Answers to Your Most Pressing Essay Questions

To make your lives easier, I'm sharing my answers to the most common essay questions I get asked. If you have any additional questions I didn't get to, please reach out!

I know you're supposed to “show don't tell.” How do I do that, exactly?
The best way to show is to use anecdotes, specific examples, and lots of detail. Telling is saying, “I am curious.” Showing is describing an anecdote where you got in trouble with your parents because you snuck into the cabinet and ate coffee beans just because you were curious. Picture your essay as a screenplay and that will help.

How do I know if the topic I chose works?
Usually, you can tell right away if a topic feels forced, because you're going to have trouble writing it. A topic about a mundane job can absolutely work, but there has to be something deeper there. What major life lesson did it teach you? How did it impact your life? How will it influence what you want to do you with your life?

Is there a topic that's too personal?
People disagree on this, but I would say no—as long as you include how you overcame your personal hardship and show how it made you into who you are today, no personal topic is out of bounds. I've had students write about their parents' divorce, hoarding, bullying, and depression, just to name a few. Most chances are, that "too personal" topic is a lens into being human and admissions officers want to read about that.

How else can I put my voice into this?
Try saying it aloud and make sure it sounds like you. Or write it as an email draft to your friend: tricking your brain like that will help you sound more like you.

Should I try using a bigger vocabulary?
Absolutely not. This is a common mistake, because students often want to impress, but admissions officers see right through such fake attempts—they want to read an essay that sounds sounds like you, not like you stole from a thesaurus.

Should I worry about word count?
Not yet. This is another common mistake. Your first draft should go as long as it needs to in order to tell your story. Your editor (or English teacher) will help you cut it down to the most important parts and themes.