4 Effective Techniques to Demonstrate Instead of Explain in Your College Essay

4 Effective Techniques to Demonstrate Instead of Explain in Your College Essay

When it comes to writing your college essay, you’re faced with the daunting task of standing out from the larger pile of applications. What’s the key to making your essay memorable? It’s simple – instead of telling the admissions readers what you’ve experienced or learned, show them through your writing. By using effective techniques that create vivid scenes and meaningful relationships within your essay, you can captivate your readers and leave a lasting impression.

One of the most intriguing ways to demonstrate instead of explain is by setting the scene. Instead of simply stating what happened, paint a picture for your readers by using descriptive language. Show them the sights, sounds, and emotions of the moment you’re writing about. By doing so, you can make your essay come to life and engage your readers on a deeper level.

Another technique to keep in mind is creating memorable characters. Instead of talking about yourself in a generic way, introduce the people who have influenced you or the ones you’ve encountered along your journey. By bringing these individuals to life through specific details and dialogue, you not only make your essay more interesting, but you also give your readers a glimpse into who you really are.

Don’t forget – actions speak louder than words. Instead of telling your readers what you’ve learned or accomplished, show them through your actions. Highlight the moments when you’ve gone above and beyond, the times when you’ve taken risks, or the instances when you’ve shown resilience. By focusing on these key events and showcasing how you’ve handled them, you can demonstrate your skills and character without explicitly explaining them.

Setting the Scene

Think about the last time you read a book or watched a movie that really stuck with you. What made it memorable? Chances are, it was the way the writer or filmmaker painted a vivid picture of the setting. They didn’t just tell you where the story took place – they showed you. And by doing so, they brought you into the world of the story and made you feel like you were right there alongside the characters.

When writing your college essay, you can use the same technique to make your readers feel like they’re a part of your story. Rather than simply stating that you’re passionate about a certain subject, you can paint a picture of a moment that captured your interest and made you want to learn more. Instead of telling the reader that you’re a hard worker, you can show it by describing the pile of books and papers on your desk, or the late nights you spent studying.

By including specific examples and sensory details, you can make your essay more engaging and memorable. Instead of just saying that you’re a good listener, for example, you can show it by recounting a conversation where you really made an effort to understand someone else’s point of view. Rather than telling the reader that you’re a compassionate person, you can show it by describing a time when you went out of your way to help someone in need.

Showing Telling
It was a hot summer day, and the sun beat down on the pavement. The air smelled of freshly cut grass and sunscreen. It was a hot day.
As the sun set, the stars popped out one by one, creating a breathtaking display of lights in the night sky. The stars came out at night.
I was nervous before the big game, my heart racing and my palms sweaty. I was nervous before the game.

By showing rather than telling, you can engage your readers on a deeper level and make your essay more memorable. When choosing which events or moments to include in your essay, ask yourself whether they demonstrate the qualities or traits you want to convey. If not, consider whether there’s a better example or moment you could use.


  • When writing a college essay, it’s important to “show” rather than “tell”.
  • Setting the scene and using sensory details can help bring your writing to life.
  • Think about specific examples and moments that demonstrate the qualities you want to convey.
  • By showing rather than telling, you can make your essay more engaging and memorable.


Show, Don’t Tell

Instead of simply stating facts or telling the reader what happened, show them through detailed descriptions and engaging narratives. For example, instead of saying “I was nervous,” paint a vivid picture by describing how your hands shook, your heart raced, and your thoughts raced in all different directions. This allows the reader to experience the moment alongside you.

Capture Their Senses

Engage the reader’s senses by describing sights, sounds, smells, tastes, and textures. By appealing to their senses, you create a more vivid and compelling picture in their minds. For example, instead of saying “the crowd was excited,” describe how the cheers filled the air, how the music shook your bones, and how the smell of popcorn and cotton candy wafted through the stadium.

Using sensory details not only makes your essay more intriguing, but it also helps the reader feel a deeper connection to your experiences.

Choose Intriguing Moments and Events

When selecting which moments or events to write about, consider what is most meaningful to you and what will resonate with the reader. Choose experiences that highlight your growth, resilience, or passion. These moments can be large or small, as long as they have personal significance.

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By focusing on these key moments, you can create a narrative that keeps the reader engaged and wanting to know more.

Takeaways and Key Points

When writing your college essay, keep in mind the following key points:

  1. Show, don’t tell: Use examples and descriptive language to bring your experiences to life.
  2. Incorporate sensory details: Engage the reader’s senses to make your essay more immersive.
  3. Choose intriguing moments: Highlight personal growth, resilience, or passion to captivate the reader.
  4. Keep the reader engaged: Create a narrative that makes the reader forget they’re reading.

By following these techniques, you can create a college essay that not only stands out from the rest but also captures the attention of admissions officers. Remember, it’s not just about what you say, but how you say it.

What does “show not tell” mean?

Essentially, “show not tell” is a key writing strategy that encourages writers to demonstrate their ideas or experiences through vivid examples and specific details instead of simply stating them. Instead of telling the reader what happened or how they felt, the writer must paint a scene that allows the reader to experience it themselves.

For example, instead of saying, “I was really tired,” the writer might describe a moment where they collapsed onto their bed after a long day of school and work, showing the exhaustion through their actions. By showing the reader this scene, the writer creates a more engaging and vivid image, allowing the reader to connect with the experience on a deeper level.

This technique is especially important when it comes to writing college essays. College admissions officers read thousands of essays, so it’s important to grab their attention and make your essay memorable. Instead of simply telling them why you’re interested in a certain topic or how you’ve grown as a person, you must show them through your experiences and examples. This not only keeps the reader engaged, but also allows them to see your unique perspective and individuality.

When writing your college essay, keep in mind the following takeaways:

  1. Forget the “tell” and focus on the “show.” Instead of telling the reader what’s important or how you feel, show them through your writing.
  2. Make your essay come alive by using vivid examples and specific details. This will help the reader visualize your experiences and understand your perspective.
  3. Show, don’t just tell, your reader what you’ve learned and how you’ve grown. Instead of simply stating it, include examples and moments that demonstrate this growth.
  4. Remember that showing not telling is a powerful device in writing. By using this technique effectively, you can create a more dynamic and engaging essay that will leave a lasting impression.

So, if you’re tired of simply telling your reader about your experiences, it’s time to start showing them. By using the “show not tell” strategy in your college essay, you can create a more compelling narrative that will captivate admissions officers and set your essay apart from the rest.

Choosing a Topic

Many students make the mistake of choosing a topic that is too general or generic. They may think that writing about something everyone can relate to will make their essay more appealing, but this often has the opposite effect. Admissions officers read hundreds, if not thousands, of essays, and they’re tired of reading about the same topics over and over again.

Instead of telling your readers about a topic that they’ve likely already covered in other essays, show them a unique and personal experience that highlights a specific moment or event in your life. Creating a scene or a story within your essay helps to keep your readers engaged and makes your essay more memorable.

Don’t just tell your readers about a feeling or a thought you had, show them through sensory details and vivid descriptions. Use words that paint a picture in their head, so they can truly understand and experience what you’re trying to convey. By including specific details, you bring your story to life and make it more relatable.

What Makes a Good Topic?

A good topic is one that not only interests you, but also allows you to reflect on your experiences and showcase your personality. It should be something that you’re passionate about and that reflects who you are as a person.

Think about significant moments or events in your life that have shaped you or made you who you are today. Maybe it was a summer job that taught you the value of hard work, or a volunteer experience that showed you the importance of giving back. Reflect on those experiences and think about how they’ve influenced your values, goals, or beliefs.

Remember, the key is to show, not tell. Don’t just list your achievements or experiences; delve deeper and explain why they are meaningful to you. Admission officers are more interested in understanding your thought process and seeing how these experiences have contributed to your personal growth.

Choosing a Topic: What to Avoid

While it’s important to choose a topic that showcases your unique experiences and personality, there are certain topics you should avoid. Some topics, like your romantic relationships or your parents’ divorce, might be too personal and could make readers uncomfortable.

Similarly, avoid writing about controversial or highly sensitive topics, such as politics or religion, unless they have had a significant impact on your life and you can discuss them in a mature and respectful way.

Remember, when it comes to choosing a topic for your college essay, what matters most is that it’s something meaningful to you. The admissions officers want to learn more about who you are as a person and what you can bring to their college community. So trust your instincts and choose a topic that truly reflects your unique experiences and perspective.

Show Don’t Tell: How to Write a College Admission Essay

So, how exactly can you show rather than tell in your college essay? Here are 4 effective techniques that can help you:

  1. Set the scene: Instead of starting your essay with a bland statement or generalization, take your readers on a journey by vividly describing the setting of a significant event or moment in your life. Use descriptive language to paint a picture in their minds and immerse them in your story.
  2. Show, don’t tell: Instead of simply stating facts or telling the readers what you did, show them through specific examples and anecdotes. Describe the actions you took, the emotions you felt, and the impact it had on you. This will help readers understand the significance of your experiences and create a stronger connection with your story.
  3. Include sensory details: Engage the readers’ senses by incorporating sensory details in your writing. Describe how things looked, sounded, smelled, tasted, or felt to create a more immersive experience for the readers. This will make your essay more vivid and memorable.
  4. Focus on relationships: Instead of solely focusing on your achievements, emphasize the relationships and connections you formed along the way. Show how these relationships influenced your experiences and personal growth. This will not only make your essay more relatable and meaningful but also showcase your interpersonal skills.
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By following these techniques, you can create a college admission essay that truly stands out from the pile of other applications. Remember, showing rather than telling is the key to making your essay more engaging and memorable. So, take the time to think about the moments and experiences that have shaped you, and find creative ways to bring them to life within your writing.

Ways to Show Not Tell in a College Essay

1. Use Concrete Examples

Instead of simply telling the reader what’s happening or how you’re feeling, provide specific examples that paint a vivid picture. Show them a scene or a moment that captures the essence of what you’re trying to convey. For example, instead of saying “I’m a hardworking student,” you could show this by describing a time when you stayed up late studying for a test or went the extra mile to complete a challenging project.

2. Show, Don’t Tell

This classic writing device is always a good one to keep in mind. Instead of telling the reader how someone else feels or what they’re thinking, show it through their actions and words. Let the reader become an active participant in the story by allowing them to interpret the emotions and thoughts of the characters themselves. This way, your essay becomes more engaging and memorable.

3. Use Descriptive Language

Don’t rely on vague or generic words to describe your experiences or accomplishments. Instead, use specific and sensory language to paint a clear picture in the reader’s mind. By using precise details and concrete imagery, you can create a stronger connection between your experiences and the reader’s imagination.

4. Focus on Key Moments

Instead of trying to cover every aspect of your life or every achievement you’ve had, focus on a few key moments or events that have shaped you. By delving deeper into these moments, you can provide the reader with a more insightful glimpse into who you are and what you’ve overcome. Remember, it’s better to go in-depth on a few things than to cover a wide range of topics superficially.

By incorporating these strategies into your college essay, you can show the admissions officers who you truly are and what you’re capable of. Don’t just tell them – show them with compelling examples and vivid descriptions. Make your essay stand out from the pile of other applications and leave a lasting impression.

How to “Show Don’t Tell” in College Essays

Create a vivid setting: Instead of telling your readers that you were nervous before your big soccer game, show them the scene. Describe the grass beneath your cleats, the sound of the cheering crowd, and the intensity in the air. By painting a picture of the setting, you can convey the emotions and atmosphere without explicitly stating them.

Use specific examples: Instead of saying that you’re a hardworking student, give your readers examples of your dedication and commitment. Talk about the time you stayed up all night studying for a difficult exam or the extra hours you put into a science project. By providing specific instances, you can show the qualities you possess instead of simply telling the reader that you have them.

Depict relationships: Instead of explaining the dynamics within your family or friend group, show the interactions and conversations that highlight those relationships. Maybe there’s a moment when your sibling offers you comfort after a tough day or a time when your friend encourages you to pursue your dreams. By illustrating these moments, you let the reader understand the nature of these relationships without having to explicitly explain them.

Focus on the senses: Instead of describing how you felt during a certain event, focus on the sensory experiences. Describe what you saw, heard, smelled, tasted, and touched. By appealing to the reader’s senses, you can allow them to experience the event alongside you and create a more vivid and memorable essay.

Show the bigger meaning: Instead of telling the reader what something means, show them through your actions and experiences. For example, if you want to convey your commitment to community service, don’t just say that it’s important to you. Instead, show the reader the volunteer work you’ve done, the impact it has had on others, and the personal growth you’ve experienced as a result.

Remember, college admissions officers read thousands of essays, and they’re tired of generic statements and empty promises. By “showing” instead of “telling,” you can create a more intriguing essay that stands out from the pile. So, whether you’re writing about a personal experience or discussing your goals for the future, make sure to use these strategies to effectively demonstrate your qualities and experiences.


What are some techniques to demonstrate instead of explain in a college essay?

There are several effective techniques to demonstrate instead of explain in your college essay. These include using vivid descriptions and specific details, incorporating dialogue or storytelling, showing through actions and examples, and using sensory imagery to engage the reader’s senses.

How can I show, not tell, in my college essay?

To show, not tell, in your college essay, focus on demonstrating your experiences and emotions through specific actions, vivid descriptions, and detailed examples. Instead of simply stating your qualities or achievements, bring them to life by showing how they manifest in real-life situations or through impactful anecdotes.

What is the importance of “show don’t tell” in a college essay?

“Show don’t tell” is important in a college essay because it allows the reader to experience your story and form their own emotional connections. By using descriptive language, engaging storytelling techniques, and concrete examples, you can create a more memorable and impactful essay that sets you apart from other applicants.

How can I make my college essay engaging and keep the reader interested?

To make your college essay engaging and keep the reader interested, focus on creating a narrative that captivates their attention from the beginning. Start with a compelling hook, use descriptive language and imagery to paint a vivid picture, and incorporate storytelling techniques that bring your experiences and emotions to life.

What should I keep in mind when writing about relationships in my college essay?

When writing about relationships in your college essay, it is important to show, not tell, the significance and impact of those relationships on your life. Instead of simply stating that someone is important to you, demonstrate it through anecdotes, dialogue, and specific examples that highlight the depth and complexity of the relationship.

What does “show not tell” mean?

“Show not tell” is a writing technique that encourages writers to use concrete and descriptive details to illustrate their ideas or experiences, rather than simply stating them. It is about bringing the reader into the narrative and allowing them to experience the story firsthand, rather than just being told what happened or how to feel.

Alex Koliada, PhD

By Alex Koliada, PhD

Alex Koliada, PhD, is a well-known doctor. He is famous for studying aging, genetics, and other medical conditions. He works at the Institute of Food Biotechnology and Genomics. His scientific research has been published in the most reputable international magazines. Alex holds a BA in English and Comparative Literature from the University of Southern California, and a TEFL certification from The Boston Language Institute.