Show Don't Tell: Use Your Senses Trick

Show Don't Tell when writing.
Use your senses to improve your writing.

Fiction and non-fiction writers are often told to "show don't tell" when writing. It is the job of an author to pull readers into a story, creating the opportunity for them to live and experience the moment with the character. This makes for engaging and memorable storytelling, and is a style of writing worth using when drafting responses to college application essay prompts.

While we're not suggesting that you need to write the next best-selling novel, we do want to encourage and support you in writing your best version of your personal story. By adding writing elements that illustrate scenery and depict non-verbal body language and facial expressions, for instance, you can create and offer ways for college admissions officers to further relate with and to you and the experiences you've chosen to write about. The more senses you're able to activate in your reading audience, the stronger the impression you'll be able to leave of who you are as a living, breathing human being and future college community member.

Following is an example of how you could craft a sentence that taps into the sense of smell (from our College Application Essays: Adding Pizzazz to Your Story post):

"I pulled the cookies out of the oven and took a bite; I could tell that I had followed the instructions perfectly."

Revised: "As I opened the oven door, the sweet aroma of freshly baked cookies hit me. I knew before I took that first bite that I had followed the instructions perfectly."

The first sentence simply states that the author pulled the cookies out of the oven and took a bite. As word count goes, this may seem like a better choice; but, consider the visual that's triggered from the second sentence. It puts the reader in the author's shoes because there are common experiences we share--in the moment and as memories--when our sense of smell (as in this example) is activated. By applying this strategy as part of your writing approach, admissions officers won't just read your essay; they'll share in the experience of baking cookies.

Keep in mind that showing what's taking place throughout an experience does not need to be complicated. Below are a few more examples of how sentences can be reworded to show a scene rather than just tell. Read through them and see if you can brainstorm additional ways to create better, stronger sentences.

Example 1:

"I felt bad that I dropped the plate."

"My heart skipped and quickly sank as my mom's favorite plate slipped out of my hand."

Example 2:

"The food tasted good."

"The combination of spices created a flavor that made my mouth water long after my last bite."

Example 3:

"My dad came home on his motorcycle."

"The rumbling roar of my dad's motorcycle sliced through the summer breeze as he pulled into our driveway.

Showing your experiences and the emotions that come from them will oftentimes use up more words within an already limited amount of space. If used sparingly or phrased masterfully, though, it can really make your story stand out. A little visual descriptors here and there can go a long way in creating your story that people will want to read. So as you fine-tune your essay, pull admissions officers in and create the opportunity for them to gain a feel for who you are, what you enjoy, and what you hope to achieve because of all you've experienced and accomplished in life thus far. Remember, you're so much more than statistics and facts entered on an application--you are the only one with the genuine power to share your story in the way it's meant to be shown!