One of the Hot Writing Tips
for College Application Essays

I’m excited to share one of the 50-plus writing tips, techniques and ideas from my just-published guide: Essay Hell’s Writing Survival Kit, now available as a Kindle ebook on Amazon. This one is from Chapter Three, called Show the Way.

In many of the writing tips and advice, I draw helpful examples from the sample college application essays written by students at the back of the book. In the digital Kindle version, there are live links (but they won’t work in this excerpt, sorry!).

Show and Tell in Your Essay

To me, this is one of the most powerful writing concepts out there. I wish I had learned it sooner.

We all have heard about the importance of “showing” in good writing. This holds especially true for college application essays, since one of the goals is to engage those potentially bored-to-tears admissions counselors from the get-go.

One of the purest techniques of “showing” in writing is called the anecdote, which I encourage students to use in their introductions. But effective essays also include quite a bit of “telling.” And that’s fine.

To both show and tell, you “show” the reader something, and then you “tell” them what it means. Or you “tell” them about something, then you “show” them an example so they get what you mean. (Some writing teachers call this the “what” and the “so what.”)

Check out how student Max Rubin started his essay by “showing” with an anecdote, and then went on to “tell” the reader what it meant in his Sample Essay in Chapter 11:

(Showing: Anecdote)

When we pulled up to the McDonald’s drive-through, my friend ordered the usual for our group: “Four Big Macs, four large fries, and four large Cokes.”

But at the pick-up window, I poked my head out from the back seat and told the server: “Make that three of everything, please. And add a bottle of water.”

“A bottle of water?” My friend turned to me with a baffled look on his face. “Since when? Are you on a diet or something?”

(Telling: Background)

I felt a flush of embarrassment, but I just tried to ignore the comments and change the subject. Not many teenage boys have to watch what they eat. Most of my friends can devour almost anything and stay thin. I thought I was like them and dined on junk food without a second thought until about two years ago. One morning in the beginning of my sophomore year, I stepped on the scale and was shocked to see that I was more than 20 pounds overweight.

In almost any effective writing, you need both. To keep your reader engaged, you need to shift back and forth between the two—showing and then telling; telling and then showing, etc.

To use this approach, it helps to know the difference:

Showing=Details; Specifics; Examples

Telling=Explaining; Analyzing; Reflecting; General Points

If you want to “tell” something, ask “Why? What does it mean? Explain it to me.”

In these shorter essays, you will “show” at the beginning with an anecdote, and then the rest will be mostly “telling” (with some more showing interspersed along the way) or explaining what it all meant.

As readers, college admissions officers are looking for how you find personal meaning out of whatever happened to you. This is one way they assess your intelligence, critical thinking skills, unique coping strategies and life philosophies.

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college application essay

For a limited time, I’m sharing ebook review copies. If you are interested in reading my Writing Survival Kit and sharing a review on its Amazon page, email me (Janine) at: Can’t wait to hear what you think!