Show me, don’t tell me

Show, do not tell

A good statement should show me, not tell me about the applicant. And that’s a nuance that might be hard to picture at first. What I mean is the statement should provide enough information and detail that the reader can picture the applicant doing things as a grad student and researcher. It cannot simply say, “I’m a good learner.” It must show me they are a good learner by giving me an idea of what a good learner means to them, hopefully without actually saying it outright.

Example

Let me give an example that has nothing to do with grad applications, gardening.

Breaking Down the Example

The most significant difference is that I’ve given you details that enable you to imagine what I can do and my knowledge. The telling example only claims I know what I’m doing. The showing example gives you concrete evidence and anecdotes that you can draw on. The details include numbers, lists, and an anecdote.

Conclusion

I hope this is useful, but I also want to point out that sometimes it’s hard to see the difference between showing and telling. And that’s okay. If you are new to writing these things, that means you are a novice, and novices by definition struggle to see the forest for the trees. That’s what mentors are for. Find someone that can fill this mentoring need. A qualified person for this mentoring has read a lot of these statements. Also, don’t be afraid to push back if their feedback is vague. If you don’t understand and they are struggling to articulate, ask them to pick a paragraph or a sentence and fix it for you using track changes. It’ll probably be faster than them trying to explain it. Sometimes you can extrapolate from their changes.

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Kristin Stephens-Martinez

Kristin Stephens-Martinez

Assistant Professor of the Practice in Computer Science at Duke University