Image from Negative Space.

A year ago, I began my first college essay. It was poorly worded, slowly assembled, and a mish-mash of incomprehensible ideas. It also lacked soul; I had a message I wished to convey, but did so very indiscreetly. Each paragraph was more or less a summation of experiences and ideas which I thought were instrumental in my development as a scholar and individual, and that’s fine, passable…but not excellent.

The phenomenon detailed above is a prime example of “telling” your story but not “showing” it. Now what does that mean? Well, as my English Literature teacher explained early last school year, it’s boring to just talk about the things that have changed you. Your essay will leave a much greater impression on the admissions officer reading it if you craft a narrative in which events transpire to describe your personal growth without spoon-feeding your essay’s purpose to the reader. Here’s what you’ll need to get started:

A Setting

This is the most basic rule of creative writing, but it’s often neglected in the realm of college essays. Students will too often try to glaze over everything, but when a narrative of a more focused and specific frame of time can get the job done in a more subtle yet impactful manner. That being said, you’ll obviously need to remember the specific location for which your story is set – try to recall the aesthetics of your environment and highlight them briefly to add a bit of artistic flair to your piece. Make the colors more vivid on paper than they were in your memory. Make it tangible. Don’t let that imagery consume too much space, however, because you only have so many words to work with due to the word count restraint.


You’ll need yourself. I know it sounds dumb, but don’t forget that your essay is about you. Okay, maybe it’s about someone else or something else, but you’ll know if it’s about you. If it is about you, then don’t forget to position yourself in the setting which you’ve created. In your narrative you’ll want to interact with your environment, the scenery around you, the people around you so that the reader can connect with you. One way is to just showcase your thoughts in italics: why is this sandwich so good? Another is to create some dialogue between you and other people. Yet another is to describe your movements and habits in detail and in real-time. These are just ideas, but they’ll help the admissions officer understand who you are, and will let your personal voice shine pretty clearly.

A Unique Voice

This, on the other hand, is a little trickier than simply including yourself in the setting. Every writer has a voice. Your literary voice is the way you tend to phrase things, and it’s best to work with what you have. Read some of your previous works and figure out what your strengths are. Are you genuine and passionate? Are you analytical with a mile-wide vocabulary? Are you witty and quirky? Whatever traits you believe you have that are reflected in your writing, you will want to amplify. If you’re great at puns and are comfortable with writing a lighthearted story as opposed to one steeped in melodramatic language, then write the punniest darn thing you’ve ever written. If you’re more of an artist, write metaphorically and use abstract concepts that don’t dilute your message. You can trust me when I say that these things won’t be lost on the reader. Accentuate, friends.

An End Goal

The strongest essays are the ones which have a certain motif throughout that becomes more and more apparent until the very end, where the message becomes clear. There are several prompts for the Common Application but most of them deal with a change of some sort. Don’t just casually refer to said change at the end of your essay, build around whatever theme you’ve picked out. Your introductory paragraph, which is the best section in which to describe the setting, should also allude to the central theme. That theme could be overcoming loss, a turning point in your life, finding a source of self-motivation, etc.

If you’re looking to show your personal growth, just make sure that part of your essay is dedicated to the “before” – that time before the change – and the corresponding “after” that showcases the new and improved you. The very end of your essay is also the section where it’s absolutely acceptable to switch gears from story mode. After all, your essay might be mistaken for a short story and may not address the prompt directly if it’s written like a novel all throughout. Don’t be afraid to answer the essay question more directly at the end, but only after “showing” the significance of your experiences previously.

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