One of the most common suggestions given to students writing an admissions essay is, “Show, don’t tell.” While this sounds good and seems helpful, many applicants struggle to figure out precisely what the advice means. Is it suggesting that you use the most complex words possible when writing? Maybe it’s saying you should use lots of adjectives and adverbs to ensure your descriptions are extraordinarily vivid? Or could it be that you should actually try painting a picture and submitting that with your app rather than writing anything at all? Let’s dig into this deceivingly complex piece of writing instruction and examine what it means in the context of admissions essay construction.

Too often, an essay with an interesting story will fizzle into a series of statements that tell rather than show the qualities of the writer. Students wrongfully assume that the reader will not “get” their main ideas if they do not beat them to death by explicitly stating them, often multiple times. Thus, the essay succumbs to overly broad clichés: the value of hard work and perseverance, learning from mistakes, overcoming adversity, making the world a better place, and so on. These may seem like good points to make in an admissions essay, but in reality, the strongest essays avoid such statements entirely. Instead, a truly excellent essay uses detailed stories to make broad points of this nature without ever stating them outright.

One of the easiest ways to understand the “Show, don’t tell” idea is to look at some specific examples:

In a mediocre essay: As I came to understand the challenges they face on a daily basis, I developed new compassion for the elderly.

In a better essay: Volunteering at the Senior Citizen Center in my community was an eye-opening experience that introduced me to difficulties faced by the elderly.

In an excellent essay: When I saw Mrs. Cooper struggling to load groceries into her car, I hustled across the parking lot to assist her.

The first example provides no detail; it is simply a broad statement that “tells” the reader something that happened. In doing so, it offers no insights into why or how this happened, nor does it provide any evidence of that compassion in action. The second example provides a bit more detail, but it remains overly general. The final example, on the other hand, evokes a vivid image of something that actually happened, thus placing the reader in the experience of the applicant. Through those words, the author “shows” the reader something that actually occurred in her life. From that experience, the reader is able to see that the author has compassion for the elderly without ever reading those words.

Let’s look at another example:

In a mediocre essay: I am extremely interested in chemistry, which is my favorite subject.

In a better essay: My passion for chemistry led me to enter the state science fair during my sophomore year.

In an excellent essay: As steam billowed from my test tube, I grinned, confident that my science fair project was ready to face the judges’ scrutiny.

Again, you can see that the initial example does little more than make a general point. The second offers a bit more in-depth imagery, while the third vividly describes a specific incident that highlights the author’s passion for chemistry in action. An admissions officer is far more likely to remember the third statement than the first. Moreover, even though the third passage never specifically states a passion for or interest in chemistry, that feeling is conveyed through the scene described.

“Show, don’t tell” is a simple way to remind yourself that an essay should give the admissions committee a detailed glimpse into your life, ideally by sharing things that have actually happened to you. You can do this by describing events and moments that capture something important about yourself. Don’t simply tell readers what you deem important; show them a scene that illustrates that aspect of your life, and allow them to draw the conclusion on their own. Doing so will yield an extremely effective and memorable piece of admission writing.