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Dialogue: The Dos and Don’ts of Quotes in Your College Essay

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“Hey,” I began, “you have cow eyes. I know that sounds like a bad thing but have you ever looked into a cow’s eyes? They are so deep and brown and beautiful. I’ve looked into a lot a cow eyes because I’m from Wisconsin.”

This dialogue segment is from Malcolm Conner’s winning “Modern Love” College Essay, printed just a couple months ago in the New York Times. Without dialogue, he might have said “I fumbled with my words, trying to compliment her,” but the dialogue shows his rambling and awkward demeanor instead.

Dialogue is an underutilized tool in the college essay. So many students don’t even consider adding an outdated adage from a parent or a hilarious crack from a high school coach to break up their prose, set the scene or build the profiles of their stories’ characters.  And yet, dialogue is one of those devices that can give you a lot of bang for your buck, delivering a punch of personality or a wallop of context using just a few carefully culled utterances. Dialogue is also one of those tools that is easy to waste if you don’t know how to wield it for maximum effect. So when should you use dialogue in your college essay? And when should you avoid it?

Use dialogue:

If it reveals something specific about a character in your essay. Is your character cranky? A jokester? Is your character selfish? (“You can’t have any.”) Dialogue can telegraph these kinds of qualities to a reader very quickly.

If it helps to move the story forward. Maybe when everything is going great, your friend pulls you aside and says, “I have to tell you something, something bad.”

If it expresses humor or heartache or other emotions in the character’s own words. Is your character a funny grandparent? (“If you eat any more potatoes, Ireland’s gonna come for you, sport.” “Honey, if I had known about senior discounts, I would have let my hair go grey twenty years ago.”)

Don’t use dialogue:

If it is expressing something that is obvious to the reader without adding an additional layer of context or insight to the story or your characters. If it doesn’t tell us anything new about the character, the story may be better without it.

If you’ve already used it a few times in your essay. The impact of dialogue is enhanced when it’s used sparingly — especially in short pieces of writing.

If it takes away from the focal point of your story. Dialogue can be great insight into a character or situation, but if it doesn’t serve a purpose in hitting home your main point, it needs to be cut.

All of this said, of course, there are exceptions to these rules. If used intentionally, as a conscious creative choice, submitting an essay overflowing with dialogue can actually work to amazing effect. For example, maybe your essay is a discussion between you and your former self, between you and your best friend, or you and your parent.  In these cases, you should ask yourself: why is this the best way to share my story? If you can answer that question and still believe you’re making the right choice, by all means, continue with your experiment.

Otherwise, the tips above should help you on the road to incorporating the right kind and amount of dialogue into your college essay. When used well, dialogue illuminates. It shows personality. It’s specific. I say, “Do it! Do it! Do it!”

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