If you have time, this essay (How to Say Nothing in 500 Words) is packed with invaluable advice that will help you make your college essay sing–and NOT bore those college admissions folks. An English professor wrote it in the 1960s after reading probably a zillion mind-numbingly dull essays during his long career. It’s long–and ironically a little yawny in places (revenge?)–and I mainly skimmed it for the juicy stuff.
Here’s one of my favorite parts, from the section called, “Slip Out of That Abstraction,” that describes why you should “show” instead of “tell” your points, and how to do it:
Look at the work of any professional writer and notice how constantly he is moving from the generality, the abstract statement, to the concrete example, the facts and figures, the illustrations. If he is writing on juvenile delinquency, he does not just tell you that juveniles are (it seems to him) delinquent and that (in his opinion) something should be done about it. He shows you juveniles being delinquent, tearing up movie theatres in Buffalo, stabbing high school principals in Dallas, smoking marijuana in Palo Alto. And more than likely he is moving toward some specific remedy, not just a general wringing of the hands.
It is no doubt possible to be too concrete, too illustrative or anecdotal, but few inexperienced writers err this way. For most the soundest advice is to be seeking always for the picture, to be always turning general remarks into seeable examples. Don’t say, “Sororities teach girls the social graces.” Say, “Sorority life teaches a girl how to carry on a conversation while pouring tea, without sloshing the tea into the saucer.” Don’t say, “I like certain kinds of popular music very much.” Say, “Whenever I hear Gerber Sprinklittle play ‘Mississippi Man’ on the trombone, my socks creep up my ankles.” By Paul McHenry Roberts.
(I also highlighted the strong verbs Roberts used here. In your college admissions essays and personal statements, go easy on the adjectives and adverbs–the ly’s–and push hard on those gritty, action verbs!)
It’s time to let go of the 5-paragraph essay format that most English teachers have pounded into your DNA by now.
College admissions essays are very different from the formal academic essays you wrote in high school.
Well, most are called “personal narratives,” which use the first-person to tell a story or explore a personal insight about yourself or something you value. The majority are written in a more casual style (tone, voice and structure).
Like the 5-paragraph essay, however, they still need to make a “main point,” and they require a structure, although one that is much looser.
Here is one simple technique that can give your essay a structural “spine,” yet keep it engaging and breezy in style.
It’s called Show and Tell (not to be confused with the writing axiom, “Show, don’t Tell.”)
It’s really a simplified version of another writing approach I outlined in an earlier post, called The Ladder of Abstraction.
This is how you do it:When you write, make sure to go back and forth between “showing” the reader your point to “telling” the reader what it means.
Write a Show paragraph, then write a Tell paragraph, then switch back to a Show paragraph, etc. (Most 5-paragraph essays start by Telling, whereas this approach starts with Showing.
When you Show, you are focused and specific, often by providing examples and supporting details.
* * *
When you Tell, you are broad and general, and explain the meaning.
* * *
How to SHOW:
- Be specific. (Instead of saying, “The dog was cute.” Say, “The dog, a miniature poodle named Jack, rolled over when you commanded him to ‘Speak!’”)
- Give details. Remember “concrete details”? That just means words that are specific. (Instead of saying, “The trip was awesome,” say “We dove for albacore, built a giant bonfire and road the zip-line ten times.”)
- Use your senses to describe: What do you see, hear, taste, smell and feel?
- Give examples. If you Tell about something, “Everyone was upset by the ruling,” Show them by giving examples of how upset they were, “First, women threw up their hands and screamed. Then, a couple children burst into tears. One man punched the wall.”
- Use anecdotes or “mini-stories” to put the reader in the middle of the action.
- Compare things to make your point. This is another way to Show more clearly what you mean. Instead of, “It was very hot outside.” Say, “It was as hot as a car roof in Arizona.” (Yes, the formal words for these are “similes,” “metaphors” and “analogies.”)
- Zoom in. Like a zoom lens, take a closer look at what you are talking about, show/describe the little things close up.
How to TELL:.
- Be broad and general.
- Explain what something means.
- Summarize a group of smaller ideas.
- Reflect on the larger meaning of something. Look for “universal truths.”
- Analyze what something means.
- Interpret something you wrote.
- Zoom out. Step back from your points and examine the Big Picture.
- When you Tell, you are usually providing “meaning. “What does that mean?”
When you read other students’ sample essays, see if you can spot when they are Showing and when they are Telling. It might make more sense. Then, give it a shot with your own essay.
Check out How to Write a College Application Essay in 3 Steps to get started on your college application essay!
Got questions? I LOVE comments!
(for this to make sense, page you probably need to read the previous post)
Once you get the idea of how this Ladder works, now find some sample college admissions essays that you like. See if the writer shifts back and forth between the specific and the abstract. (Just jot down “show” when they are specific, and “tell” when they get abstract.) In general, the major shifts will occur between paragraphs, but you can vary within sentences as well.
When you go to write your own essay, review your outline and rough draft to make sure you are making the shifts. If you start with a specific incident or describe something, then make sure your next paragraph or so you shift into the abstract to explain it or reflect upon it. Then make sure you shift back to the specifics. And so on. If you start with a broad, general statement or paragraph, make sure you quickly shift into specifics.
In general, the specifics are the juicier writing. Who doesn’t like a good story, or a vivid example or a powerful description? The abstract, however, may take a bit more patience, but that is what gives meaning to your juicy writing.
Sorry, here’s another metaphor: The specifics are like candy, they go down easily and quickly, whereas the abstract is more like ice-cream, yummy but very rich. Too much of either and you can start to feel sick.
It’s really a matter of balance. Too many specifics and you get overwhelmed, buried in the details. Too much abstract discussion and you start to float away in the clouds, and drift off to sleep. The best place is to just keep moving—up and down that ladder.
Best Advice On How to
Write a College Application Essay That Rocks!
“The Ladder of Abstraction” is one of my favorite writing tools, especially for writing narrative pieces such as college admissions essays. It is a wonderful way to give structure to an essay without imposing one of those five-paragraph essay formats.
“The Ladder” is a lot simpler than it sounds: Basically, it is making sure you vary your writing to go back and forth between the specific and the abstract.
The “Ladder” image means you go down the ladder into the specifics (the gritty details), and up the ladder into the abstract (the ephemeral clouds). To write well, you need to go up and down constantly.
The shifting between the specifics and the abstract makes your writing engaging and dynamic.
See if this makes more sense:
To be specific, you use details (Remember those “concrete details?”) you describe, you tell stories/anecdotes, you give examples, you use dialogue/quotes, statistics, you use descriptive language to create images, feelings, you use the Who, What, When, Where and Hows, etc.
To be abstract, you explain, you reflect, you interpret, you address the metaphorical or figurative (comparisons, similes, etc.), you are more general, broader, you explore the Why.
The specifics help you make sense of the abstract. The abstract helps you understand the significance of the specifics. To communicate effectively, you need both. To write well, go back and forth between them, zoom in and zoom out, over and over. (There is no strict rule of when you shift in writing, but in general you will see it from paragraph to paragraph.)
Here’s another way to think about the Ladder of Abstraction:
When you are specific, you SHOW the reader what you mean.
When you are abstract, you TELL the reader what you mean.
Going up and down the ladder in writing means you Show in a paragraph, then you Tell in the next paragraph, then you shift back to Showing, then again to Telling, etc. You can start an essay by either Showing or Telling, but make sure to shift right away. In essays, I prefer Showing in the introduction because that’s usually more compelling “grabber” writing.
To throw in yet another metaphor: This process is like using a camera. When you get specific, you zoom in close to your subject so you can “show” the reader all the little details. When you get abstract, you zoom out and take in the larger picture so that you can “tell” the reader what these details mean and why they are important in that broader context.
More later…if you can’t tell, I love this approach! If you want to learn more on your own about how to use the ladder of abstraction in your writing, check out this powerful list of Writing Tools by Author Roy Peter Clark, which includes my favorite writing tips from his amazing writing guide, Writing Tools: 50 Essential Strategies for Every Writer.
Ready to write? Start with my Jumpstart Guide!