Can Personal Essays Have Dialogue

Admission officers are swamped with applications. Swamped. Particularly at very selective institutions, they need to make quick judgements about students' applications and personal statements. This makes the opening line of that application essay critical. If you want to wow them from the get-go, follow the advice below. 

“I hate to break it to you, but your essay might not get read,” my college counselor remarked without even looking up from his computer as I nervously handed him my first draft.

I was horrified at the time, but he was, and still is, right. Just picture it: admission officers, especially those for the most selective institutions, are sifting through a record number of applications and have about three months to eliminate the majority of those deserving, accomplished candidates.

And guess what? When it comes to the Ivy League and their ilk, most of those applicants look identical on paper, with comparable grades, test scores, activity lists, accolades, and course loads. After pulling several weeks’ worth of consecutive all-nighters, the admission officers’ eyes start to blur, and they can barely differentiate among the nation’s best and brightest teenagers, all eagerly vying for a coveted spot in their school’s freshman class. As they flip through the paperwork of yet another valedictorian, someone remarks, “Annie Applicant looks like a run-of-the-mill achieve-o-tron.” But they haven’t gotten to the essays yet, and that’s where students really set themselves apart! They note items on the transcript—over 200 hours of volunteer work at a local special needs daycare, a patent application, a regional award for a short story, the lead role in three school musicals—that really fascinates them, so they assume the essay will shed light on some of these impressive endeavors. Right?

Then they hit the first line of her personal statement.

“For as long as I can remember, I have loved to read. When I was younger, books were my escape. I could really relate to the characters and would get lost in various stories for hours at a time. If I had a bad day, I would curl up with a book.”

Before the admission officers even hit the fourth sentence, they’ve tossed her file into the “eh” pile, purgatory for applicants who don’t have the writing chops to match their academic records. Have Annie’s chances of admission been dashed? Not necessarily, but the uphill battle is infinitely steeper now that she’s done nothing to set herself apart from the other applicants who, shockingly, also love to read.

Perhaps the third paragraph is where Annie’s narrative really comes alive as she weaves readers through her favorite novels and relates characters to her everyday life, giving insight into her world, but who would read that far? The opening is so generic that admission officers simply don’t have time to give Annie the benefit of the doubt; they quickly move on to their discussion of Joe College, whose first line describing his sublime experience as Townsperson #5 in his school play makes them laugh out loud.

So how do students master that strong opening without seeming too gimmicky or desperate? How do they make the gatekeepers to the country’s top schools stop and think, “Wow, even though I am going blind from squinting at countless single-spaced pages, I sure wish this particular essay were longer than 650 words!”?

A great way to capture admission officers’ attention in the application essay is starting with dialogue. This approach is certainly not a Band-Aid for an otherwise mediocre essay, but it might just keep someone reading long enough to get to know you as an applicant.

But before you slap a witty exchange on the top of your essay, make sure you heed these warnings:

Don’t make the other person too interesting

You open with: “‘Hey, are you free to come to the environmental club meeting?’ asked my friend Kevin, who was canvassing the library to recruit helpers for the school-wide solar panel installation project he would be pitching at the next faculty meeting.

‘Sorry, but I’ve got miles to go before I sleep!’ I tell him as I launch back into my independent research project on the theme of depression in Robert Frost’s poetry.”

How might admission officers respond to this exchange? Suddenly, they are more interested in Kevin than they are in you. Then, they put your application aside and look to see if there are any applicants named Kevin from your school so they can learn more about this unique solar panel project.

You should have used Kevin’s voice as a sounding board for expressing your own passions and beliefs, not as the force driving the conversation. You have to remember that you’re selling yourself, not your friends, and you don’t want to be overshadowed by your own essay’s supporting cast.

Sound natural

You open with: “’I have to scamper off to my occupation of preparing caffeinated beverages!’ I elucidate for the benefit of my roommate, Natalie, as I ambulate through our means of egress.”

Admission officers will read that, scratch their heads, and think, “Yeah, I see that she knows some SAT words, but did she mean, ‘I’ve got to run to my job at the coffee shop!’ I shout to Natalie as I scamper out the door”? That version would have saved time and sounded more like an authentic teenager. Now they really have no idea who you are, and even worse, they probably find you annoying.

 . . . but not too natural

You open with: “’I’m so wiped I don't even know what to do. Like, I can’t even. It’s ridic!’ I whine as my BFF Selena sits down beside me in English class.”

Admission officers ask themselves, “Is this her real essay? Someone must have hacked her Common App account, because no one would risk coming across as this vapid!” They then worry that you won’t be able to hold your own in seminars on War and Peace when you don’t have the attention span to finish typing the word “ridiculous.” Even if you sound that way in real life (I hope not!), you need to be cognizant of the fact that an essay this important requires you to bring your verbal A-game.

In general, don’t be afraid to lead off with an in-medias-res conversational tidbit that will help you come to life.

Here is an example:

“You ski for how many miles? Then you shoot a rifle?” Andy gasped in disbelief as I explained that I couldn’t hang out after school because I had to go to the range and practice my aim for my upcoming biathlon.

“And every time I miss the target, I have to ski a 150-meter penalty loop just for good measure,” I added, chuckling as Andy’s jaw dropped.

Take your time thinking about what examples best represent you as an applicant in the context of the application essay prompts given. Then, once you narrow your options to a worthy anecdote, explore that moment—and the unique, enchanting, entrancing dialogue within.

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Writing an engaging personal narrative essay requires you to focus on both the key points of information to be conveyed as well as the many details which make the narrative essay interesting. 

Writing an Impactful Personal Narrative Essay   

A personal narrative essay is about a personal experience, so it is usually written in the first person. To maximize its impact, the essay should:

  • Be written to have an emotional impact on the reader
  • Include a lot of references to sensory perceptions and emotions
  • Use vivid details and imagery

Structure of the Essay

  • The opening of the essay needs to let the reader know the essence of what you will be describing and your point of view.
  • The body of the story needs to give the reader a very clear idea of what happened and how you (the author) feel about that. The story can be told chronologically or the facts may be grouped by importance or type.  
  • The final paragraph needs to wrap up and state the point of the story, whether it is a lesson, an idea, or just a learning experience.  

Writing the Essay

Writing a good narrative essay requires you to include interesting information in an engaging way. Here are some tips:

  • Record yourself telling the story. That will help your organize your story and make the writing flow.
  • Include anecdotes and dialogue in the essay.
  • Use transitory words to connect sentences like: therefore, however, or for example.
  • Vary the structure of your sentences to make the writing more interesting. Try adding some compound, complex, or interrogative sentences. 
  • Make the words lively, descriptive, exciting, active, emotional, and precise.  

Example of Narrative Writing

Here is an example of writing used in a personal narrative essay. Notice the tone and words that set the mood. You can almost feel the heat and humidity.

“It was the middle of springtime and across from my house where the incident took place. There was a lake there in which my brother and I loved to explore from time to time. The humidity and water drops where reminiscent of a fully functional sauna. The onslaught of heat and burning glow of the sun was relentless.”

Types of Essays

An essay is a short piece of writing which is either analytical or speculative. Most essays are written from the author’s point of view.

The word “essay” began to be used in 1588 when Michel de Montaigne published a book called Essais and the word represents a short work written on a particular subject.

There are many kinds of essays, and following is a short explanation of a few of them.

Persuasive or Argumentative Essay

The persuasive or argumentative essay picks a certain viewpoint and offers support of it with data, statistics, and other evidence. Its purpose is to make the reader agree with the proofs and conclusions. In other words, the reader should share the viewpoint of the writer.

Persuasive essays need to have logical and clear reasoning supported by facts and arguments.

Comparison Essay

A comparison essay will compare two things and point out their similarities and differences. The writer needs to find as many similarities and differences as possible so he will need to do some research.

It does not matter in what order the facts are presented, as long as they are easy to understand by the reader.

Descriptive Essay

Descriptive essays answer the questions: how, what, why, when, and where.  They can be written about any subject; a place, person, animal, event, thing, or memory. The writer will share with the reader what he feels and perceives.

The tone should be sensory in nature so the reader can almost see, smell, taste, hear, and feel what the author experienced.

Narrative Essay

A narrative essay tells a story that has a point to be made. The reader may receive an idea or a lesson from the essay. The story is told using sensory details and emotional language.

A narrative essay usually reflects something of a personal nature so many times it becomes a personal narrative essay. 

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Tips for Writing a Personal Narrative Essay

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Writing an engaging personal narrative essay requires you to focus on both the key points of information to be conveyed as well as the many details which make the narrative essay interesting. 

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