Show, Don’t Tell: How to Write a College Admission Essay

By: Caroline Koppelman

In English class, you learn what it means to write a good hook. The hook is the part of your writing that reels the reader in and keeps them interested in reading further. With the college essay, the hook is just a means to a beginning. While writing, your focus is on making every part of your essay just as intriguing as the next. Your audience is an admissions officer that is trying to figure out whether or not you’re the student they want at their school. Therefore, you can’t just focus on an amazing hook and then leave the rest of the essay feeling dull and boring.

In writing your college essay, your aim is to reveal as much about yourself as you can in a creative fashion. This means you shouldn’t be explicitly listing your qualifications and characteristics. Your writing style and your content will say more about you than if you were to spell them out within the essay itself. The essay is the perfect example of showing not telling. You don’t have to tell the admissions committee why you would be the perfect fit, but you should show them, through your writing style and technique, how you would be their ideal student. 

If writing isn’t your strong suit, there are ways you can work to achieve the “show, not tell” aesthetic that the essay needs. We suggest researching your interests on a specific college’s website and then using some of their language in your essay. For example, if you’re writing about how you want to be an active part of the community, include the school’s buzzwords about their community initiatives and clubs. These words will resonate with the reader because they are familiar with them and associate them with the school.

If writing comes easier to you and is something you want to get creative with, then try creating a narrative. Your aim is to not be didactic within the essay. You want the reader to feel engaged, not bored and disinterested. We recommend brainstorming experiences and memories that fit the guidelines of the prompts that interest you. Then you can select something from that list that you feel can be developed into an interesting story. However, you have to remember that the story must be true, not embellished.

Unlike the papers you write for school, the college essay has to be equally intriguing from beginning to end. It must make the reader think that you are someone that they need at their institution. Your goal is to leave the admissions officer with an understanding of who you are as well as how your mind works. The essay is like a blueprint of your mind. They get to hear more about you as an applicant while also finding out how you choose to write and communicate your ideas.