Remember show and tell days from kindergarten? When you’d bring your favorite stuffed animal and tell everyone why your Slinky or a really cool rock was your prized possession? This is kind of like that.

The prompt itself says to approach writing as a “show and tell by proxy and with an attitude.” That’s the most essential part. Take something you love and show it off. Provide specific details. Tell colorful stories. Talk about that weird talent that doesn’t quite fit anywhere else in your application. And don’t be afraid of doing it with an attitude. 

Here are some general tips to keep in mind as you’re writing your essay:

  1. Choose something you’re genuinely interested in. This may seem obvious, but you don’t want to talk about something just because you think it’s what William and Mary wants to hear. If you don’t care that much about it, that’ll likely be reflected in the essay you write. Try picking a topic that shows off several different facets of your personality and skill set.

  2. Expand on the impact of your topic. Why does impact matter? It helps the reader understand why they should care. Hopefully, the topic you’ve chosen is something you’re already pretty jazzed about. The key here is getting your reader to be just as jazzed as you, and showing impact is the way to do it. Here are some ways to think about impact:

    1. Numbers. Perhaps what you choose to talk about has a particularly shocking statistic. Maybe your interest in that topic inspired you to do something that had a significant numerical effect. Consider adding specific numbers to bolster your claims and give your readers a sense of magnitude.

    2. Anecdotal evidence of impact, or quotations. Impact doesn’t have to be quantitative to convey urgency, importance, or power. The more of you that you put in your essay, the better.

    3. Personal impact (on you, the author) in the form of lessons learned, skills gained. It’s especially interesting to note if these skills transferred to other areas of your life. 

  3. Write it long first, then cut it. In our experience, this tends to be easier than writing a very short version and then trying to figure out what to add. Also, if you’re struggling to fill the space, don’t stress about it. It’s okay if you don’t use all 650 words. 

  4. Be specific. Whenever possible, offer memorable details or specific experiences. Don’t just say you like rock climbing. Name the particular aspects of the activity that interest you, explain how you’ve brought that interest to a certain community, or offer a specific story you associate with that interest. In addition, a little descriptive language can help the reader understand you in a more visceral way. In other words, the way you describe something is just as important as what you’re describing.

Here’s a great sample essay:

Example 1:

I’ve been a vegetarian for over three years. The story of how I became one is fairly arbitrary. A friend at camp couldn’t eat meat because of her religion. One afternoon, she dared me to give it up too. I’m not sure why I agreed–maybe because I wanted to challenge myself, or maybe because the food at camp tasted terribly–but I became a vegetarian that day and have remained one ever since.

But, here’s the thing: I actually love meat. Whether it’s a juicy Gray’s Papaya hot dog or my grandmother’s famous Filipino pork buns, my mouth waters. If someone’s talking about how well done they like their steak, or whether Five Guys or Shake Shack has the better burger, I’ll join in like a devoted carnivore.

So why be a vegetarian, if I love meat so much? It’s not just about me hanging on to a childhood dare just for the sake of having said “I won,” and it’s definitely not because I love vegetables. While some vegetarians bond over recipes for quinoa bowls and kale salads, I actually don’t enjoy many of those foods.

The real reason I’ve remained a vegetarian is because I believe in vegetarianism (vegetables, not so much!). Specifically, I have become passionate about the welfare of animals and the environmental impact of meat overproduction and poor regulation of the food industry.

After my friend challenged me that day, I found myself devouring books and documentaries about farms and food production. I realized that most farms across the U.S. don’t look anything like those idyllic images depicted on milk cartons or in songs like “Old McDonald.” I learned that 94% of meat produced in America originates from factory farms, large industrialized farms that often mistreat animals, workers, and the communities around them. I now know that nine billion animals are slaughtered annually in the U.S. for food, a number that will grow exponentially as the population increases; and that many farm factories significantly pollute the air and water and expedite climate change through the use of crop feeds grown from nitrate fertilizers.

Recognizing that becoming a vegetarian is not for everyone, I’ve also looked for other ways to problem-solve the issue, such as promoting locally raised meat, or helping to reduce people’s overall meat consumption through campaigns like “Meatless Mondays” or “Vegetarian/Vegan until 6pm.”

As for me, I love being connected to the vegetarian community and learning more about the food industry and sustainability in general. I immediately get excited upon meeting another vegetarian. I ask them why, to see if they are also passionate against factory farming (like me), or someone who simply prefers the taste of vegetables (unlike me).

It’s true that I sometimes miss leftover Thanksgiving turkey or a crunchy BLT for lunch. In the end, though, that dare at camp years ago has been worth it. It has made me more politically and socially aware about an issue I care about, and I have never looked back.

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Tips + Analysis

  1. Connect details to your values. The one thing that comes through this piece so clearly is the author’s genuine care for animals and the environment. She quotes statistics, talks about her participation in environmental activism, and delves into her thorough research on factory farming. She infuses her writing with the language of someone who knows what they’re talking about and has a palpable dedication to making the world a more sustainable place. That’s the most important component of any great essay. Showing someone you care is the first step toward making them care too.

  2. Use humor in service of a larger purpose. Again, this author does a great job of using humor to her advantage. Her little parenthetical sidenotes about disliking veggies and craving burgers make her seem likable and approachable. She gets that the vegetarian lifestyle isn’t for everyone. In fact, it’s oftentimes a struggle for her too. Crucially, she’s using humor to humanize herself. She’s getting on the reader’s level and empathizing with people who might not want or be able to do what she’s doing. It’s so important to avoid talking down to your audience. Nobody wants to be preached to about what they’re doing wrong. This essay is a prime example of how you can talk about something in a way that’s personal and impassioned, but not alienating.

  3. Turn your interest into a story. This essay would not have been nearly as fun to read if the author had said “I’m a vegetarian. Here’s why.” That would’ve just been her listing off all the reasons she is the way she is. There’s no sense of inertia, nothing to pull you through the piece. However, the author structures her answer as a narrative. She uses the story of a summer camp dare to introduce us to the world of vegetarianism and guides us through her shift away from meat as it happened over time. We see the process it took to get to where she is today. When you talk about something in a story format, you add motion to your essay. You propel readers forward and help them see how you evolved over time.

  4. Use specific details to display your culture. The most satisfying parts of this essay are details like “a juicy Gray’s Papaya hotdog,” “my grandmother’s famous Filipino pork buns,” and “vegetarians bond over recipes for quinoa bowls and kale salads.” Not only are these delicious and hilariously accurate, they also give life to the piece. It gives you a sense of the kind of world the author grew up in, her cultural roots, and her way of understanding the world around her. By using specific language, she is able to incorporate so many other interests and values into the overarching topic of her vegetarianism. Details help you stand apart from other essays with similar topics, so use them to elevate your piece.

Here’s another great example essay: 

Example 2:

I’m standing on the roof of my gym looking down at the mats in the parking lot twenty feet below. I close my eyes to prepare for the plunge and calm my nerves, though logically, I know that I won’t miss my target. I take a deep breath, bend my knees, and dive downwards into my flip…

For three years, I’ve been training parkour and freerunning. Initially, it was just another one of the nine sports I had previously attempted, but sometime during the first few months of learning the basics, my newfound hobby became an essential piece of my life. 

Before parkour, I was a relatively unathletic middle-school kid with few friends and pretty low self-esteem. While there are a number of factors that contributed to my pre-parkour self, the biggest one is my home life, or more specifically, life with my older brother. He deals with ADHD, OCD, and minor Asperger’s. Because of this, throughout our lives, my parents have spent a lot of time on him, whether taking him to therapy or constant arguing with him. At one point the tension peaked, with a screaming match between them practically every day. I began to distance myself by developing escape methods. The most prominent were spending time on my computer playing video games, talking with strangers, or doing extra studying. 

At the time, I thought I was just really good at being independent: I almost never needed help with homework, found time to meet with my friends online, and never asked for anything. Later, however, I realized that this mindset only kept me inside my comfort zone, anxious to ask for any help. I retreated further into my online friendships because it was easier than face-to-face interactions. Thus, I had finished middle school with only one good friend to show for it.

My mother had always encouraged me to focus on three things: education, fitness, and music. After quitting swim (the competition was too cutthroat), she suggested that I find another sport. I came across the parkour community and decided to try it. Initially, I approached it as I had all the other sports–set a physical goal to see if I liked it, but I soon realized that this was not just a sport. After completing my mission in landing my first backflip on a trampoline, I quickly set out to learn a plethora of new skills: B-Twist, front-half, wall-flip, cork, and, of course, backflip on concrete (I now have all of these skills!). 

At first, I was slow to overcome my shyness and social anxiety: mostly talking to my coach and a couple of classmates. But eventually, teaching new people and learning from strangers became commonplace at each training session. I realized that in all the other sports, I was just participating for my mom instead of my own aspirations. However, through parkour, I began to take pride in my own athleticism, and my self-esteem and confidence quickly rose. After all, doing a backflip on command isn’t uncool. 

I also discovered the kind of healthy competition I’d always been craving. When I lost in basketball, football, baseball, lacrosse, swimming, soccer, boxing, sprinting, and long jump I felt like I was less valuable. Parkour competitions (jams) have a unique atmosphere. Everyone at a jam wants everyone else to improve, and if someone is better than you, they are usually excited to teach you whatever skill or variation they invented. I finally found a sport–a community–that resonated with me.

When I look back at the shy kid talking to strangers online, I don’t even recognize him. I am happier than I have been in a long time and have a thriving friend group. And though there are still ups and downs in life, I no longer let it overwhelm me. Flipping off of buildings has taught me to relish every moment, no matter how difficult I once perceived them.

— — —

Notice how this essay demonstrates so many different values. 

Want to know what else goes into a great essay? Check out The Great College Essay Test

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Special thanks to Luci for her contributions to this post.