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.
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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People don’t always say what they mean or mean what they say. That’s true in real life and in fiction. Dialogue is not only about what is being said, but also about what is left unsaid. That is the playing field of narration: it shows us how people interact nonverbally. So, how do you strike a perfect balance between the two? There is no ready-made formula for the right mix of narration and dialogue. Instead, let’s explore the functions of dialogue and narration in a scene, so that you can find the mix that’s right for your novel.
This guest blog is written by Helga Schier, PhD, former Big Five editor and founder of withpenandpaper.com, an independent editorial services firm. With over 20 years of experience in the (self-)publishing industry, Helga guides authors through the development and revision process. Handling a manuscript like a diamond in the rough, Helga’s editorial work focuses on the refinement of story, character, and stylistic issues, helping writers unlock the potential of their manuscripts. She works with published, self-published, and not-yet-published writers of fiction and non-fiction. Helga has published essayistic works on contemporary English and American fiction, and has translated several screenplays, memoirs, and a novel series. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two children. For more information, visit www.withpenandpaper.com
Also check out Helga’s Writers Digest online tutorials: More than Just Talk: Painting a Scene with Dialogue and Narration, Creating Compelling Characters in Six Simple Steps, and Top Ten Errors Writers Make. Also, look for her future online tutorials: Clichés are a Writer’s Best Friend, and Capturing and Directing Your Readers’ Imagination.
A Vehicle for Character
The way people speak and interact in a conversation says a whole lot about them. The words a character chooses can and should expose the character’s background, personality, and emotional status. The CEO of a multibillion-dollar company would choose different words than a military general, a stay-at-home mom, or a teenage girl. No need for lengthy character descriptions, if you choose the right words to put in your characters’ mouths.
But that’s only half of the story.
By sheer definition, in a dialogue, at least two people interact: they exchange information, ask questions, answer them, comment, fight, tease… whatever. The way they interact with each other says a whole lot about their relationship. A teenage girl will speak and act differently when she talks to her BFF or a stranger, her teacher or her little sister or, God forbid, her mom.
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Small talk and happy talk—conversations where nothing goes wrong—are boring and have no place in fiction. When two or more people talk, tensions are bound to arise. The tension may be caused by conflicting motivations, by unspoken desires, by a difference in opinion, by hidden agendas, or by a bad day in the office. But it is there—and it is one of the most important functions of dialogue to reveal it. That’s what makes a scene sizzle and the sizzle is what ultimately moves the plot forward.
Let’s look at a very simple example.
“Jane called me earlier today. She quit her job,” Bob said.
“You mean our sister?” Regan replied.
This exchange tells us nothing more than that Bob and Regan are siblings, that they have a third sibling, Jane, and that she quit her job. That’s far too expository, far too obviously passing on factual information directly to the reader. In short, it’s nothing but a thinly disguised information dump.
Let’s look at the same dialogue with just a few revisions.
“Jane called me earlier today. She quit her job,” Bob said.
“Does mom know? If she hears that her favorite is out of a job, she’ll freak out,” Regan replied.
Here we still get the same information, namely that Jane is Bob and Regan’s sister and that she quit her job. But we get something more as well: We also learn that Regan feels that Jane is the mother’s favorite, which might indicate that Regan is a little jealous. In addition, we learn that the sister’s lack of a job may be an issue for the entire family, precisely because of the close relationship between Jane and her mother.
That’s one level of a scene—the level of spoken words. The narration steps in to reveal what the spoken words conceal.
Conversations should never take place in a vacuum. The narration needs to firmly ground your reader in time and space. But this does not mean that you should drown out your characters’ words with lengthy background information, scene descriptions, summaries, and commentary. Just like your dialogue cannot be a place to dump information, your narration can’t be either. Instead, your narration must support and enhance the spoken words of your characters.
Narration anchors the reader and creates the atmosphere of the setting and the specific circumstance of the scene.
Reading Between the Lines
Not haphazardly, of course, but in relation to what the scene is about. The narration needs to hint at or reveal the theme of your scene, which is to say that it needs to expose what’s going on between the lines. Quite literally so.
Let’s look how that might affect the scene between Regan and Bob.
“Jane called me earlier today. She quit her job,” Bob said.
“Does mom know? If she hears that her favorite is out of a job, she’ll freak!” Regan dropped her fork and knife on her plate with such force that the clatter turned heads at the nearby tables.
“Done eating already?” Bob asked as he leaned forward to inspect the plate for cracks.
“Why are you always taking her side?”
“I’m not,” he said and waved off the waitress who had taken a few steps toward them, summoned by the commotion.
Illustrating Underlying Emotions
The short description in between the lines illustrates Bob and Regan’s behavior during the conversation, which in turn indicates their emotional status at the time. Regan is clearly upset, annoyed, frustrated. Bob is just as clearly trying to stay calm and in control of the situation. Bringing in the reaction of people other than the two dialogue partners, allows the reader to sense the ambiance of the setting, supporting the now even more obvious tension. The scene becomes a palpable. The reader is right there, watching, able to draw his or her own conclusions.
Driving the Plot Forward
The fact that Regan’s strong reaction almost broke her dinner plate and turned people’s heads at other tables could imply that Regan’s feelings may stir up or even break things in her family, too. The reader can’t help but wonder what’s going on in that family to cause such a strong reaction, and what may happen now that the reaction has been unleashed. Curious, the reader is ready to turn the page to see what happens next.
A writer’s job is to create a world that unfolds before the reader’s eyes. We want to hear people speak and see what they do, so that we may intuit what causes their behavior and where it might lead. With the well-tuned interplay of dialogue and narration, you can create scenes that sizzle with romance, suspense, excitement, or joy, engaging the reader in your characters’ plight.
WANT MORE? Check out Helga’s Writers Digest online tutorial:
More than Just Talk – Painting a Scene with Dialogue and Narration.
Watch the sneak peek above and then order here.
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Brian A. Klems is the editor of this blog, online editor of Writer’s Digest and author of the popular gift bookOh Boy, You’re Having a Girl: A Dad’s Survival Guide to Raising Daughters.
Follow Brian on Twitter: @BrianKlems
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