Paragraphs

As in the case of those that include narratives, most of your paragraphs will have the same underlying structure. You begin with a transition, you offer supporting evidence, and you offer a resolution. Supporting evidence for the most part affects the strength of individual paragraphs, but transitions and resolutions are even more crucial because they affect the coherence and impact of the essay as a whole. The beginnings and endings of each paragraph are the places to draw connections between experiences, demonstrate progression, and highlight your key themes.

Not every paragraph you write will have these three distinct parts, but it's worthwhile to look at how typical paragraphs are structured so you know how to evaluate your essay on this level.

Transitions

The basic purpose of a transition is to serve as a topic sentence; it should give enough direction so the reader knows what to expect. When your essay is following not only a chronological order but also a single train of thought, the paragraphs may flow smoothly anyway. For example, in this essay, note the ways in which paragraphs 3-5 begin: with clear references to time, continuing the account of the writer's recovery from addiction. The step-by-step process is therefore logical and easy to follow.

The topic sentence has more work to do when you move from theme to theme or experience to experience. The reader has to know where you're going next. This applicant prefaces her fifth paragraph as follows: "I also gained valuable research experience during my sophomore year by working twenty hours a week as a behavior therapist with autistic pre-school-aged children at the Children's Behavior Therapy Unit (CBTU)." The sentence sounds natural, a distinct idea in itself but also one that intimates what is to follow. Note that the transition is smooth because it takes a step back and makes a somewhat general point. If she had skipped the first half of the sentence and instead jumped to saying, "I worked twenty hours a week," we would not know that the topic of the paragraph was her research experience. Jumping too abruptly to a new point leaves the reader lost in the gap.

The strongest transitions will not only introduce the ensuing material but will also draw connections to prior paragraphs. These connections can note both similarities and differences. The link does not even have to be intrinsic to the subjects themselves. For example, this applicant compares the breadth of his interests to the concentration of his strengths: "Although my strengths are concentrated in these areas, my curiosity is by no means limited to these topics." Thus, after discussing specific research areas, he makes a transition to other topics by noting the broader scope of his curiosity. This is one of the most basic transitions you can use when there's no obvious link between the two topics.

Of course, you should seek more in-depth transitions to strengthen the forcefulness of your points. This applicant uses this transition to show how the experience he's about to describe builds on previous points: "As a result of the in-depth exposure to networks I gained in the dormitory project, I was well prepared for the challenges that awaited me as the manager of Information Services at the Transportation Center at Northwestern University." Now we are reminded that the previous paragraph demonstrated the "in-depth exposure to networks" he had gained, and we see that the ensuing paragraph will continue to describe the progress he has made.

What Not to Do

The most common mistake—other than not including transitions at all—is to rely on words like "also" or "further," which don't provide any thematic link. Using such substance-less transitions makes your essay sound like a list instead of a logical argument. For example:

Bad: "Doing research for my departmental adviser also provided a great deal of useful experience."

Good: "Although classroom debates sparked my interest in this obscure area, the chance to do hands-on research for my departmental adviser exposed me to the detail-oriented nature of academic inquiry."

Whenever possible, you should aim to create transitions with as much depth as this one has. When you can make a substantive statement both about what's to follow and what preceded, then you not only ensure a smooth flow, but you also reiterate and highlight your key themes.

Supporting Evidence

While the transition statement can be general to orient the reader, your very next sentence should be specific. The movement within each paragraph should be from specific to general, rather than vice versa. There are two main reasons for this approach: 1) The reader will be more interested in the specifics of your situation than in generic, broad themes; 2) You can draw much more interesting, in-depth insights after you have laid out the evidence. The principles here are therefore the same as for stories.

Consider the following paragraph, taken from this essay:

"As a result of my experiences in the dormitory project, I was well prepared for the challenges that awaited me as the manager of Information Services at the Transportation Center at Northwestern University. My primary task was to build a state-of-the-art network infrastructure that would support a leading graduate research center in the transportation field. In a succinct and convincing manner, I had to demonstrate my vision in building the foundation and developing the budget, as well as managing the project, purchasing, installation and finally, deployment of my plan. My success in leading this project and utilizing the newly installed technical tools to empower the Center's goals led to the realization of similar goals and projects in a corporate environment."

The reader-friendly orientation comes in the first sentence, but immediately after, the writer focuses on the details of his experience: the nature of his task and the roles he fulfilled. Only in the final sentence does he begin to expand to the broader lesson. Looking at this example, you might think that this is the natural, obvious approach, and it seems that way because it works so seamlessly. But writers who aren't conscious of what they're doing will often go the exact opposite route. Their paragraph might include something like the following as the second sentence: "In this position, I learned many valuable skills while refining my career vision."

Writers who make this mistake will be wise enough to keep the resolution at the end, but they'll state a general point closer to the top. Their reasoning is that the big lesson needs to be highlighted, but they don't realize that bringing it up prematurely gives it less weight and in turn downplays the uniqueness of their personal details.

Resolutions

It's a shame to see a paragraph with vivid, powerful details end on a flat note, but that's precisely what happens even in otherwise strong essays. The challenge is to say something both meaningful and personal. Most resolutions are too broad and superficial.

The other mistake that writers tend to make is just to state the obvious. For example, every paragraph will end with some form of the following: "This experience reaffirmed my passion for history." Such a poor attempt not only hurts the impact of the paragraph but also makes the writer appear simple-minded and superficial.

This applicant concludes a paragraph on her experience with a nonprofit organization as follows: "My experience helping women access breast-feeding information and empowering them to use that information has convinced me that information alone is not nearly as useful as information plus a skilled guide." What makes this resolution effective is that it makes a clear, meaningful point that is closely tied to the evidence presented within the paragraph.

Ultimately, your approach to writing resolutions should follow the same basic principles you use for other areas: be detailed, personal, specific, and concrete. The additional challenge arises from the fact that you also must speak to some broader significance, and it's tempting either to get carried away and write too generically, or to take the easy way out and conclude with something superficial.

Next: Lesson Four: Style and Tone

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