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, those around, 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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Join the discussion and tell us your opinion.

October 15, 2021 at 12:33 pm

Ms Sun, thanks for your great emails. One question re: PIQs. How directly do students need to answer the questions? For instance, the PIQ #5 on challenge they overcame, sometimes what they learned doesn’t apply to academics, which is the 2nd part of the question. Have you heard this reference to academics is critical to answer or is it more the overall content and what they learned from the challenge?

Ms. Sunreply
October 15, 2021 at 8:42 pm
– In reply to: Marjorie

If you are talking about #5 specifically, the challenge doesn’t have to be academic in nature but it should have either a positive or negative effect on the student’s school performance. Remember the UCs are using the PIQ to assess students’ potential for academic success (how students will likely do in college – UCs want to admit students who will succeed because what’s the point of admitting students who will be mediocre, not do well, or flunk out later?), so EVERYTHING the students talk about in the PIQ should somehow address their potential for academic success.

Let’s say a student experienced a challenge when her parents divorced. Maybe the divorce was messy and she was splitting her time between two households and going to court, and that had a negative impact on her school work. She should discuss the practical impact of what happened (how time spent traveling and going to court affected her ability to do well in her classes) and how she worked to overcome the challenges she experienced (she’s not going to impress the UCs by talking about how she took the challenges lying down). On the other hand, maybe the divorce was messy and she opted to move in with her adult sibling and channeled all of her energy into taking the most rigorous courses available at her school and the nearby community college, and earning excellent grades, to distract herself from the difficulties at home. That is a positive impact and she should talk about how she coped with the situation and how her experiences prepared her to excel in college.

Questions or Comments?