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Showing Vs Telling – How to Make Your College Admissions Essay More Vivid

Showing Vs Telling - How to Make Your College Admissions Essay More Vivid

Someone may have told you that when writing your college essay, you should use language that shows, not tells. What does this mean? Compare the following two descriptions of the same event.

The family called me to the house because their child was very sick. They were poor but very polite. They were nervous when I arrived.


On my way up the steps to the front door, I noticed that one of the boards was loose and the paint was chipping. The mother was waiting for me. "Doctor, thank you so much for coming," she said. Silently, she led me into what appeared to be the only bedroom in the house. In the dim light, I could make out a tired, flushed child underneath a dirty comforter. "I-I’m sorry," the mother stammered. "We aren’t exactly set up for company."

The first passage simply states what happened, but the second passage (which shows) gives the reader a much more vivid picture. The second passage provides us with all the information in the first and more. We see through the doctor’s eyes as if we were in the room–we have the proof that the child is sick, and that the family is poor and nervous. Because of this vantage point, the reader can construct an interpretation of the event just like the doctor does. Writing that shows is sometimes described as "writing like a camera": it focuses simply on what happened and doesn’t try to explain it.

Once you have a rough draft of your essay, you’ll want to examine every sentence and ask: "Can I do a better job of showing this information?" Of course, showing sometimes (but not always) leads to a longer essay. Since admissions essays are so short, you may only be able to show the most important parts of your essay, the places where you need to be the most vivid and convincing. However, if you do go on longer because of showing, that’s not entirely a bad thing: showing usually makes for more interesting writing that better holds the reader’s attention.


  • Telling simply states what happened, showing gives a vivid picture.
  • Telling makes an assertion, showing provides the reader with the proof.
  • To show, try writing like a camera. Just give us the scene without explaining the meaning.
  • Be sure to back up any statements you make in your essay, and provide specific examples that will convince the reader.

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