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Mastering "Show Don't Tell": Examples and Tips for Impressive College Application Essays

As a former Associate Director of Admissions at an Ivy League institution, I've reviewed countless college essays. The best ones—the ones that stay with you long after reading—are those that successfully show, rather than tell. But what does "show, don't tell" really mean? It's an advice that's often thrown around in writing circles, but seldom explained in a manner that truly resonates with students. In this post, I aim to demystify this essential writing technique and provide concrete examples to illustrate its power.

"Show, don't tell" is a method used in writing to allow the reader to experience the story through action, thoughts, senses, and feelings ratherthan through the author's plain description. When you show, you paint a vivid picture that invites the reader into your world, making your story more engaging and impactful.

Let's delve into some examples:

Telling: I'm very persistent and have great leadership skills.

Showing: When our school's literary magazine was threatened with discontinuation due to budget cuts, I couldn't let it go. I organized a fundraising campaign, rallying both students and teachers, and we managed to raise enough funds to keep the magazine running.

In the telling example, the traits are merely stated, making it harder for the reader to connect with the writer's assertion. The showing example, on the other hand, provides a concrete situation that vividly illustrates these qualities in action. The reader sees the writer's persistence and leadership without them having to directly say it.

Let's examine another example:

Telling: The poverty I witnessed on a trip to India deeply affected me.

Showing: Walking through the narrow, congested streets of Delhi, I was confronted with a reality I had only ever read about. I saw children, no older than my little brother, begging for food. I saw families huddled together in makeshift homes, their eyes reflecting a resilience that was both inspiring and heartrending.

The telling example simply states a fact. We don't know what the writer saw, or why it affected them. The showing example, conversely, transports the reader to Delhi, allowing them to witness what the writer did and feel what the writer felt. This creates a more compelling and emotive narrative.

Finally, consider this:

Telling: I was ecstatic when our team won the championship.

Showing: When the final buzzer sounded, a surge of adrenaline rushed through me. My heart pounded in my chest like a victory drum as I looked at the scoreboard, hardly daring to believe it. We had won the championship! I leapt into the air, joining my teammates in a symphony of triumphant cheers.

The first example tells us the writer was happy, but the emotion feels flat. The second example allows us to experience the writer's joy, making it much more powerful.

To sum up, "show, don't tell" is about immersing the reader in your experiences, emotions, and personal growth. This technique breathes life into your narrative and makes your writing far more captivating and memorable.

As you embark on writing your college essays, I encourage you to embrace the power of showing. It's not always easy, but the effect can be transformative.

Drawing on my extensive admissions experience, my aim through this blog and my consulting services is to guide students in crafting authentic, compelling narratives. The college application process is more than a gateway to higher education—it's a journey of self-discovery, and a chance to learn how to share your unique story in a way that truly resonates.


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