Law school personal statement: “Show, Don’t Tell”

You’ve probably heard the “show, don’t tell” rule a million times already.

Over the past few weeks, I’ve shared some examples of how students use the “show, don’t tell” technique, but this time, we’re going to delve deeper and find out exactly what it means.

But before we go further, let’s take a step back for a moment.
You may be wondering, “I wrote dozens of papers in college. Why haven’t I always been instructed to use this writing technique?”  

In reality, “show, don’t tell” is a creative writing technique. So, unless you’ve taken creative writing classes, you may not have had much practice (or any at all) with this writing style.

Remember, your law school personal statement should include creative writing techniques. You may remember from one of my past articles that the law school personal statement isn’t entirely persuasive, nor is it exclusively like a memoir.

It’s something completely different, which is why your approach must be so precisely different, too.

So, how do you master “show, don’t tell” if you haven’t used it in your previous essays? Let’s find out.

Recall an important memory that had an impact on you.

Let’s say it’s your first trip to see a Broadway show.

You could mention what the show was, that you enjoyed it, and explain that it made an impact on your life.

But it’s much more enticing if you make the reader feel like they were there with you.  

How can you do that? Let’s look at a sample scenario, below:

As the lights went down and the first note bellowed from the actor on stage below, the whole theater fell silent. It was that same opening song I’d heard dozens of times from the movie, but this time, it was different. The music was so powerful that I could feel it in my chest. I wasn’t just watching a story unfold, I was experiencing it. Actors soared across the stage on stilts, moving with grace despite their intricate, vibrant costumes. I didn’t want to blink, for fear of missing a single moment. It was then that I realized: I want to pursue a career in the arts.

Did you feel as if you were there in the audience beside me? Did you notice that I was showing you what my experience was like? Contrast that with what it might look like if I just told you about it: 

The first play I ever saw was The Lion King. I had seen the movie before, but the play was much different. I enjoyed it so much that it made me think of pursuing a career in the arts. 

Which one would you prefer to read?

Now that you have an example of what “show, don’t tell” looks like, let me share a few tips for mastering it in your writing:

• Be specific, but not boring.
If I wrote about every detail of the day – including what I wore, the names of every person I went with, etc., you’d lose interest. Instead, I chose to highlight the details that made the most impact. The details you include should support your main point. In the sample blurb, the main point was that theater was so fascinating, it made me think of pursuing a career in the arts. All of the details the  – the music, the actors’ costumes – support the fascination I felt on that day.

• …But don’t overthink it.

If you feel like you’re including too much detail during your first draft, don’t worry. You’re better off using too much detail while you’re on a roll than not including enough. You can always go back and take out less-important details when you edit. 

• Practice, practice, practice.

You might find it helpful to try a few rounds of the “show, don’t tell” approach before actually using it to write your 
law school personal statement. You can use memories other than the one you plan to include in your essay to get comfortable with the technique.

• Learn from example.

A piece of advice I discovered years ago is “to be a better writer, read more.” You certainly don’t have to go pick up dozens of novels if reading isn’t your favorite hobby, but you might find it helpful to study some examples of great storytelling writing by authors who have mastered the technique.

Speaking of examples, my next article will feature a student who aced the “show, don’t tell approach” in her law school personal statement. Keep an eye out for it!
Until next time, 


P.S. If you want to get a head start on trying your hand at “show, don’t tell,” you can read even more about it in my law school admissions articles.

P.P.S. If you’re worried that your law school personal statement isn’t personal enough (or maybe too personal). Feel free to reach out – just reach out. No matter what point you’re at with your law school application essays, I can help.

Recommended Resources:

1. Law School Admissions Coaching
Get personalized 1-1 help on every aspect of the law school admission process -- or just the law school personal statement.

2. Law School Admissions Guide
I've written a concise guide to the law school admission process with tips on completing every aspect of your applications from start to finish. It's a small price to pay for a whole lot of guidance, and it's short enough that you'll actually read the whole thing.

3. Law School Admissions Cheat Sheet
Quick-reference guide for the law school personal statement, the "Why X?" essay, and the law school résumé. (You can also get it with the LSAT Cheat Sheets.)

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