How to Make Your College Application Essay the Best Writing You’ve Ever Done (#14 of 25)

As both teacher and college application essay tutor, I have found that while nearly all students are familiar with the writing axiom “show, don’t tell,” many of them still don’t employ it. I thought it would be worthwhile, therefore, to include this concept in my twenty five ways to make your college application essay the best writing you’ve ever done, along with some practical ways to put this concept into action.

Step #14. Comb your essay for places where you are “telling” and not “showing,” and fix them.

You can identify these areas in your essay from the following clues:

  1. Words that express a simple emotion, for example “excited, disappointed, sad.”
  2. Words that describe a physical state, for example, “hot, nervous, itchy.”
  3. Adjectives. The use of an adjective is often an opportunity for some superior “showing” writing. You could say, for example, “I took off my smelly socks.” Or, instead of using an adjective to tell the reader how the socks smelled, you could write something like, “I removed my socks and the room filled with an odor I could only describe as “the dump during a heat wave.”
  4. Adverbs. More or less the same concept as above. Replace words like “tiredly” with a description of what “tiredly” looks like.
  5. Ask questions about your essay. Find areas where you can “show” by asking questions about what you’ve written.

Once identified, you can improve these areas with the following techniques.

  1. Be specific. Don’t use general words or phrases, bring the reader into your world with details and specifics.
  2. Use dialogue. Instead of describing what’s happening, use dialogue, either interior or between two people, to communicate what’s going on in your essay. It will add a welcomed variety and powerful immediacy.
  3. Employ figures of speech. Metaphors and similes can get your idea across, without leaning too hard on the “tell.”
  4. Put the characters in your essay (especially you) into action. As opposed to stating an individual’s emotional state, let their actions reflect what is going on with them. This allows readers to come to their own conclusions, while enhancing their overall reading experience.

“Show, not tell” is a writing strategy that needs to be part of your essay writing tool belt. Like all such “rules,” however, it’s also important not to overdo it. Employ this technique with taste and discretion and your essay will soon be opening more doors than a doorman at the Plaza Hotel. (Please note use of metaphor to enhance “show, don’t tell.”)

For more personal help with the Common Application essay, supplemental or any other college application essays, please contact Craig Heller at, or 818-340-1276.

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