January 20, 2015

College Essay | Show, Not Tell

It's common knowledge that you're supposed to show, not tell, in your college essay.

Admissions officers read tons of essays, and many of them are similar to each other. You want your essay to stand out and be interesting, not boring or cliché.

Still, anyone who has written a college essay can tell you that this is easier said than done!

Keep these three tips in mind:

1. Before you start, write down a list of the things that make you special.

While it may seem like this is unnecessary (you already know yourself), this can be very helpful later on in the essay-writing process. When making the list, think about your passions, character, and personality traits, rather than your accomplishments. After all, the admissions officers already saw your transcript, test scores, and resume. Things to include are your tenacity, creativity, close bond to your family, love of tuba-playing, rugby, finger-painting, or whatever applies to you!

2. Choose your topic carefully.

Sometimes (as on the Common Application), you can pick your own topic. In this case, choose carefully. Look at your list, and think about a topic that will give you the best opportunity to showcase your passions and personality traits.

However, if the school to which you are applying does not give you much flexibility on topics, don't worry! Schools spend a lot of time picking topics that they think will inspire a good essay that shows your personality.

Usually, application essay topics are open-ended and allow you a lot of space to be creative. If they require a particular topic, think about how to write a response that will best exhibit the qualities you listed in step 1. Even if it's something simple like asking you to talk about your favorite book, you can write of a story explaining your love for this book. Just do it in a way that showcases your personal qualities. Remember to pick an essay topic that you are excited to write about, as this will show through in the essay.

3. Tell a story.

When writing your essay, it is easy to fall into the trap of approaching it as if it is a thesis essay about why you are so great, and why College X should accept you. Laying it on too thick is unconvincing and could reflect badly on you. More importantly, it is also boring for the reader.

Always keep in mind that the admissions officers reading your essay are overworked and forced to read hundreds of similar essays. The goal of your essay should be to engage the reader, to make yourself stand out, and to make him or her want to meet you. The best way to do this is by telling a story. The story does not have to be an earth-shattering tale of pulling a child from a burning building or climbing Mount Everest.

(If you have a story like this, great! However, if you're like 99.9% of us, and don't, there's no need to worry.)

Some of the best essays recount seemingly boring events that were important to the applicant. Make sure your story is detail-rich. Include colorful anecdotes, talk about your thoughts and connect your essay to your dreams and who you are as a person.


  1. I just found your blog, yay! I help high school students with college application essays, and I'm happy to hear someone else say what I always say -- just tell a story, and no, it does NOT have to be something exotic or dramatic. (Such as your examples here: rescuing a child from a burning building or climbing Mt. Everest. Good stuff, it made me smile.)

  2. Think about what makes you different. Make a list of what you’re passionate about, your quirks and your personality traits rather than a list of your academic accomplishments.

  3. Of course you have an interesting story to tell. You could even look back as far as early childhood.

    Would like to add a point:

    Keep your language simple.

    Too many students use fancy words with Latin roots and more syllables than can be pronounced in one breath. It's better to keep the language simple. Don't forget - the admissions committee members are humans, too. They like to be treated as such.
    Besides, using 'your own words,' so to speak, just sounds more warm and friendly. And since social skills are becoming more and more important in today's economy, simpler words convey better sociability.
    My two cents...