Do This… and Not This


  • Tell a story
Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.  
~ Anton Chekhov
  • Make yourself likeable (HINT: stay humble, and don’t merely talk about your achievements)
  • Have a STRANGER critique your essay–and grow some thick skin in the process
  • Write several drafts
I’m not a very good writer, but I’m an excellent rewriter. 
~ James Michener
  • Tell the reader about yourself
You’re always a little disappointing in person because you can’t be the edited essence of yourself.
~ Mel Brooks
  • Demonstrate your intellectual curiosity
  • Be concise–and watch your word count!


  • Try to be “the perfect applicant”
Sometimes I just read a first sentence like, “This one time I changed the world with my church group by playing the tambourine in Costa Rica,” and I put that file directly into the ‘to be considered much later’ back-burner pile. Tell me who you actually are, and it is such a welcome change.”
~ Midwestern public university admission officer
  • Ask your reader questions
  • Cut and paste willy-nilly
  • Be overly philosophical OR melodramatic
I’m so tired of reading about 15-year-olds going to Tanzania to save the chimps or whatever. It is so obvious. My dream is to tell some parent, “Do you understand that I will never get to go to Tanzania on my lousy salary?”  
~ Private university admissions officer
  • Be boring or take the path of least resistance
  • Be afraid to take some risk
Why not go out on a limb? Isn’t that where the fruit is?
 ~ Frank Scully

 Be VERY careful with the following themes:

  • Sports injuries
  • Peer-pressure stories (drugs and booze, cheating on exams, etc)
  • Difficulties as/with team captain(s) and/or coaches
  • Scoring the winning goal/touchdown/basket/run
PUT ‘EM ON THE TALL STACK (and not likely bound for the big envelope!)
  • Be careful with global issues; you need to make those personal somehow
  • Watch your definitions

If you have to bust out Webster’s to define abstractions like “resolve,” “determination,” “perseverance,” etc. you’re likely going to do more “telling” than “showing.”

  • Politics and religion also have the potential to be touchy subjects

Sizzle AND Steak: conflict/crisis/challenge

  • Usually results in a formative or life-changing experience

There’s always a “however,” however. Be careful of divorce stories. In one of the most famous opening paragraphs in all of literature, Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy writes, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Anna Karenina). That said, if you’re one of several thousands applying to an elite school, and there are a hundred divorce stories, do you still like your odds? If you do elect to go this route, make sure YOU emerge the hero.

  • Play the sympathy card sparingly

What fires you up? What moves you? Then tell me about it already!

I try to leave out the parts that people skip.  
~ Elmore Leonard