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How to Avoid Writing a Bad Hook and Telling, Not Showing

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Jordan Sanchez in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.


What’s Covered:


In this post, we discuss common mistakes that students make while writing college essays. For more information, check out this post about how to write this year’s Common App essays


Writing a Bad Hook


A common mistake while drafting your essay is writing a bad hook. The hook is the first paragraph of your essay, and its job is to engage the reader while introducing yourself and the topic. A good hook is memorable and attention grabbing and makes the reader excited to read your essay. Remember, admissions officers are people and they want to enjoy themselves. 


Engaging hooks include dialogue, imagery or other descriptive language, bold statements, and interesting and relevant information. Disengaging hooks may include quotes unrelated to the story that you’re telling or unjustified complaints. 


All that said, when you’re drafting your essay, don’t worry too much about the first few lines. If you find yourself stuck on the hook, you can write the rest of the essay and come back to it later. 


Telling, Not Showing


Another mistake that students often make when writing essays is telling and not showing. This may manifest as writing exactly how you speak, which isn’t always that compelling. When you tell a story to a friend, for example, you probably skip over details and just report the most significant events. In your essay, you have 650 words of space, so you can slow down and use descriptive language. 


To show rather than tell, share details about the setting, as well as your feelings, thought processes, and experiences. This will make for an engaging and unique essay because it’s more interesting to read about how you reacted to a certain situation than a description of your personality traits. The admissions officer will be more likely to believe that you’re a leader if you give an example of displaying leadership, such as resolving a conflict or motivating people, rather than simply saying, “I’m a leader.” 


An exercise that can help you show rather than tell is to pretend that your essay is a novel and you’re the main character. Here are two examples that demonstrate the difference between showing and telling in an essay:


“I have loved cooking ever since I was little. I grew up watching my mother cook the food of my culture, and I want to do the same. I’m a perfectionist, so sometimes I spend five hours trying to make the perfect flatbread.”


It’s clear from this hook that the essay is about liking to cook. It introduces the topic and the writer, but there’s a distance. The reader feels disconnected from the events of the essay because the writing is mostly telling and not showing. There are other ways to communicate your passion for cooking without explicitly saying it:


“Three hundred fifteen grams of flour, two spoons of yeast, a little bit of sugar and salt, and my secret ingredient: whole-milk, Greek yogurt. The combination forms a rough, shaggy flatbread dough, which is then rolled into eight-inch rounds and set on the stove with a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil.”


This hook draws the reader in right away, getting them engaged. The writer is doing more showing and less telling. We know that they’re cooking without them saying it. We know that they’re precise because they’re giving us measurements, and we know that they must be passionate about cooking if they have a secret ingredient. Also, this hook is unique because very few students will include a recipe in their essay.