One of the best ways to connect with your reader in your college application essay is through emotion.

In my new book, Escape Essay Hell!, I share writing techniques and devices you can use to bring pathos to your essay, and forge a bond with your reader.

(With my following suggestions, I’m assuming you already have an introduction—probably an anecdote or mini-story—for your narrative essay, and have moved on to explain what it meant to you.)

If you have an essay that starts by using an example of a mini-story, or relating “a time” something happened or you experienced, you must then interpret that story for the reader. What did that incident mean?

While analyzing, explaining and reflecting on what you learned in the later part of your essay, the following tips and advice can help you make it more heartfelt, earnest and meaningful.

Here’s an excerpt from Chapter Six of Escape Essay Hell!: A Step-By-Step Guide to Writing Standout College Application Essays:

Open Up About Yourself

When you reveal your inner thoughts and feelings, this helps the reader empathize with you—and makes you feel real and human. Showing vulnerability and authenticity takes a lot of courage.

For college essays, that’s good stuff—since it sets you apart from the crowd, forges a deeper connection with the reader and shows the maturity to be introspective and open about yourself.

Show Some Emotion

Once you told your anecdote, and then put it in context with some background (It all started…), you can pick up the story line to show us what happened next.

If you started by describing a problem, now is the time to let us know how it all made you feel.

This is how we relate to your pain and understand why we should care about you and your problem.

You don’t need to overdo this part; just a quick sentence or two and we will get the idea.

Think back to how you were feeling at the lowest point.

In the sample anecdote about the student thrown into a busy restaurant kitchen, he might have said, “I knew I was over my head.” Or “I started feeling dizzy and almost bolted out the door.”

Other ways to let the reader in on your emotional reaction to the problem: “I thought my world was over.” “I thought my parents would kill me.”

“I felt like pulling the covers over my head and staying in bed for the rest of my life.”

“I felt trapped, as though I had no where to turn.”

“I never thought I would figure it out.”

 Include Dialogue

If you didn’t include any dialogue—quoting yourself or someone else—in your anecdote, you might consider dropping in a line or two when you background your story.

You can use it to add drama to your story, such as a snippet from a key player in the story, or even quote yourself.

Describing your inner dialogue or thoughts, or even those of others in the story, is one of the best ways to give your essay that “narrative” style and tone.

Usually you only need a few words, or a short line or two.

Dialogue makes the essay read more like a novel or short story (fiction!), even though it’s true.

If it was something you thought, just let the reader know that.

Example: “You are never going to reach the top of that mountain,” I thought to myself while looking up the steep cliff.

Example: “Why do I always chicken out at the last minute?” I asked myself.

HOT TIP: Another trick to writing dialogue is to try to compress it.

Once you write a couple sentences, or a quick exchange between yourself and someone else, try cutting it down.

Usually, you can get the point across with fewer words than you think, and they end up snappier sounding, too.


If you are using dialogue–say it aloud as you write it. Only then will it have the sound of speech.  

 John Steinbeck