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 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 paragraphs 2-4 begin: with clear references to time, continuing the account of her military background. 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 his paragraph about intellectual interests with the following: "I have always been a very inquisitive person, as well as one who delights in taking things apart and putting them back together." 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: "I cannot help but wonder if my inquisitiveness does not somehow relate to my interest in medicine." The reader would ask, "What inquisitiveness? Where did that come from?" 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 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 notes a difference in the extent to which science and interpersonal interaction factor in his commitment to medicine: "Although science has always fascinated me, it is the interpersonal interaction that primarily draws me to the medical field." 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: "I felt some of the same sympathy while working last year with a local doctor in rural Mexico." The transition comes down to a single word: "same." This kind of subtle link sounds natural because one point flows smoothly to the next.

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 local hospital also provided a great deal of useful experience."

Good: "Although shadowing my uncle provided insight into the doctor-patient relationship, volunteering at the local hospital allowed me to work with a broader range of medical personnel and to gain exposure to more types of cases."

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 the evidence out. The principles here are therefore the same as for stories.

Consider the following paragraph, taken from this essay:

"I unexpectedly had the opportunity to gain additional perspective on the doctor/patient relationship during Christmas break, when I seriously fractured my left humerus from arm-wrestling gone awry. I was rushed to the emergency room, where an orthopedic doctor treated me. My left arm was immobilized for a long time and I suddenly discovered my new limitations; among other problems, I found it extremely difficult to wash myself or sleep in a comfortable position. My compassion for patients, especially the chronically ill and disabled, increased exponentially. This experience was also a clear illustration of the value of good medical care; I was very thankful for the availability and expertise of my doctor."

The reader-friendly orientation comes with "the opportunity to gain additional perspective on the doctor/patient relationship," but after that, the writer focuses on the details of his experience: what he fractured, where he ended up, what the consequences were. Only in the second-to-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. But 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 unexpectedly had the opportunity to gain additional perspective on the doctor/patient relationship during Christmas break, when I seriously fractured my left humerus from arm-wrestling gone awry. Through this experience, my compassion for patients, especially the chronically ill and disabled, increased exponentially. I was rushed to the emergency room, where an orthopedic doctor treated me. My left arm was immobilized for a long time and I suddenly discovered my new limitations; among other problems, I found it extremely difficult to wash myself or sleep in a comfortable position. This experience was also a clear illustration of the value of good medical care; I was very thankful for the availability and expertise of my doctor."

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.

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 dying patient 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 just to state the obvious. For example, every paragraph will end with some form of the following: "This experience reaffirmed my passion for medicine." 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: "Besides instilling within me a desire to help others who are ill, my experience with my mother also heightened my sensitivity to other people and the difficulties with which they sometimes must cope." 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 medicine but in a more sophisticated way than simply reiterating his interest.

This applicant resolves his sixth paragraph as follows: "This has given me the opportunity to be a leader and educator among my fellow students while also acquiring a little additional insight into the kinds of problems that a health professional confronts." A similarity between this sentence and the previous one is that both are multifaceted. If your resolution has more than one layer, then you have probably achieved the depth you need.

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.

Next: Lesson Four: Style and Tone

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