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"Show and don't tell." What the heck does that mean?

Updated: Jun 12, 2022

Countless teachers have left red marks all over my essays to "show" and not "tell" my story. But, what does "showing" a story mean, and how do I do that?

If you are equally confused and want to make your essay unique and compelling, this article is for you.

Why you want to show and not tell your story:

  1. Make your essay exciting and not boring. Many of you have done public speaking; much fewer have spoken on the topic of international politics. Don't write about the time you spoke in front of an audience. Instead, write about what inspired you to draft and give a speech on US-China relations in the age of anti-Asian hate crimes and COVID-19. See what I did there? Take a general topic and dive deep into the specifics. Your unique story is what makes your essay exciting.

  2. Engage the reader. Let's say someone tells you about a visit to a coffee shop to get a drink. That's a cool story but not interesting. Let's say someone else shows you their Starbucks' secret menu order, the Raspberry Cheesecake Frappuccino. Now you're interested. Tell me more. How did it taste? Would you recommend it? You want to have this same effect on your readers, and you can achieve this by providing more specifics.

  3. Tell admission officers about yourself. The ultimate goal of your essay is to tell the reader (i.e., the admission officer) about yourself. For example, one common app prompt asks you this: "Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time." Unlike an academic paper, this prompt is not asking you to describe the topic itself but why this topic captivates you. Rather than write, "I care deeply about racial inequality," share a story of when you demonstrated this. And, showing is a much stronger way to sharing more about yourself than just telling.

Here are specific examples:

These are small snippets of stories that could take up an entire essay or paragraph. My goal here was to provide a starting point for you to begin leveling up your own essay.

Example #1: Asking questions in class


  • To make sure I completely understand a topic, I always try to ask my teachers many questions and do as many problems as possible.


  • I usually find math very intuitive, but calculus was a foreign language. No matter how many times I read the textbook examples or watched Khan Academy, I still didn't understand derivatives. The next day, I asked my math teacher how I could visualize this concept in real life. When she explained how we could use derivatives to calculate the rate of COVID-19 infections in my state, that's when it finally clicked. I also had many more questions--I was so curious.

Example #2: Expressing interest


  • I like biology and am very interested in the intersection of computer science and neuroscience.


  • I asked my AP Biology teacher how our brain recognizes an image in a split second. She shared that simple and complex neurons fire when we see specific objects with a particular orientation, horizontal or vertical. I asked more questions. Later, when I went back home, I coded a small program that identified whether a person was sitting or standing in an image.

I can go on and on about image recognition in the brain because that was my favorite topic in school. Identify your interests, and you'll find that it's pretty easy to write about them.

Example #3: Learning from failure


  • I treat every mistake as a learning opportunity and never let failures get me down.


  • The first time I tried to raise $5k for the local animal shelter, I only secured $1k. I thought long and hard about what I could do differently the next time. My strategy for the first fundraiser was to post flyers all over the school. When I thought about how I rarely read school posters, I realized that I needed to try a different strategy. I gathered a team of social media experts, and we created viral TikToks on animals that the shelter rescued. At the end of the month, we raised $15k.

Writing a solid college essay takes a lot of thinking and even more work. Remember that one of the most straightforward ways to make your writing more unique is to "show" and not "tell."

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