How to “Show, Don’t Tell” in Your College Essay
This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Anna Smist, Assistant Director of Admissions at Yale University, in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.
One of the most important parts of your college application is writing a strong and impactful essay. A common piece of essay-writing advice is, “Show, don’t tell.” This post will explain how to put that into practice while writing your admissions essay.
Choosing a Topic
Many students struggle to choose one topic for their admissions essay, but this is an important factor because of the limited word count. Although colleges are proud to have students who are well-rounded and have many interests, choosing one topic for your essay will ensure that you don’t produce a confusing or overwhelming essay.
If you’re looking for inspiration, there are a few tried-and-true tricks that will help you create a powerful essay. First, if you write about something that you’re passionate about, that passion will be clear to those reading your words. Second, you may want to write about a moment or experience when you changed your mind, when something affected your outlook on the world in a meaningful way, or when you were challenged or humbled. These topics usually make for memorable and impactful essays.
Setting the Scene
Once you’ve chosen a topic, it’s helpful to have a trajectory in mind for your essay. Where will it begin, what will you explore, and how will it end?
It’s common for students to spend too much time setting the scene in their essays. Suppose that you want to write about a football practice after school. In telling the story, you may use up too many words explaining where the practice was, the time of day, or who you were with. Admissions officers read many essays in which students get bogged down in meeting the word limit and decide to start too early in their story.
The truth is that there simply isn’t enough space in a 500-word essay to include everything that you may want to. Instead of starting at the very beginning, try to skip unnecessary details and dive right into the meat of the story: what actually happened. This way, the rest of your essay can focus on how the experience impacted you and why you chose to write about it. Your essay should be a reflection rather than a retelling, focusing on the importance of the experience rather than its minute details.
Writing About Relationships
Many students find themselves writing about relationships in their admissions essays, whether with their families, friends, or communities. However, writing about relationships can be a double-edged sword. Some of the best essays that admissions officers read are explorations of a student’s close relationship with someone, including what that person means to them and what they’ve learned from their connection. But if a student spends their whole essay talking about someone else, the admissions committee never gets the opportunity to learn about the applicant themselves. Even if you want to talk about what someone else means to you, you should always be the central focus and subject of your essay (so always write in the first person)!