Am I the Greatest? You Decide.

I have a magnetic personality and exude positive energy, which is infectious to those around me. I have an unparalleled ability to communicate with people, whether I’m speaking to a room of three or an arena of 30,000. I have built great relationships throughout my life and treat everyone with respect. I am brilliant with a great sense of humor … and an amazing ability to make people feel special and aspire to be more than even they thought possible.

Pretend you’re a college admissions officer, and you’re reading the passage above in an applicant’s essay. Do you believe this student’s words, even for a second?

The above, which was originally written in the third person and released about a high-level U.S. official (OK, the highest-level U.S. official), is a great example of what not to do in your college application essay. It’s a perfect specimen of “telling” without any “showing.”  Providing no evidence backing any of these statements up, the passage has the opposite effect of the one intended by the writer: it makes the reader doubt every word.

When you let your actions speak louder than your words; when you give examples that show your character rather than spout hyperbole about how great you are; and when you use descriptive language to set a scene so that the reader sees who you really are in the context of your daily life: that is what makes an essay most effective.

So how could the above have been written differently so that the reader comes away with a good impression? Let’s give it a try.

I have a magnetic personality and exude positive energy, which is infectious to those around me. I have an unparalleled ability to communicate with people, whether I’m speaking to a room of three or an arena of 30,000.

Let’s set the scene by coming into an important event in the writer’s life that will end up illustrating his character:

Our dress rehearsal of Oklahoma! had gone very badly. The female lead had laryngitis and could hardly sing a note, and her understudy was not prepared. Part of the set had crashed down during 76 Trombones, just missing the marching band, and now had to be reconstructed and made safe. And the sound system kept distorting the singers’ voices. 

After this disaster, people were apprehensive about opening night, only 24 hours away. I could sense a current of despair going through the cast, and I realized we needed to pump ourselves up before we got completely demoralized. Checking with our drama teacher first, I called everyone together for an impromptu pizza party in the band room. I took orders and called the local pizzeria. Maybe I was channeling a bit of my character, the fast-talking Harold Hill, but I felt the need to motivate everyone and turn their attitudes around.

I have built great relationships throughout my life and treat everyone with respect. I am brilliant with a great sense of humor … and an amazing ability to make people feel special and aspire to be more than even they thought possible.

Perfect: he’s about to give his castmates a pep talk – and that’s a great way to highlight his relationships, his sense of humor, and his respect for others without simply telling us he has these qualities:

Over pizza and soda, we all talked about opening night and how to save this show. “Amanda,” I said to my costar, “Even with laryngitis, your voice still sounds amazing. But as long as Eve works on some of those dance routines a little tonight and tomorrow, she’ll be ready to take over for you if you need her to, right, Eve?” Eve nodded. Amanda said, “I can help you with that right now if you want, Eve.”  I turned to my classmate Matt, who was doing the sound for the show. “What do we need to do to have less distortion? Do you have suggestions for the cast on that?”  Turns out he did — and loved being asked. He instructed the singers not to push their voices too hard; to let the sound system do the hard work instead of feeling as if they had to sing loudly. “That’s good news for you, Amanda,” I said, and the tension broke in the room as we all started laughing together.  A bunch of us took a pizza backstage to the set construction folks who were working onstage. That seemed to cheer them up right away, and it turned out that the repairs weren’t nearly as hard as we’d thought. By the time we all headed home, we were in a much better mood.

Opening night went so much better than that dress rehearsal. Everyone pulled together and, most of all, we had fun. Eve did in fact understudy on opening night and got her moment in the spotlight, while Amanda recovered in time to perform the next two shows. I enjoyed every minute I was onstage, but it was in that band room off-stage that I learned how crucial it is for a team to be kept motivated and strong. We were all in this together, and we wanted to do well – and all we needed was to remind ourselves of that, and to show each other we cared. Harold Hill learns the same thing by the end of The Music Man, and I’m glad I learned along with him.

Instead of stringing along adjectives announcing his greatness, the writer has told us a story that demonstrates his character through actions. Now, the reader can trust his own instincts about the student instead of feeling as if he’s just listened to a bunch of hype.  The talk about teamwork in the end is probably the most important part of this: it shows a willingness to listen and cooperate. He may be a leader, but he’s one who truly does respect others and the roles they play on the team. That’s the kind of person we all want to see on college campuses – and in government, too!

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