The “Show, Don’t Tell” College Essay Primer
The college application essay is often the most feared part of the whole process, and it is no wonder why. Good students know that writing a “wow essay” is a process (brain hurt!). In addition, there is the added pressure of showing the reader that you are more than a compilation of numbers. You might have heard that you should “be yourself” when writing, but how do you start the process? Read this short refresher so that your essay reflects your amazing self!
Most likely, you will be responding to essay prompts for the Common Application. The key is to choose a prompt that you can respond to with relative ease—what do you feel confident writing about? Some believe that this is the time to take a risk just to set yourself apart, but sometimes, this causes unnecessary stress and anxiety. Remember, this is probably not the time to craft your magnum opus! The purpose of the application essay is another way to show admissions, in a straightforward way, why they should ultimately accept you. Remember, the reader won’t know that you picked what is “easy” for you to write about—they don’t know a thing about you! They will notice, however, how clear and confident your essay is, which is always a positive.
Another important factor is making sure your essay is not a drag to read—it needs to come to life! As cliché as it sounds, my favorite advice is “show, don’t tell.” Don’t just summarize events, rather, do your best to conjure up the senses and feelings of the reader and show them what kind of person you are. For example, look at the following essay prompt from the 2016-2017 Common Application:
“Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.”
Let’s imagine that a student who cherished their Bar Mitzvah chooses this prompt as we go over the do’s and don’ts with the following exemplars:
Don’t begin your essay by stating, “My Bar Mitzvah, a ceremony for young males, was the most important event in my transition to adulthood because I was officially considered an adult.” Ok, now where? Typically, this type of passage is followed by “list like” writing which is, let’s be honest, yawn inviting.
Do be descriptive and appeal to the senses at the same time. This essay would be much more effective if it started out by showing the reader how the writer felt: “As my father, grandfather, and uncles proudly watched me recite the Torah reading, I realized that this same feeling of joyful anticipation must have been felt by thirteen-year old boys of my Jewish faith since biblical times. Understanding that my oppressed forefathers preserved this rite of passage only added to the significance of my Bar Mitzvah ceremony.”
Notice the difference right away? Which passage makes you want to continue reading? The first sets up the essay as a summary of what happened, while the second shows that the writer is a feeling person who is able to reflect on the profound significance of the event in a familial and historical context; the reader is right beside the writer to take in the scene. One is not harder than the other to write, but the second takes more reflection time.
The need to reflect is why it is important to allow plenty of time to write your essay. Pick a prompt that has some genuine appeal, and then carry it around in your mind vault for a few days (or even weeks). It is a good idea to take more than just mental notes, so jot down relevant thoughts when they occur. Finally, be sure to take your essay to someone you trust and ask whether it seems like “you.” After all, that is the ultimate goal.