How to “Show, Don’t Tell”

There is constant debate on what a good college application essay should look like. But most admission officers and college counselors would agree that “show, don’t tell” is a good rule of thumb when you are writing your college application essays. But what does “show, don’t tell” mean, exactly? Over the years, I have come to realize that what students (and probably English teachers) typically associate with “show” in writing is NOT THE SAME as what the UCs consider as “show.”

Let me explain.

Many students (and often English teachers or even counselors) think that “in the moment” writing (descriptive narrative) is the same as “show.” What they don’t realize is that descriptive narrative is NOT appreciated by the UC Application readers and admission officers. An example I use when explaining this to students is the experience of riding a roller coaster. A vivid description about how your heart was pounding, the way your palms were sweating, the anxious anticipation of the impending drop, is NOT HELPFUL for the readers to understand your intellectual capacity, personal growth, and/or future aspirations.

So what should you talk about?

Using the same example of riding a roller coaster, you should talk about how the experience changed your perspective about yourself or those around you, or about life (demonstrating self-reflection/intellectual capacity), or your future goals (demonstrating forethought and aspiration), or how the experience allowed you to develop (skills or abilities) into a better version of yourself, as a person, a student, and/or a leader (demonstrating personal growth). Of course, riding a roller coaster is hardly a life-altering event. But whatever you decide to write about in your Personal Insight Questions SHOULD BE significant enough to be worthy of you discussing it in your Personal Insight Questions.

What should you take away from this?

The UCs have repeatedly stated that you should treat the Personal Insight Questions as interview questions, NOT as essay questions. Therefore, don’t do anything in your Personal Insight Questions that would seem weird during an interview …

  • Starting your interview with a quote … weird. Starting your Personal Insight Questions with a quote … also weird.
  • Talking about an experience using descriptive narrative during an interview … weird. Talking about an experience using descriptive narrative in your Personal Insight Questions … also weird.
  • Acting out a scene or a dialogue during an interview … weird. Writing out a scene or a dialogue in your Personal Insight Questions … also weird.
  • Bursting into song or composing a poem during an interview … weird. Quoting song lyrics or composing a poem in your Personal Insight Questions … also weird.
  • Cursing or using inappropriate language during an interview … REALLY BAD. Cursing or using inappropriate language in your Personal Insight Question … also REALLY BAD.

What the UCs want to see in the UC Application (all sections of the application, including the Personal Insight Questions) is a clear demonstration of self-awareness and personal growth, coordinated plan to optimize available educational and extracurricular resources, and vision for the future (personal and educational goals), NOT clever writing tactics! For your Personal Insight Questions to be effective, you must …

  • Find a common theme in your coursework (for transfer students, this would be your major), as well as your extracurricular activities, and develop your Personal Insight Questions around those themes.
  • Explain the significance of your experience, not the details of the experience. If you don’t already know why your activities are important to you … figure it out! I know you were not taught to do this in school and, yes, it’s patently unfair you should be asked to do this for college applications. But this is happening, so sit down and keep thinking until you understand the significance of your experiences.
  • Articulate your understanding of how your current learning and activities support and shape your future goals (in college and beyond).

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