Show me, don’t tell me

It is/was graduate application reading season! And you know what that means? Reading a bunch of statements and sometimes wondering where the applicant’s mentor led them astray. So I thought I’d write this post to voice my opinion on what part of what makes a good statement.

[Also posted on medium.]

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.

An applicant should leave to their letter writers summary statements like “he is a hard worker” and “she is quick to learn new things.” Those letter writers have the reputation and experience to get the benefit of the doubt that they know what that looks like to do well in grad school. An applicant rarely has enough experience and, let’s face it, reputation to be believed if they make such statements about themselves. Moreover, if you met someone new and they just said, “I’m a hard worker,” would you necessarily believe them without more details?

Example

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

Telling

I love to garden. Over the years, I have grown many fruits and vegetables. My family always enjoys the results of my labor. My children’s joy when they bite into a strawberry we picked from the garden drives me to continue going out into my garden and improving my skills. Gardening has taught me to be detailed-oriented and organized. I have learned about watering, soil quality, and the importance of staying on top of weeding. I know when to start planting versus harvesting. My garden has taught me a lot, and I hope to do even more in the future.

Showing

I enjoy gardening. I have grown strawberries, cucumbers, mini bell peppers, tomatoes, carrots, and broccoli. We also have a small lemon tree, which is perfect for the few times a recipe calls for a bit of zest. I have gardened for three years. In that time, my gardening approach has evolved. Our garden now has a drip irrigation system using rain barrels. I mulch with straw all year to reduce the need to weed. We also rotate between two compost bins each year, so there is always ready compost in the spring for planting. I am sure my gardening approach will continue to grow as I hone my skills.

My desire for strawberries started my journey into gardening. They were the first thing I planted. And I utterly failed with that first attempt. I planted strawberry roots, and some animal immediately dug them up. This experience led to adding a screened “cage” over the strawberry patch and starting with two fully grown strawberry plants. That first year, I learned that strawberries propagate using runners and how I should spend that year cultivating them. I spent much of that summer planning where the baby plants from the runners should root or simply pruning them to encourage the original plant to establish itself. I harvested very few strawberries that first year, but the careful cultivation of baby plants led to a patch that is still going strong three years later. Last year, we had so many we started a new tradition of making strawberry popsicles. My children still ask about them in the winter.

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.

The list of fruits and vegetables is potentially a little too long. I’d prune it down depending on where I was submitting such a paragraph. For example, if I were applying to be head gardener at a vegetables-from-vines farm, I would probably say something like “cucumbers, mini-bell peppers, tomatoes, strawberries, and more.” I listed the most relevant plants first and threw in something similar but not quite to show some range. I’d leave the entire list of plants on my resume/CV.

Another thing to notice is that it takes many more words to show than to tell. That’s a good thing. You want to start with more words than you need and then whittle down to the best words/sections/ideas in your statement.

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.

I will close with the caveat that this post is my opinion because I haven’t done this for that many years. As a grad student, I read for two years to support the diversity chair of admissions and another two years for CS education. For the past three years at Duke, I have read the handful of applications that show an interest in CS education in hopes I’ll find a student that could join me in my research.

On the other hand, I have gotten quite a few requests to give feedback on statements. And now I’ve finally gotten around to writing a blog post that I can just send students to, rather than rewriting the equivalent of the above in an email. Hopefully, others will find this helpful as well.

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