You’ve heard it from your teachers. You’ve heard it from your consultants. You’ve read it in every book, website, and blog about college application essays. SHOW, DON’T TELL. But what does it really mean, and why is it such a big deal?
Here is a typical conversation about the first draft of a student’s essay:
Consultant: “You need to show your love of physics.”
Student: “I did show it. Right there, where it says, ‘I love physics.’”
Consultant: “That’s telling, not showing.”
Student: “What’s the difference?”
The student’s question is a fair one. After all, you can’t include pictures or diagrams in your essay. Nor can you knock on a college’s front door and act it out for them. When it comes to essays, all we have to work with are words, words, words. So how do you use words to “show” rather than “tell?”
Have you ever been at a restaurant with somebody and found yourself wishing you had ordered what she did? It looks and smells so much better than your own meal, and you’re dying to know what it tastes like. Finally, you ask your dining companion, “How is your meal?” There are two ways she can respond. She can try describing it: “Well, it’s thick but not too heavy, and the sauce is spicy but not too hot, and there’s a bit of a sweet aftertaste…” Or she can simply let you take a bite. The first option gives you a vague idea of what it tastes like, but the second lets you taste it for yourself. This is what you should be trying to achieve with your college essays. You don’t just want the reader to hear about your story; you want the reader to be able to taste it.
Look at these two sentences:
1. I was feeling very sad because of my low performance in history.
2. I cried in my room all night after I saw that big, red F on my history test.
They both describe somebody who is sad, and they both explain why she is sad. But which one makes you sympathize with her more? Which one makes you say, “I know exactly how she feels”? Probably the second one. It’s more visceral, more detailed, more specific. We can imagine her lying on her bed with her face buried in her pillow; we can hear her crying; we can picture that fat, ugly F in the upper right hand corner of her test. The first sentence only provides us with information, but the second sentence gives us something we can taste.
But I’m not a good writer.
This is a common remark from students, but the truth is you don’t have to be William Faulkner to write a good college essay. “Showing” versus “telling” does not require tremendous creativity. You just need to think of real life experiences and examples that will illustrate your point. Here are some comparisons:
I was hungry.
She was scared.
The classroom was hot.
My stomach growled.
Her hands shook and her teeth chattered.
Sweat dripped onto the desks.
The sentences in the “Showing” list are not particularly brilliant or poetic, but they give the reader more to absorb by using elements that can be seen, felt, heard, smelled, or tasted. Here are some other examples that are even more pertinent to college essays:
I am a strong, effective leader.
I enjoy studying science.
It is my dream to become a nurse.
As Student Body President, I created an afterschool tutoring program that was praised by the Board of Education.
Last summer I interned with Dr. Stuart Archer, Professor of Chemistry at Stanford, and assisted with his laboratory research on alternative fuel sources.
Ever since I first slapped a bandage on my little brother’s knee after he fell down roller-skating, I knew I wanted to help the sick and injured.
But it’s a college application essay. Isn’t it supposed to be very dry and formal?
Imagine that you read college essays for a living. You have already trudged through fifty today, and you still have a huge stack remaining on your desk. You grab the next two and glance at the opening sentence for each one:
1. I discovered at a very young age that I had a burning passion to learn more about engineering, especially in regards to the field of technology.
2. When I was six years old, I took apart my mom’s cell phone to see how it worked.
Which essay do you want to keep reading? The first, which is already making me sleepy? Or the second, which sounds like a lot of fun? College admissions officers are human beings (Yes, even at the Ivy League schools). Just like you, they don’t want to read something boring; they want to read something that moves or entertains them.
Of course you still need to use proper grammar and make sure your writing flows logically and coherently. But your essay can and should be compelling to read, and one of the best ways to accomplish that is by “showing” rather than “telling.” Returning to our restaurant analogy, suppose that you were a food critic, but you had to write your review based solely from the descriptions on the menu. It would be impossible. How could you fully evaluate the food without tasting it for yourself? Well, college admissions officers won’t be able to fully appreciate your story unless they can taste it for themselves. So give them plenty to chew on, and let them savor your essay.