Writing essays is a crucial component of the US college application process. Most colleges require you to compose a personal essay, which asks you to reflect on meaningful life experiences, milestones and challenges. This task is by no means straightforward, which is why it is important to introspect before you identify a topic and give yourself enough time to actually put your ideas into words.

While we have previously posted
our top ten tips to writing a winning college essay
, this post focuses on a writing strategy called “show don’t tell,” which can help you to make your essay more engaging and impactful.

What is Show Don’t Tell?

Show, Don’t Tell is a popular tool used in creative writing. Like the name suggests, show don’t tell is about showing the reader the sequence of events that unfolded, and their impact, rather than just describing them. Instead of just telling the reader you are short, for example, you can show the reader this fact by illustrating incidents from your life. For example, maybe you have to use a stool to reach the top shelf of your kitchen, or you are often denied entry to PG-13 movies! These images create a stronger connection with your reader by enabling them to visualize your experience and feel more invested in the narrative.

While this strategy may sound simple, it can be difficult to master effectively. Here are a few simple tips to help you:

1. Use sensory details

Show don’t tell, at its core, is about narrating vivid stories and using sensory details helps a story to come alive. Instead of telling the reader you were nervous before a public speaking event, you could, for example, describe how your stomach twisted in knots or your lips quivered as you squinted into the bright stage lights flooding your eyes. This sensory description of what you felt is more visceral and will help draw the reader in.

2. Incorporate dialogue where appropriate

Dialogue can be an effective method of conveying narrative details without actually narrating them. It can help give texture to the writing through word choice, tone, sub-text and by conveying different points of view. When using dialogue, however, ensure that it has an impact on the story rather than distracting the reader with long winded conversation.

3. Utilize strong action verbs

Action verbs have the dual advantage of making your writing more vivid and reducing your word count because they allow you to be specific.

They also tend to be more dynamic than forms of “to be.” For example, instead of saying “I was hesitant,” you could say “I hesitated to…,” which is more direct and creates a feeling of movement. Strong verbs are more visceral, communicating what you experienced and how you reacted rather than just providing one dimensional description.

4. Use active over passive voice

Active voice creates a stronger mental picture for the reader as it emphasizes who is performing the action in the sentence. Saying, “I set up the middle school tutoring club” is more concise and compelling than saying “the tutoring club was set up by me.”

5. Use figurative language

Metaphors and similes can create powerful imagery and make your language more vibrant. These can be woven into your descriptions of events, such as “after learning Taekwondo, my reflexes were as quick as lightning,” or “my ankle was now as swollen as the basketball I used to dribble down the court.”

You could also use extended metaphors or symbolism that run through the narrative of your essay. However, it is important to remember that while these literary techniques can elevate an essay, you should not rely on them alone to make your essay more engaging. The focus of your essay should be your experiences and reflections and any metaphors used should feel natural and complement your story, rather than distracting from it.

6. Strike a balance

Regardless of the technique or literary device you use, it is important not to go overboard with any! Too many action verbs can make your writing sound over-dramatic, while an excess of figurative language can run the risk of sounding too flowery. Balance your writing by being selective and strategic with your choice of words. And of course, plan ahead so that you have enough time to review your writing and finesse some of these finer details.

Like most writing techniques show, don’t tell can be developed and strengthened through practice. If you are unsure about where to start, give it a go without the pressure of the college essay looming over your head. Think about a quality or characteristic you possess and write a paragraph trying to show, rather than tell, the reader about times in your life when you demonstrated it.
Writing a winning essay is a process that requires plenty of time and dedication. Practice using these simple tips to help achieve the best results and increase the chances of your college application standing out in a crowd.

For further support or to discuss your college essay strategy, please do not hesitate to reach out to us.