Show Don't Tell: Our Best Tip for Writing A Stunning Personal Statement

by Ben Frederick MD

on July 18, 2016

Show and tell isn’t just for elementary school anymore – it turns out it can have a HUGE impact on your personal statement.

When writing your personal statement, it's crucial to ask yourself whether you are showing the admissions team who you are or telling them about yourself. The bottom line is that using stories to show the admissions committee who you are can really highlight your personality, motivations and goals in a unique and interesting way that will truly strengthen your chances of getting in.


Here’s a great example. Say you’re trying to get into medical school and you want to convey a few key strengths about yourself. Here are two ways to present those points:

Telling: “I come from a diverse background and believe it is important to give 100% in every project I do. Whether it’s in school or at work, I always go above and beyond to ensure a successful outcome. I’m also an organized person.”

Showing: “If you came into my kitchen, which is filled which curries and spices from my home country of Sri Lanka, you would see that all the little jars are organized in alphabetical order. I’ve been doing this type of organization since I was a child. My big sister used to tease me growing up, because even my dolls were arranged in order from biggest to smallest. But when my family decided to move to the United States when I was 15, my organization skills helped me transition into my new life. I made flash cards to study English every day; I meticulously prepared for each quiz and test according to a pre-set schedule; and I practiced soccer after school just like I did in Sri Lanka, just to make sure I kept up my abilities. Thanks to my organizational skills, I was able to quickly excel and became an honor’s student in just my second semester of high school.”

That’s a pretty big difference between the two versions, right? The same points were conveyed, but in the first option, they were very plainly stated; in the second, we use stories and anecdotes to convey them. Not only does the admissions team get a much better sense of your personality, motivations and background in the second version, but they also have a much more enjoyable reading experience!

Visualize Their Perspective

Any applicant can say “I’m an organized person” or “I give 100%.”

Imagine if you are an admissions team member, you are sifting through hundreds if not thousands of essays over the course of several weeks. Any applicant can say “I’m an organized person” or “I give 100%.” But if you can tell that admissions reader why and how you are unique, you’ve just gotten their attention. Plus, admissions committee members can spot good writing in a sea of essays, and if yours has the right tone and stories, they’ll be hooked. If you hook the reader, you have a better chance of earning their favor when their votes are cast for the next incoming class.

What You Can Do to Show Not Tell

So how do you go about writing an essay that shows? The first step is writing out the parts of your life you want to tell. To start, what are the key points about yourself you want to convey? Start by making a list, such as this:

  • I learn best by jumping in and participating
  • I’m driven to succeed
  • I know four languages

Once you have your key points laid out, plot out a list of stories or short anecdotes that prove those points. Remember, this is like an outline of notes for your essay:

  • I learn best by jumping in and participating
    • That time my boss commended me for helping to fill orders on my first day on the job at the pharmacy when we were short staffed.
    • When I learned about anatomy for months, but once I dissected that frog, everything clicked.
  • I’m driven to succeed
    • My grandfather’s death fueled my passion to follow his footsteps toward a career in medicine
    • Even in playing card games, my grandfather never just let me win – I had to work for it. He taught me how valuable this lesson is in all aspects of life.
  • I know four languages
    • I traveled a lot as a child and have visited 16 countries.
    • I grew up with friends across different continents and had to always learn new languages in order to make new friends and stay in touch with old ones.

Once you have a list of stories and anecdotes you can rely on, you can whittle it down to which ones you think are strongest, and then start weaving them into your essay. Whenever you feel pulled to write a tell statement (ie, I’m an organized person), take a step back and figure out how to weave in a show statement instead (ie, My spices are all arranged in alphabetical order.).

In Closing...

The show and tell method is the single best way to take your essay to the next level. It effectively gives the reader insight into your personality, what drives you to succeed, and what kind of background has made you who you are today. You know you deserve a spot in this program, so let your life experiences show the admissions team why.


About the author:

Ben Frederick MD

My name is Ben. I'm a resident physician and I help future medical professionals write great personal statements. If you need help, check out our eBooks and editing services. Let me know if you have any questions.

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One comment on “Show Don't Tell: Our Best Tip for Writing A Stunning Personal Statement”

  1. […] More than anything, sharing stories about the moments that had an impact on your life allows the admissions team to get a window into your personality. Rather than just saying you’re a hard worker or a great team player, stories can prove those attributes for you. It’s up to you to decide how long the stories should be. Sometimes they may take over entire paragraphs. Other times, it’s best to just include a short anecdote within the context of a description. For example, if you’re describing your work as a pharmacy technician and all the responsibilities you had, you can sneak in a quick two-sentence story about a patient you went above and beyond to help. For some examples on crafting simple stories, check out this other blog post we wrote on showing vs. telling. […]