Admissions is in the Details

Or, Show, Don’t Tell!

Allow me to begin this post with a vast understatement completely belying its content: writing college essays is hard. As I repeatedly find myself telling students, the college essay is a genre unto itself: peculiar, idiosyncratic, and for most students, entirely novel. It also demands that students produce something exceptional and unique within a genre that has been done to death. And since this is a post about details, allow me to share one: when I say “done to death,” I am talking about around 1.9 million personal statements a year (conservatively estimated) that pass through admissions offices throughout the US (and that is without considering the supplemental essays!).

I invite you to reflect, for a moment, on how very much more overwhelming it was to hear it implied that you have to make your essay stand out in a pool of 1.9 million than in a genre that has been “done to death.”

See what I mean? Details bring writing to life (and they can be used for good or for evil).

If I had a dime for every time I have had to tell a student that their essay needed more details, I would be fabulously wealthy. No, wait, let me try that again: I would be spending my days basking in the sun of a Micronesian atoll, surrounded by palm trees, drinking water straight from a freshly cut coconut, serenaded by the sounds of azure-clear waters lapping gently amidst a soft sea breeze while dolphins click playfully in the distance. See what I did there? (And yes, I am aware that my dream of wealth is a cliché, but that doesn’t make it any less wonderful, does it? Besides, this post is about details, not avoiding clichés—that’s for another blog post).

Yet no matter how many times I tell students they need more detail—no matter how many times I say, “Show, don’t tell”—I find myself repeating it, again and again, ad nauseum. That’s not because they don’t understand my feedback. It’s because writing with detail is hard. No, let me try that again: it’s like trying to spread ice-cold butter on soft, freshly baked bread. But it’s also rather fun. (You can tell I am having fun, can’t you?)

Now that you’ve indulged me in this overly long introduction, let’s dive right into a few examples to help demonstrate what I mean (because examples involve detail!). Consider the following sentence:

“I am a traveler.”

What do you learn from this phrase? Only one thing, really: that the speaker is a traveler. You learn nothing about the speaker himself. You do not know whether the speaker is male, female, or non-binary. You do not even learn whether the speaker is human. You do not learn where the speaker has traveled to, whether the speaker likes to travel or hates it, or even whether the claim is true at all. Consider instead the following:

“I try in vain to be persuaded that the pole is the seat of frost and desolation; it ever presents itself to my imagination as the region of beauty and delight.”

What do we learn from this version? We learn that the speaker is a traveler, that his (the speaker is male, though this is not revealed in this example) destination is the North (or perhaps South) Pole, and that he disagrees with the common belief that the poles are places characterized by despair. Implied by the speaker’s voice is also an extraordinary enthusiasm for the journey. The enthusiasm is so complete, however, that it sets up a tension: we are asked implicitly by the writer to consider the possibility that the narrator will eventually be proven wrong by what comes to pass in the story. And don’t be discouraged by the beauty of this example—it was written by Mary Shelley, one of the greatest writers in the history of the English language, in her masterpiece of modern literature, Frankenstein. Worry not! No one expects you to write like Shelley at 17. Indeed, when she started writing Frankenstein, she was 18. 😆

Now consider this next example:

“The man, who had disappeared, was found.”

Here, perhaps we learn a little more than in the last detail-sparse example. Indeed, we learn that the person being described is a man, that he disappeared, and was then discovered. We know neither when nor where, and yet the addition of such details sets the scene for the dark, exotic ambience of a much richer narrative:

“On January the Fifth, 1888 […] my uncle, Edward Prendick, a private gentleman, who certainly went aboard the Lady Vain at Callao, and who had been considered drowned, was picked up in latitude 5′ 3″ S. and longitude 101′ W. in a small open boat of which the name was illegible, but which is supposed to have belonged to the missing schooner Ipecacuanha.”

In this example from H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau, we learn the month, day, year, and exact location of the man’s discovery. We learn his name, a little about his character, and that he is the uncle of the narrator. We learn that he boarded one boat in Peru, and that he was later found in a lifeboat belonging to a larger (missing) boat. We can surmise from the man’s name and that of the boat he originally boarded that he is from the English-speaking world, and that the boat on which he was later found is likely of Latin American origin. The presence of some details but wanton absence of others also sets up several mysteries that invite the reader to continue reading: what happened to Mr. Prendick? When did he change boats and why? Why was he considered drowned? If you want the answer, you have to keep reading—yet another reason why detail is so important.

So what does the addition of such details do, and why does this matter?

First, details give us a far greater sense of the character of the people and places being described, and by doing so, they tap into the imagination of the reader. This is what makes the difference between a boring story and an enthralling one. Second, details help the reader relate what is being described to their own experience, allowing them to feel a sense of connection with the writer. Admissions officers are human, and if you are able to create that sense of connection with them, they will remember you when it comes time to make admissions decisions. Third, details create productive tensions that make the reader want to continue so that they can learn how those tensions will ultimately be resolved. If you play your cards right, such tensions will keep your reader reading until the very end.

In crafting your college essays, remember that admissions officers want the opportunity to engage with you through your writing. The vividness of your details is what allows them to do so.

(Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll return to my lush, tropical dreamscape, assuming I am not mysteriously shipwrecked off the coast of Peru along the way.)