“If you want to ‘show’ something, ask, ‘Can you prove it with an example?'”

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College Application Essay Grabber Trick: Show First!


When you write a college application essay, you want to “grab” the attention of your reader from the start.

My favorite writing technique to hook readers is to engage them with an anecdote, which is a real-life moment or incident.

You might have already written your essay, and not noticed that you have one of these magical anecdotes down low.

Chances are you started your essay telling about yourself in your essay, and missed the opportunity to reach out and grab your reader with a real-life anecdote that illustrates your point. (more…)

SHOW the World You Come From


The University of California CHANGED its essay prompts for 2016-17.

Learn about the all-new requirements by clicking HERE!



How to Describe a Place
in a College App Essay

If you are applying to the University of California, you need to write two college application essays.

I wrote about how to Describe the World You Come From three years ago, explaining how to think about the first prompt and brainstorm ideas for your essay.

It would help you to read that advice first, then come back.

This time, I want to give you some ideas on how to SHOW the world you decide to write about when describing the setting of your world.

Since in the UC essay your world will be some type of community, I believe you might need to describe where  you experienced it. In writing, that’s called the setting.

If you want a powerful essay, you will use descriptive language, sensory details and specific examples to help us see your world. (more…)

Essay Rocket Fuel: The Anecdote

College Admissions Essays

How to Write an Anecdote

For Your College Application Essay, Personal Statement or other Essays

If you can write an anecdote, you can write a powerful essay.

But a lot of students don’t know what an anecdote is, let alone how to write one.

It’s really just a weird word for a little story or animated description of something that happened.

Usually they are very short.

If done well, they make excellent introductions for all essays since they grab the reader’s attention.

In essays, an anecdote is an example of a point you want to make that uses a little story or animated description.

Example: You want to make the point in your essay that you are a creative person.

So you write an anecdote to illustrate your point: You could describe something creative that you made, or you could describe yourself making something interesting.

Like this:

During a walk near my home, I found a long stick that looked like the letter “Y.” I smoothed the surface with sandpaper and covered it with blueberry blue paint I found in the garage, then wrapped it with twine and colored yarn. From my junk drawer, I tied seashells, a couple old keys and a bent fork to the ends and hung it in my room.

“What’s that?” my little sister asked.

“Art,” I said, even though I wasn’t even sure what I had made.

(Then background your interest in art, how you think about it, why you value it, how it has affected you, changed you, and what your plans are for it in the future…)


The Catch-22 of College Admissions Essays

It feels like a set-up. First, you are supposed to reveal how wonderful you are in 500 words–about the number you can cram onto a postcard in your teensiest handwriting. Second, you must sell yourself to the college of your dreams—setting yourself apart from the thousands of other equally wonderful students–but appear humble and likeable at the same time. Third, no one has ever taught you how to write this type of essay, called a personal narrative. No one. Ever!

I call this impossible challenge the Catch 22 of College Essays, at least the part about saying how great you are and staying meek at the same time. You know, make an impression but don’t dare try to impress anyone!! No wonder you are stressed out!!!

The best way to handle this challenge–and I have detailed how to do this all over my blog–is to stick with a story. And it doesn’t have to be a life-changing, mind-blowing event, either. In a weird way that I don’t quite understand, the less impressive the story—the more basic, simple, everyday, mundane it is—the better it will go over. (Learn more about the power of mundane topics.)

Here’s how it works: When you tell your story, you naturally show the reader about yourself. You can avoid that awkward tone of voice that sounds boastful when you describe yourself: I’m a really creative person. I’m really passionate. I’m really great at solving problems. For some reason, when you hear someone say something like that, your first reaction is to think, with great sarcasm, “Oh, you are, are you? Well, good for you!” Whereas, if you just describe the time you built a ten-foot sculpture out of driftwood, feathers, dryer lint and goat hair, the reader might think, without a hint of sarcasm, “Wow, that’s pretty cool. That girl sounds creative.”  See the difference? More on Show, Don’t Tell.)

I know I’ve hammered on this, but find your anecdotes, your examples, interesting moments, and just describe what happened—and then examine what you learned from them. It’s hard to go wrong with a story.

Read this post on How to Write an Anecdote to get started telling your best stories!


Revenge of a Tortured English Professor

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!)