The purpose of this section is not to delineate one structural approach that will work for everyone's individual essays, but rather to discuss principles of organization that should guide you in constructing your argument. In previous sections, we have cautioned that the criteria we set forth could not be used as steps to be followed, because there was so much overlap and interdependence. Here your task grows even more challenging, because some of the principles can be mutually exclusive, and you may have to decide between them to determine which approach best suits your material.
Hierarchy of Evidence
Because your reader will be reading quickly and looking for the main points, it is often a good idea to start with your strongest evidence. You may even highlight your most interesting experience in the introduction.
This applicant decides to open with some comments on her ethnic and religious background. Although this is neither an accomplishment nor directly related to her intended field, the writer correctly recognizes that it is a unique element that will distinguish her from other candidates. By establishing this point early on, she immediately has the reader interested in learning more about her. Unfortunately, as we noted in another section, the applicant does not go on to illustrate how her diverse background has influenced her life through more concrete examples.
This approach might invite a chronological order, but we maintain that chronology should not be reason in itself (as explained in the sidebar of the Essay Structures introduction) to organize material in a particular manner. The guiding principle here is to structure your evidence in a way that demonstrates your growth, from a general initial curiosity to a current definite passion, or from an early aptitude to a refined set of skills. It differs from the Hierarchy of Evidence approach because your strongest point might come at the end, but its strength lies precisely in the sense of culmination that it creates. Chronology might not apply if you choose to show progress within a number of self-contained areas, thereby combining this approach with the Juxtaposing Themes approach described later.
This applicant chronicles the evolution of her interest in library service. The progress she describes is not merely a matter of accumulating one experience after another, but rather a process of enrichment by which she learns from fresh perspectives, adding new layers each time. In the second paragraph she discusses her work for a nonprofit organization, emphasizing her interest in "gathering information" and "using human relations skills" to show how this experience is relevant to her current goals. The following paragraph discusses her role as a column writer for that same organization, at which point she states a more defined issue that has caught her attention: "Through this experience I have seen a vivid contrast between the substantive quality of information formally prepared—with the discipline and rigor of a traditional publishing and review schedule and with clear authorship—and the casual unstructured nature of electronic bulletin board postings, faxes, e-mail, and other products of newer technologies." As a result, we see the level of depth that she has reached in her peripheral investigation of the dynamics of information.
In writing this essay, the writer moves effectively from experience to experience; the result does not feel like a list or a haphazard construction, but rather a logically flowing piece. Moreover, the applicant's points in the final two paragraphs have more force because we have witnessed a process of growth. Her individual ideas combine to have a synergistic effect.
The strongest argument against a straight chronological order is the value of juxtaposing related themes and ideas. If two experiences are closely related but occurred years apart, it makes more sense to develop them as one set of ideas than to interrupt them with unrelated points.
This applicant uses the first three paragraphs to establish his goals in public service. In the third paragraph, he offers some childhood anecdotes, then jumps to present career interests. What unites these two chronologically separated points is the connection between his early "humanitarian kindness to animals" and his desire to provide "health care to 44 million uninsured Americans."
The four subsequent paragraphs cover all the ground in between these two points, describing his practical experience in politics. Thus, the opening three paragraphs form a self-contained unit, and although the essay as a whole is not linear, there is a definite logic to grouping his ideas in the way that he did.
Not all essays will have potential in this area, but if you've undergone dramatic experiences, then you should by all means set your essay up to reflect that. The most effective way to accomplish this is to use the introduction to sketch some kind of problem or question, and then use each subsequent paragraph to engage with that problem until a resolution is gradually reached.
In his opening paragraph, this applicant sets the reader up for a compelling tale that we immediately understand will entail a good bit of hardship and difficulty. It is clear that at the beginning of his story, the writer is preparing to head down the wrong path. As readers, we are interested to see where he goes and how he rediscovers his proper direction. Through use of specific detail, he effectively conveys both the attraction of a musician's lifestyle and its more unpleasant side. While he takes us step by step through his progress as a musician (and his parallel failure as a student), notice how he has already planted the seeds of his ultimate rejection of this lifestyle in the first paragraph with his description of the older musicians who populate the scene. He returns to this image at his point of transition, saying, "I came to realize that I was well on my way to becoming one of those bitter old burnouts that I used to play with when I was in high school." He has built the tension nicely, and then offered a resolution that brings a sense of closure to that period of his life. In his final paragraph, it is clear that he is ready to make a fresh start.