What will you have to show?

I received an unsolicited email from a graphic designer today. It had a bullet-pointed list of services he offers, from logo designs, to business cards, to brochures, websites and social media pages. It closed with an invitation to email him back if I’d like to get started.

An email like that is easy to delete, which is exactly what I did.

Why would a graphic designer rely on text alone to sell his services? He’s just telling me what he can do. Why not show me?

Even better than asking me to click over to your portfolio, which I have no emotional connection to, why not send me three mock-ups of what you would do if we worked together?

Here’s what I’d make your homepage look like.

Here’s the business card I’d create.

And here’s what I’d do with your logo to make it more appealing and memorable.

Had he done that, I could have seen the change he’d make. And if I liked what I saw, he’d have given me a problem. I now have to decide to either satisfy that interest by responding, or ignoring what’s enticing and choosing to stay with the status quo. Creating a problem like that for a potential customer—one where they can see the benefit and have to decide whether to engage or ignore it, is a good sales strategy.

The “show, don’t tell” method is an effective one for college applicants, too. Instead of  using the application to tell the reader about the important lessons you’ve learned and the appealing qualities you’ve displayed in high school, show them how those lessons and qualities have impacted, improved, or otherwise changed the people, projects, and organizations you’ve chosen to spend time with. You don’t need extra, unsolicited materials to do it. Just tell stories and be specific. That’s how you move from telling to showing within a college application.

If you’re an underclassman whose college applications are (thankfully) still in front of you, don’t worry about how you’ll pitch, package, or otherwise market yourself to schools. You are not a widget in need of a promotional strategy. You are a complex human being whose contributions can be compelling enough if you just have something to show.

“Will this look good to colleges?” is the wrong question to ask. Instead, start asking yourself, “What will I have to show for this?”

The more you have to show for it, the stronger applicant you’ll be.