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Showing vs. Telling

Someone may have told you that when writing your college admissions essay, you should use language that shows, not tells. What does this mean? Compare the following two descriptions of the same event.

The family called me to the house because their child was very sick. They were poor but very polite. They were nervous when I arrived.


On my way up the steps to the front door, I noticed that one of the boards was loose and the paint was chipping. The mother was waiting for me. "Doctor, thank you so much for coming," she said. Silently, she led me into what appeared to be the only bedroom in the house. In the dim light, I could make out a tired, flushed child underneath a dirty comforter. "I-I'm sorry," the mother stammered. "We aren't exactly set up for company."

The first passage simply states (or tells) what happened, but the second passage (which shows) gives the reader a much more vivid picture. The second passage provides us with all the information in the first and more. We see through the doctor's eyes as if we were in the room—we have the proof that the child is sick, and that the family is poor and nervous. Because of this vantage point, the reader can construct an interpretation of the event just like the doctor does. Writing that shows is sometimes described as "writing like a camera": it focuses simply on what happened and doesn't try to explain it.

You can think of showing as like building a house—you take the raw materials of the experience (the basic facts and sensory details) and from these simple building blocks create something much larger. This contributes to the believability of the writing: readers (admissions officers) take in the situation themselves and come to their own conclusions. Telling, on the other hand, leaves readers feeling disconnected and uninvolved in the writing.

You can also think of showing as being similar to writing a good argumentative essay. If you're going to argue that oil companies are harming the environment, you need to back up your view with hard data, linking the actions of the companies to signs of environmental damage. If you make a claim but can't support it, your argument is less compelling. Telling makes a reader wonder why he or she should take your side, and telling makes a reader suspicious that he or she is being instructed how to think.

How can you incorporate this knowledge into your admissions essay? First, you should now see that it's very important to not make statements that aren't backed up in some way. You can't simply say: "You should admit me to your college because I truly understand the meaning of diversity." That would be telling. You have to tell a story that proves your understanding: for example, the lessons you learned about another culture by tutoring a fellow student who had just arrived from Mexico.

That may seem obvious, but if you examine your admissions essay closely you'll likely find some examples of "telling" that are more subtle. Consider a sentence like: "I couldn't hide my excitement," and imagine how much better it would be if instead the writer described how he jumped up and down or had a huge grin.

Once you have a rough draft of your admissions essay, you'll want to examine every sentence and ask: "Can I do a better job of showing this information?" Of course, showing sometimes (but not always) leads to a longer essay. Since admissions essays are so short, you may only be able to show the most important parts, the places where you need to be the most vivid and convincing. However, if you do go on longer because of showing, that's not entirely a bad thing: showing usually makes for more interesting writing that better holds an admissions officer's attention.


  • Telling simply states what happened, showing gives a vivid picture.
  • Telling makes an assertion, showing provides the reader with the proof.
  • To show, try writing like a camera. Just give us the scene without explaining the meaning.
  • Be sure to back up any statements you make in your essay, and provide specific examples that will convince an admissions officer.

See more examples of showing and telling.


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