Paragraphs

Most of your paragraphs will have the same underlying structure. You begin with a transition, you offer supporting evidence, and you wrap up with 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 ends 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 the third through sixth paragraphs begin: with clear references to time, following the writer's college career. 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 a paragraph about the origin of his interest in law with the following:

"What I knew about the law previously came from talking with and observing my father, who is an attorney specializing in insurance defense."

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.

In contrast, the following hypothetical transition derived from the actual second sentence would be too specific:

"My father loves his work but he has never made any effort to conceal the tribulations, tedium, and disappointments that are a part of his profession."

Since the previous paragraphs were about the applicant's experience in the Superior Court, this abrupt jump would leave the reader lost in the gap. Because the writer is actually moving backward in time, the original transition helps the reader to follow the shift.

The strongest transitions not only will introduce the ensuing material, but also will 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 his experience in international business to his goals in law:

"Although I have enjoyed tremendous success as an international businessman, I am certain that I possess an even greater passion for the law."

This is one of the most basic transitions a writer can use when there's no obvious, inherent 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:

"The alliance between law and global business encompasses a broad spectrum of situations, which I have witnessed first hand while working for an international trading company."

The fact that this is even meant to be a transition is not immediately obvious, but what the writer has done is to use the phrase "the alliance between law and global business" to reiterate the point he made in the previous paragraph. Then the second half of the sentence, about the spectrum of situations he has witnessed, comes as a natural extension and prepares the reader for his discussion of a specific experience. This kind of subtle link allows one point to flow smoothly to the next. If he had merely started with the second sentence of that paragraph ("As a first year law student at Loyola Law School of Los Angeles, I worked part time at Turtle King Corporation (TKC)."), we would have the necessary prefacing, but not the thematic connection.

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: Volunteering at the Legal Aid Society also provided a great deal of useful experience.

Good: Although working in a private firm has equipped me with relevant legal skills, volunteering at the Legal Aid Society influenced my perception of the deeper purpose of my future profession.

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 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.

Consider the following paragraph, taken from this essay:

"I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to do a summer internship in the nation's capital with the Legal Aid Society. Working with this group gave me a chance to sit in on depositions, accompany attorneys to court, and draft interrogatories. Moreover, I was able to play at least a small role in helping an indigent population that was unable to articulate their problems for themselves in court or afford legal counsel. I was struck by the dedication of the lawyers who staff the Legal Aid Society and by their altruistic use of their training and skills."

The reader-friendly orientation comes with the first sentence, but after that, the writer offers specific details of his experience. Only in the last 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. However, writers who aren't conscious of what they're doing will often go the exact opposite route. Their paragraph might look something like the following:

"I was also fortunate to have the opportunity to do a summer internship in the nation's capital with the Legal Aid Society. There I learned about the difficult responsibilities that attorneys hold and the honor in working for just causes. Working with this group gave me a chance to sit in on depositions, accompany attorneys to court, and draft interrogatories. Moreover, I was able to play at least a small role in helping an indigent population that was unable to articulate their problems for themselves in court or afford legal counsel. I was struck by the dedication of the lawyers who staff the Legal Aid Society and by their altruistic use of their training and skills."

These writers 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. The second sentence of this revised paragraph is so watered down that it's not just useless, but actually damaging to the applicant's case.

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. For example, a writer might conclude a strong paragraph about his interactions with a victimized client as follows:

"Learning about Jane's struggles taught me that life is precious and must be lived to the fullest."

Even if we overlook the use of two egregious clichés, we are left with no real insight into the writer's character because this resolution is so far removed from his personal situation.

The other mistake that writers tend to make is to state the obvious. For example, every paragraph will end with some form of the following:

"This experience reaffirmed my passion for law."

Such a poor attempt not only hurts the impact of the paragraph but also makes the writer appear simple-minded and superficial.

This applicant does a much better job:

"Having learned that I can interact effectively with many different types of people, I find the thought of also being able to serve them through a knowledge of the law to be very exhilarating."

Note that his point does have a broader significance, but it's closely tied to the specifics of his experience. Also, it bears relevance to law but in a more sophisticated way than simply reiterating his interest.

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 something superficial.

Note that some paragraphs that are part of a larger point do not require a resolution, per se, because the ongoing idea continues into subsequent paragraphs. A resolution is necessary for self-contained units, in which an example or set of evidence must be capped off with some broader insight.

Next: Lesson Four: Style and Tone