in your essay.

    The most basic way to show rather than tell is to fall back on the senses. You can do this by describing a scene based on the way you experienced it through your own senses: sight, sound, touch, taste, and feel.

    If you want to emphasize how nervous you were before your ballet recital, you could describe what it feels like for you to be nervous. Instead of saying, “I was nervous before my recital,” you could say, “My hands were so sweaty that I almost dropped my prop.”

    A quick note of caution: Beware of cliché descriptions. To describe your nerves as having “butterflies in your stomach” would be a cliché. While these aren’t off-limits, they aren’t as good as coming up with your own creative description of what a sensory experience was like for you personally.

  2. Describe your senses through related actions.

    Another way to add excitement to your writing is by taking what you experience through your senses a step further. Rather than focusing on the sensory experience itself, you can focus on what that sensory experience led you to do.

    For example, you could say, “I was so cold,” or even “My bones shook from the chill.” But we all know that if you’re cold, you put on a coat. A reader will understand what you felt without you even mentioning it. An example of this might look something like, “It was 9 o’clock and I hadn’t yet heard from him. Still waiting outside, I found my jacket and pulled it tight across my chest.”

    In this second version, we don’t just learn that it’s cold outside. The writer subtly communicates that it’s cold while also creating an emotional landscape filled with something like anger or longing. The “showing” does double duty.

  3. Think about the feelings you felt, and try to evoke those in your reader.

    “Showing, not telling” isn’t just about the senses. It’s also about emotions. Part of writing effectively is the ability to make your readers feel something.

    Because personal statements should be deeply meaningful, vulnerable reflections, this goal is especially the case. The more you’re able to make your admissions officer feel something, the likelier they are to feel like they actually know you.

    There are lots of ways to convey emotions in your writing.

    You can use emotion-laden language. Heavier words, phrases, and sentences can transfer emotional weight onto your reader.

    You can also zero in on describing your internal experience of feelings. Rather than describing your external senses, you can “show” how emotions play out in your head. These passages can be some of the most powerful because a reader gets genuine insight into your thought processes.

  4. Create a tempo in your writing.

    We usually talk about “meter” as a literary device when talking about poetry. But writing in a rhythmic way is also for prose.

    Like good songs, good pieces of writing have their own tempos. Writers can create rhythms through sentence structure and word choice, and those rhythms establish the tempo at which a reader reads your writing.

    You can strategically use tempos in your writing to affect your reader’s pace. If you want them to linger, write lingering sentences. If you want them to speed up, use your sentence structure to create haste.

    Using long and short sentences, mixing up the number and type of clauses, and paying attention to how each sentence sounds can all help you accomplish rhythmic writing.

    Reading your work aloud can also help you figure out where and how to add intentional rhythm.

Where do I show, not tell in my college essay?

While your personal statement needs detail, your whole essay shouldn’t be one long description.

As with any literary device, “showing, not telling” should be done with intention. Overdoing it can come across as inauthentic, but underdoing it can leave your readers wanting more. Save the “showing” for when it really counts.

So how do you find the balance?

You want your essay to have a good breakdown of description, reflection, and narration. Not every paragraph needs each.

Where your “showing, not telling” will go depends on the makeup of your essay. But there are a few places to start:

  • Your introduction: You can plop your reader right into your essay by “showing” them your scene.
  • Pivotal plot points: One way to draw attention to the most important parts of your plot is by using your “showing” skills.
  • Sentimental or emotionally charged moments: Bring your reader into your experience by detailing what it was like to live in those moments.

Overall, aim for a few descriptive moments throughout your essay.

Key Takeaways

Simply describing the scene for your reader isn’t enough. If you want your college essay to stand out, you need to “show, not tell” to create a narrative that makes your admissions officer feel something. Doing so will make your essay more interesting, engaging, and, most importantly, more memorable to an admissions officer.

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