Overarching Themes

The reason we start with themes is the same reason we suggested you start your brainstorming by thinking about your long-term vision. The overarching theme you decide on will inform the manner in which you organize the rest of your content. This theme is analogous to the thesis of an academic essay, though it's often less explicitly stated.

When we use the term "theme," we mean something that usually has multiple layers. A strong essay will never boil down to a statement as simple as the following: "My reason for pursuing a graduate degree is X." That kind of theme would invite a repetitive structure that merely includes a series of paragraphs offering evidence for a single point. Instead, your theme should introduce complexities, as in the following: "While Experience A demonstrates my commitment to B Aspect of my chosen field, Experience C drives me toward Objective D."

There are essentially two ways to set forth your theme. The first is to bring it up in the introduction, usually at the end of the first paragraph. At this stage, since you haven't explored your concrete evidence, the theme should subtly indicate the direction the essay will take rather than try to tell the whole story.

The second approach is to ensure a strong flow between paragraphs, connecting each point with previous ones so the underlying theme gradually emerges. Then the conclusion wraps these individual themes together and includes some kind of encapsulation of the material that preceded it. Below we will use examples to illustrate these two tactics:

The Upfront Approach

The theme of this essay comes at the end of the first paragraph: "Although I look back on these activities today with some chagrin, I realize they did help me to develop, at an early age, a sense of concern for social and political issues and a genuine desire to play a role." At this point, the writer is referring to specific activities that he somewhat regrets, but this sets the tone for a running contrast between internal struggles and outward concerns.

The next two paragraphs discuss the writer's battles with addiction. Then the applicant shows how his emotional recovery coincides with a growing awareness of political issues: "During the last years of my addiction I was completely oblivious to the world around me. Until 1983 I didn't even realize that there had been a revolution in Nicaragua or that one was going on in El Salvador. Then I rejoined the Quaker Meeting, in which I had been raised as a child, and quickly gravitated to its Peace and Social Order Committee. They were just then initiating a project to help refugees from Central America, and I joined enthusiastically in the work."

What makes this theme sophisticated is that it does not merely state, "I am concerned about Third World economic development." Rather, it ties social concerns to issues of personal development and creates a coherent portrait of a multifaceted individual. The Upfront Approach is effective in this case because it helps us to see where the writer is going when he delves into his history of addiction and prevents an overly negative undertone.

The Gradual Approach

This essay does not give away much in the opening paragraph. The writer's first paragraph serves as a distinct point rather than establishing a framework for the rest of the essay. The next three paragraphs each also have independent points: the intersection of computers and geology, his coursework experience, and his career goals. Effective topic sentences help to ensure a strong underlying flow. For example, in the third paragraph, the writer identifies structural geology as an area of interest and an area in which he has some background, after describing in the second paragraph how he would apply his computer expertise to that field.

Although there is an implicit overarching theme emerging, the writer waits until the conclusion to make that explicit: "My decision to focus on math and science as an undergraduate and to explore the computer industry after college has equipped me with a unique set of strengths to offer this program. The depth of my interest in geology has only grown in my time away from academia, and although I have identified several possible areas of specialization through prior studies, I look forward to contributing my fresh perspective on all subjects." As you can see, this theme does not lend itself to a one-sentence synthesis because the various points are broader. Nevertheless, this conclusion helps to connect these points for the reader, so he or she can walk away with a clear formulation of what he or she has just learned.

Whether you choose the Upfront or Gradual approach depends on the nature of your overarching theme and the substance it encompasses. When, as in the first example, there is a more defined framework that lends itself to succinct expression, you can provide more direction at the beginning and make a more focused point. But if your topic is broader and your ideas need to be developed before being tied together, then you should let them unfold naturally and save the integration for a nice, forceful ending. Whichever route you choose, make sure your theme is multi-layered and sophisticated. Any oversimplification would not do justice to your candidacy.

Next: Organization

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