The Best Way to “Show”
in Your College App Essay
When I started as a young reporter at my first newspaper job in Illinois, I was assigned to cover a half dozen small farm towns.
I didn’t think much would happen out there.
But after about a month, there was a gruesome double murder in one of the towns on my beat.
A former convict looking for beer money stumbled upon a couple in their 20s fishing by a stream. After he stole $40, he tied them up and shot them both in the head because one of them recognized him.
For me, a 22-year-old cub reporter, this story was the big time.
After the first splash of reporting what happened, I needed a follow-up piece for the next edition. But there wasn’t a lot new to say since the suspect was still at large.
A fellow reporter suggested I drive to the couple’s hometown of about 5,000 and write a mood piece about the tragedy.
I raced out to the local watering hole and interviewed some of the residents, several of whom were related to the victims.
When I went back to write it up on deadline, my friend suggested I use an anecdotal lede (introduction using an anecdote).
I kind of knew what that meant, but he gave me some pointers on how to use colorful details and dialogue to capture the atmosphere of shock, grief and fear in that town.
(My friend was a talented writer and had learned in college what are known as the New Journalism writing techniques, where reporters tell true stories using literary devices found in fiction.)
I started the story describing the town, with its one main drag and single stoplight, and the dark, gloomy bar in the middle of the day, with pick-up trucks and Harleys lined up outside and Merle Haggard and Donna Summer playing on the jukebox, and other details like that.
Then I wove in some of the conversations (dialogue) with the bar patrons about the two victims and bizarre murder.
Back at the newsroom, I barely made my deadline and went home late.
When I opened the newspaper the next morning, there was my story.
Front page, top of the fold, with a huge banner headline.
And my byline.
I was surprised and giddy.
I even called my parents.
That story gave me my first taste of the power of the mighty anecdote.
Instead of telling the readers about the fall out of the murders, I showed them with this mood piece.
Instead of telling them how the residents were shocked and devastated, I showed them by weaving in their comments, feelings and observations.
For the rest of my journalism career, I always looked for ways to show instead of tell in my stories. Using an anecdote was often the best device, especially for the start of stories, called “ledes.”
Even after I shifted into other writing roles, such as editing lifestyle magazines and writing marketing content, I still found ways to use anecdotes to power my writing.
When I started helping students write their college application essays about seven years ago, I realized how perfectly anecdotes could work to help students tell their own stories using the narrative (storytelling) style of writing.
You can use an anecdote to convey other people’s true stories—like reporters use them—or to convey your own real-life stories.
Anecdotes can be tricky to craft. There’s an art to providing just enough information to tell the mini-story, but not too much to give it all away.
They work like a dream to engage readers at the start of a college application essay, and inject personality, drama and emotion.
They just take a little practice.
So if you want to add this potent technique to your college application essay writing toolkit, read my posts on how to write anecdotes.
And watch my short, new tutorial video about How to Write an Anecdote: Part One.