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Essay Rules: Show, Don't Tell

Weaving In Stories and Evidence Throughout Your Essay

Demonstrating Your Qualities without Bragging

There is a fine line between a confident, capable applicant and an arrogant, self-absorbed applicant. You may find yourself faced with the problem that many qualified students face when crafting their college application essay: how to display all of your positive attributes without boasting. The trick to solving this problem is demonstrating rather than proclaiming (i.e. showing, rather than telling). You can do this by tactfully using a variety of examples, short anecdotes, or even a single long narrative to present yourself in the best possible light.

Stripping your Essay of Vanity

Before helping you decide what examples and narratives to use, let us go over words and elements that should not appear in your college applications essay:

  • Do not use superlative adjectives (great, fantastic, super, extraordinary) when describing yourself. Let your reader deduce your awesomeness from the material that you present.
  • Do not make unsupported claims. You do not want to say “I am great at being a team leader.” Why should the reader trust your unsubstantiated self-praise? People often have very skewed perceptions of themselves, so merely stating your high opinion of yourself is not going to cut it.
  • Do not include compliments to yourself from other people without context or explanation. You do not want to say something like, “My English teacher calls me her most brilliant student.” This is simply a less direct method of bragging. Instead, explain what you have done to achieve the respect and admiration of teachers and fellow peers.

With these restrictions in mind, remember that it is good to demonstrate ambition. You can mention that it is your goal is to be a very successful politician or famous artist someday, for example. Writing about your goals and ambitions is not bragging; it is simply explaining that you have high standards which you hold yourself accountable for. Being goal-oriented is a very desirable trait in a prospective student.

How to Show

The way to show your positive attributes on paper is by using examples, anecdotes, or a single long narrative that you thread throughout your essay. These pieces of evidence will become a central part of your essay, providing needed support for your argument and illustrating what sort of person you are and strive to become.

Before selecting your stories, you must first decide on a thesis (see Developing Your Thesis to learn more). Next, think of your three supporting points (the topic sentences for each body paragraph). Once you have determined which points you want to support, think of examples that demonstrate or strengthen your supporting points. If you can think of a single very impactful story that supports your thesis and helps answer the prompt, you may use that as your long narrative.

Start by thinking of your most impressive accomplishments and the impact that you have generated. Think about the context of these achievements; can you think of several different accomplishments that demonstrate your positive attributes? If so, you can use 5-6 short anecdotes as your evidence (conveyed in 2-3 sentences each).

Is there a single narrative that you can use as supporting evidence which brings out several of your positive qualities? If so, tell the reader your story, focusing only on the relevant bits (again, in only 2-3 sentences at a time).

Here are some tips on what kind of stories and examples to avoid in your college admissions essay:

  • Irrelevant stories and examples. While you want to include examples that demonstrate your capabilities, you should be careful to select only examples that support your thesis and help answer the prompt. If you want to mention a valuable skill but can find no way to tie it into your paper, put it on your résumé or the activities section of the common application.
  • Too many stories. It is good to have plenty of examples, but you do not want to have more story than introspection (remember our 40/60 rule). Make sure that each story is integral to your point.
  • Stories that reveal negative qualities. Even if the story provides evidence that you are hardworking, it should not be included if it also includes evidence of any sort of misconduct, such as excessive partying or missing deadlines. Some prompts specifically ask for a failure. In response to these prompts, you may tell the reader about a failure if it has resulted in larger and more important success, or if it has contributed to your personal growth.
  • Stories with controversial content. Avoid politically-sensitive topics such as abortion, gun control, or the death penalty. If you do choose to include controversial material, make it clear that you are not pushing your views but rather standing up for something you believe in. Nevertheless, it is best to avoid including any controversial matter altogether. Your readers are only human and, as much as we would like for them to be objective, can still pass judgements that are irrelevant to your qualifications.

Take a look at Sharon’s introductory paragraph:

When you step into my foyer, you step into Moscow, my friends would always say. Russian television was always blasting in the background, and the smell of some Russian concoction that my mom was making always permeated through the household. I had to simultaneously assimilate into American culture while remembering my heritage. When I was younger I thought this cultural exposure was a nuisance, but I know think of it as a luxury—I have been able to learn from my background, adapt to new settings, and use my experience to help decide my field of study.

The first and second sentences are two short anecdotes. Sharon supports these anecdotes with an explanation found in the third sentence. The last sentence, her thesis, introduces how these anecdotes are relevant and how they feed into the three topics that will be discussed in her body paragraph: what she learned, how she adapted, and how these experiences will determine her future field of study. In this paragraph she presents herself as open-minded, cultural, and goal-oriented (she knows what she wants to study in college). She also sets herself up to discuss her future in college, where she might mention the programs and opportunities that she will take advantage of at the school of her choice.

Now you give it a try. Keep in mind your goals: answer the prompt, bring in relevant stories, and make yourself look good (without bragging!)

Prompt’s Essay Specialists reviewed 13,000 admissions essays in 2018, helping thousands of students submit their applications with confidence.

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