College Application Essays: Show, Don’t Tell

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College Application Essays: Show, Don’t Tell

English Exam Prep Coordinator Rachel Erwin

Hi all! I’m Rachel Erwin, an Exam Prep Coordinator at MEK Review and an essay coach for our ACS programs. In my free time, I enjoy reading classic and modern literature, going to museums, and playing sports. I’m a news junkie with a particular interest in social justice and educational equity. I love discussing shared interests with my students, and every year I’m delighted to learn new things from students as we explore their various passions (who knew that the ancient Chinese instrument the Erhu was so amazing?).

Over the years, I have seen how many students struggle with writing application essays. One common struggle is writing an essay that “shows” rather than just “tells.” Let’s explore why it’s important to “show, not tell.” Then, I’ll give you some tips on how to become better at “showing.”

Why it’s important to “Show, Not Tell” on your application essays

1. It’s more interesting!

Anton Chekov, the famous playwright, once wrote, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

Showing is a much more interesting way of painting a picture or creating an impact than simply stating a fact. Think of the examples below.

After realizing I had failed the essay, I felt terrible.

I looked down at the returned essay and instantly tensed. My eyes quickly scanned the multitude of red marks that stained my paper like slashes of blood. I could no longer hear the chatter of my classmates as my ears were filled with the sound of my own thundering heartbeat. My vision began to blur with what I only realized were tears when I saw the wetness hitting my essay, obscuring but not erasing the copious corrections my teacher had made.

Which essay would you want to continue reading? Definitely, the “showing” version! It’s more dynamic and pulls you in as the reader.

This is the same way you want your college application to work—pulling in the admissions officer so that your essay sticks out

2. It allows you to brag without seeming arrogant.

Your application essays are about showing an admissions officer who you are. But let’s be honest, these essays are also about making you seem like an appealing future student. 

But you don’t want to sound full of yourself or overly self-satisfied.

How do you walk that tightrope?

“Showing, not telling” can help. If you tell an admissions officer that you’ve really grown or that you’ve learned a lot, it can sound conceited or insincere. But if you’ve shown them throughout your narrative, these sentiments will feel earned.

Let’s look at an example from a former student of mine.

Here in an excerpt from his conclusion on his first draft:

I, ashamed and tired of my weaknesses controlling me, decided to make a turning point in my life. I won’t let my deranged personality claim victory over my real actions. My problems are a direct result of my flaws; it was about time I stood my ground. And my first battle was with my election loss. No matter what, I cared about my family. Whether as their elected leader, or on frontlines with them, I would support my family no matter what. I would fight for them, even at the cost of myself, for I know that in the name of the whole, we would ultimately benefit. And that is what truly matters.

Now, as you can see, it’s a lot of telling. This makes his conclusion sound over dramatic, repetitive, and a little conceited.

Let’s look at a later draft of his conclusion:

So when the new school year rolled around, I brought a new mindset to rehearsals. When another member would receive a solo, I felt myself rejoicing rather than complaining. I found other, unofficial, ways to be a leader in the group by guiding new students, as I had once been guided. It wasn’t just in acapella. I took my new attitude into other parts of my life. Whether it was taking on more responsibility in student government or just reaching out to the freshmen in my dorm, I started to think less about myself and more about others. My mind, which used to roil with thoughts about what others owed to me, now focused on a new consideration: What do I owe to others?

This a conclusion, so it’s still going to have some “telling.” But throughout the conclusion, he intersperses examples that “show” how he has changed as well. He includes details such as “when another member would receive a solo” or “reaching out to the freshmen in my dorm.” These show how he has changed, rather than just insisting that he has. It makes his writing less repetitive and more grounded.

How to “Show, Not Tell”

Now, you should know why it’s important. But how do you do it?

Here are some quick tips.

Tip #1: Use sensory details, not just adjectives

C.S. Lewis once wrote, “Don’t use adjectives which merely tell us how you want us to feel about the thing you are describing. I mean, instead of telling us a thing was ‘terrible,’ describe it so that we’ll be terrified. Don’t say it was ‘delightful’; make us say “delightful” when we’ve read the description.”

To accomplish what Lewis is describing, you have to be able to appeal to the five senses. Describe something in a way that invokes sight, hearing, smell, touch, or taste.

Tip #2: Use figurative language

Don’t shy away from similes, metaphors, personification, and other types of figurative language that can make your writing more vivid. Reading books and other texts can help you expand your vocabulary, which can make this come more naturally.

Student Example

Let’s look at an example from a former student of mine, who was struggling to talk about something very personal: her struggle with mental health.

First Draft:
Imagine waking up in the morning and not wanting to get out of bed. We’ve all been there, lying under the covers all nice and warm and wanting to stay there forever. Now imagine that the thought of getting out of bed makes you feel like you are going to vomit. You would rather do anything other than get up and start your day no matter what it takes. These were my mornings for almost all of high school.

She has such a powerful topic but needs to add more description and figurative language to really show her struggle.


Later Draft:
Imagine waking up in the morning and not wanting to get out of bed. We’ve all been there, lying under the covers all nice and warm and wanting to stay there forever. Now imagine that the thought of getting out of bed makes you feel like you are going to vomit; you try to rise but feel like heavy chains are pinning you to the mattress. Your mind frantically races to come up with excuses so that you don’t have to leave the sanctuary of your bed. But it’s not a sanctuary at all, just a prison cell that you can’t muster the strength to escape. These were my mornings for almost all of high school.

In the later draft, her use of similes and metaphors allows the reader to really get a sense of how difficult the simple task of getting up felt to her during this dark time. That makes the rest of her essay all the more powerful when we see her rise above these challenges to ask and receive help.

Putting yourself into your writing

A lot of students know how to describe an experience. But not many know how to put themselves into their writing. This requires a great deal of introspection and self-awareness, and is guaranteed to make any ordinary topic into a unique and interesting application essay.

For more expert advice, check out our College Admissions Counseling Programs. My fellow college essay coaches and I will help you write amazing college application essays guaranteed to impress admission officers.

Call 855-346-1410 or contact us here to get started.

We can’t wait to hear from you!

Rachel Erwin

Rachel is the Dean of Faculty, in charge of teacher training and material development. She teaches College Test Prep, H.S. Test Prep, and College Application Essays. Within the English Department, she serves as a coordinator for the Exam Prep team, working diligently to ensure all students’ success. With her clear and systematic approach to teaching, she helps students make huge improvements.


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