I was spending (wasting) time on Reddit last week when I came across a post with a title like, "Found this safe. How do I open it?" The post had over a thousand comments. What was going on?

It's just like the box at the end of Se7en, or like some TV special where the host does a live reveal of a tomb or treasure chest. We need to know what's inside.

Let's think about how to apply this idea to your essay. As I mentioned in a previous post, your essay needs more things. You cannot just come out and say, "My hometown is very important to me." That might be true, but thousands of other people could make the same statement. The truth is not enough.

If you're writing about how important home is to you, you need to present the reader with a thing that represents your home. I might write about my Dodgers cap.

The white threads of the LA logo have faded to off-white and started to fray. The sun has bleached the Dodger blue several shades lighter than it deserves to be. Sweat and grime have yellowed the inside, even after the toothbrush scrubbing I give it very occasionally. The bill is curved, not new-school flat, and the sticker is long gone. I wear this hat wherever I go as a reminder of where my home is.

Blah blah blah. You get the idea. A Dodgers cap is not as thrilling as a safe, but it's more thrilling than just saying, "I like L.A." The cap is a thing, so it's visual. And it's my thing, so it's personal.

Sometimes, I wonder if writing these application essays isn't that different from "Show and Tell" in kindergarten. You show something to the class and tell what it means. In terms of writing your essay, the show part includes all the details a reader needs to be able to picture what's going on with her eyes closed. The show part is all about "what." Then you tell why that thing matters to you. The tell part is all about the "so what."

So if I wanted to talk about home, I might bring in my Dodgers cap for show and tell. I would show you my Dodgers cap (the "what"). Then I would tell you why it matters (the "so what").

As you think about your essay, figure out what the main "thing" is in each paragraph. And remember, things appear in various forms. A thing could be by itself, like a Dodgers cap. It could appear in a scene, like in a photograph. Or it could appear among several other things over time, like in a video clip. Whether your thing appears in isolation, in a photo, or in a video clip doesn't matter. What matters is that you hand your reader a thing that makes her wonder, "What's this?"


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.