Stories can be the heart of your essay, if you handle them effectively. Below are some tips on how to maximize their value.
Integrating your story effectively ensures that it flows well within the essay and has a strong impact. Failing to do so could lead to choppiness or confusion on the reader's part. Here are some possible approaches, but what you ultimately use depends on your content:
"One memorable incident involved..."
After the story, you should have some significant insight with which to conclude to justify the story's inclusion. Ther line should not be a mere repetition of the transition from the beginning of the paragraph, because you now should have more concrete details from which to draw more in-depth conclusions.
The basic rule here is the same as always: include specific details. The purpose of using stories is to illustrate your points with concrete evidence, thereby giving your ideas force and context. Telling one specific story enables you to achieve depth and convey personality beyond what you could achieve in brief, isolated descriptions. It is not enough, however, merely to decide to include a story. Some writers will start on the right track but end up conveying nothing meaningful. For example, they might name a specific personal incident and then jump to generic conclusions without demonstrating anything substantive about their character. Here are some more specific tips that have come up in other contexts but are especially important for stories:
Anecdotes should serve some clear purpose, but you have to be careful about sounding contrived. One common mistake is to start citing lessons before you have finished the story. This kind of interruption adulterates the force of the story itself. Be careful that your insights flow naturally from the details of your anecdote: Stay close to your personal story and avoid making grand pronouncements based on a minor episode.
To put the above suggestions in more concrete terms, we will analyze one actual essay from a critical perspective. This applicant focuses upon a special diamond necklace that has great significance for her. She relates several discrete events in a logical progression, rather than a classical narrative revolving around a single event. Yet the necklace is the common element that binds her experiences. The introduction is successful because it shows the focus of the essay while creating an element of suspense: The reader does not know why or how this diamond necklace is meaningful to the applicant.
The writer provides essential context for the necklace in the second paragraph in a subtle fashion: "A small piece of paper had been ripped and folded to make a card which read: 'Congratulations on your Bat-Mitzvah. Love, Dad.'" What is unique is that the applicant relates why the necklace was initially important ("I valued the necklace only because it was the first time in seven years my dad and mom came together without screaming or causing tears. Thus, it becomes a charm of good luck"), though she admits that it was not of supreme importance to her.
Through specific examples of her subsequent experiences, the writer shows how the importance of the necklace increased in her life: "My necklace brought me strength and the harder I pressed my fingers against it, the more secure I felt...I left work that night and walked in the cold air caressing my star with a sense of connection, a feeling of closeness to the people of my faith." Though vivid details draw in the reader, the essay's power lies within the expressed insight: "While the shape of my star stayed the same, the shape of my life took off in many directions."
Finally, note that she allows the story to unfold naturally without forcing many conclusions. Though several statements seem to be the thematic underpinnings, the writer saves her most significant point until the final two sentences: "My necklace was my identity. I pulled it from underneath my shirt and placed it on the outside of my clothing, not caring if the diamond side faced forward." The flow from anecdotes to insights drawn is smooth and fitting, creating an overall moving personal statement.