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Show Don't Tell: How to Write Your College Essay

Something to keep in mind as students write personal statements for the Common App, Coalition App, or a school’s own application: don’t tell the reader what to think. Instead, tell them a story that makes them think what you want them to think. You may ask: Why can’t I just tell them that I’m persistent, loyal, kind, creative, hard working, and an all around wonderful person? Two reasons:

  1. It’s boring.

  2. They have no reason to believe you.

You don’t have much time with application readers, so you’ll want to grab them, figuratively, by the throat. Once you’ve done that, you want to tell them a story that SHOWS THEM who you are. Here are two examples of opening paragraphs from the annual list of “Essays that Worked” published by Johns Hopkins, along with less effective counterparts: Tell: Ever since I was young, I went to a favorite coffee shop with my parents. That’s where I discovered my love of reading. Show: Instinctively, I hold my breath. The pungent fragrance of roasted coffee beans and the shrill sound of steam whistles from the espresso machines force my senses into overload. Before me are mounds of freshly-baked goodies and colossal stacks of books piled on bookshelves as high as the ceiling. Pressing my nose against the glass cover, I don’t budge until the ginormous chocolate-chip cookie is within my possession. With one hand holding my cookie, I collect as many books as my chubby arms can hold and plop into my favorite blue armchair. I would look forward to this routine: every Saturday, when the big hand hit six, my parents would take me to Timothy’s, their coffee shop, and I would begin the day’s quest. Tell: Along with some other volunteers, I teach public speaking to a group of awkward eighth graders. Show: I looked up and flinched slightly. There were at least sixty of them, far more than expected. I had thirty weeks to teach them the basics of public speaking. Gritting my teeth, I split my small group of tutors among the crowd and sat down for an impromptu workshop with the eighth graders. They were inexperienced, monotone, and quiet. In other words, they reminded me of myself… For more examples of essays that worked, check out: Essays that Worked.

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