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Tips for Writing a Compelling College Essay: Show, Don’t Tell

Crafting a college essay that stands out from the thousands of others is a daunting challenge. While it’s natural to feel the need to impress the admissions committee by listing every little detail of your accomplishments and experiences, simply stating them isn’t enough. To make your essay memorable, it must be compelling, vivid, and engaging. One way to achieve this is by showing, not telling. Here’s how.

Key Takeaways:

  • Showing, not telling, is a technique that brings your writing to life by painting a picture for the reader
  • Engage the reader using sensory details, dialogue, and vivid imagery
  • Do not simply list your achievements or experiences; demonstrate how you have grown or what you have learned from them
  • Be specific and avoid vague or abstract language
  • Have a clear structure: introduction, body, and conclusion
  • Proofread and edit your essay thoroughly

Here are some tips to help you get started:

Engaging the Reader

Many college essays fall short because they are too technical, formal or unrelatable. To captivate the admissions committee, use sensory details, dialogue, and vivid imagery to make your essay more engaging.

For example, don’t tell the reader that you are passionate about music. Instead, describe the feeling you get when you play your instrument or sing. You could write something like, “Whenever I pick up my guitar, my fingers dance across the strings, coaxing out melodies that express the passion, sorrow, and joy I feel inside.”

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Similarly, if you want to demonstrate leadership skills, don’t simply state that you were captain of the debate team or student council. Instead, show how you influenced your team or united opposing factions. Use specific examples such as, “As captain of the debate team, I led by example, creating a culture where each member felt valued and empowered to express their opinions. Through collaboration and respect, we forged a team that delivered outstanding results.”

Specificity is Key

While it’s important to be engaging, it’s equally crucial to be specific. Avoid vague, generic language and abstract ideas. This can make your writing appear impersonal and unmemorable.

Be specific about your interests, experiences, and achievements. Use details, facts, and figures to support your claims. In this way, you demonstrate your depth, knowledge, and passion regarding your subject. For example, instead of writing about your love of travel, mention specific countries or regions you’ve visited and what you learned from those experiences.

Avoid using clichéd statements like “I learned a lot” or “I overcame obstacles,” without providing context. Instead, demonstrate what you have learned or how you have grown from a particular experience.

Structure Your Essay

Structure is important to make your essay easy to read and understand. A clear and concise introduction sets the stage for the reader, while the body provides supporting details, and the conclusion summarizes your message.

Pay attention to your sentence structure and use varied sentence length to break up the rhythm of your writing. Use transitions and connective language to guide the reader through your essay. Your writing should be polished, free of typos or grammatical errors, and have a consistent voice throughout.

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Proofread and Edit Thoroughly

No matter how great your ideas or writing, typos and grammatical errors distract from your message and can negatively impact your chances of being accepted.

Take a break after writing to refresh your mind and then come back with fresh eyes to proofread and edit your essay. You can also consider having someone else read it, such as a teacher, tutor, or friend. They may provide useful feedback or catch errors that you missed.


How long should my essay be?

Most colleges specify an approximate length for their essays, usually between 250-650 words. Be sure to check the requirements of the schools to which you are applying.

How personal should my essay be?

Your essay should be personal, but be careful not to overshare or make your essay unnecessarily personal. Avoid discussing sensitive topics or controversial issues.

What should I avoid in my essay?

Avoid repeating information that can be found elsewhere in your application, such as your grades or test scores. Also, avoid using overly embellished language, humor, or sarcasm, as it can be difficult to convey tone in writing.

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