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    College Application Essay: Show, Don’t Tell (With Example!)

    By Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Edited by Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman

    Gabriel Jimenez-Ekman is a content editor and writer at Scholarships360. He has managed communications and written content for a diverse array of organizations, including a farmer’s market, a concert venue, a student farm, an environmental NGO, and a PR agency. Gabriel graduated from Kenyon College with a degree in sociology.

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    Updated: June 3rd, 2024
    College Application Essay: Show, Don’t Tell (With Example!)

    The college application essay is often the most stressful part of the whole process, and it is no wonder why. Writing a “wow essay” is a process that takes time and commitment. 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 your college essay, but how? Read our “show, don’t tell” college essay guide so that your essay reflects your amazing self!

    Choosing your prompt

    Most likely, you will be responding to essay prompts for the Common Application or the Coalition 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 reads, which is always a positive.

    Show, don’t tell!

    Another important factor is making sure that 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. Show them the kind of person you are. For example, look at the following essay prompt from a past 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 dos 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.

    See also: How to write an essay about yourself

    Be descriptive

    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 shown here:

     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 an infinite number of 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.

    See also: Top tips for formatting your college application essay

    As always, proofread your essay!

    While we read about the importance of proofreading all the time, we sometimes think, “Oh, I revised this five times already, so it’s good to go.” Don’t hit that “submit” button yet! Keep in mind that sometimes, we get so used to looking at a spelling or grammatical error that we skip right over it. After you think you are ready to submit your essay, let it sit for a day or two (yet another reason not to wait until the last minute to write essays!). Then, go back to your essay with fresh eyes and give it a good once over. 

    Also see: Can you use the same essay for multiple colleges?

    Final thoughts

    The need to reflect is why it is important to allow plenty of time to write your essay. Choose 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.

    Additional resources

    Remember, Scholarships360 has a library of resources to help you navigate the college admissions process from start to finish. Learn how to write a 500 word essay and how to write an essay about yourself with ease. Struggling to get started on your essay? Check out how to get started on your college admissions essay for a few tips and tricks. Maybe you are planning to send your college essay in video form. We can show you how to create an engaging video response too!

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Choose the prompt you feel most confident writing about
    • Don’t just summarize events in a list like fashion
    • Include descriptive words that appeal to the senses
    • Give yourself ample time to write and revise
    • Proofread (and do it once more!) before hitting that submit button!

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    Frequently asked questions about college application essays

    How long should a college application essay be?

    The Common App states that the length of college essay responses should be between 250 and 650 words. If the school you are applying to uses their own prompts, the word count might range from 250 up to 1,000 words. Some colleges do not require a word limit at all, but remember to say what you want to say in the most concise manner possible.

    How do I format my college application essay?

    Your college essay should convey all your important information while also being easy to read. Learn some tips and tricks for formatting your college essay so that you stand out in the best of ways.

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