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. Some of these principles are 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 relates his international experience in Florence, Italy, when he first came face-to-face with Michelangelo’s statue of “David.” The applicant immediately lets the reader know that his international experiences have had a great influence upon his life: “My childhood in Munich, Germany, and my travels throughout the continent have shaped me in countless ways.” Employing precise and vivid language to describe the statue, as well as his experience, the writer creates a moving piece. However, there is room for more extensive commentary on how he has been shaped by his experiences, both with “David” and throughout Europe. Although the reader can acknowledge the impact this event had upon the writer, he is left without a definite picture of the applicant, and therefore cannot readily assess his character traits or personality.
This approach might invite a chronological order, but we maintain that chronology should not be reason in itself (as explained in the introduction to this lesson) 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.
This applicant was asked to attach a photograph of something important to her and explain its significance. She chose a picture of a coffee mug from Delany’s and used this as a device to evince her maturation and personal growth. Instead of stating upfront who she is today and then backtracking to an exposition of how past events have shaped her, she uses a chronological approach tempered by an introduction that foreshadows the theme to be explored: “‘There’s got to be more to life than weekend coffee at Delany’s,’ I remember saying out loud.” The growth she describes is not merely a matter of accumulating one experience after another, but rather a process of enrichment. She relates her childhood propensities (“As far back as I can recall, I have tasted life with gusto and an insatiable curiosity”) before focusing on her current personality traits (“Nowadays, I channel my childhood exuberance into doing what I love most: venturing out into the world.”). The maturation is most poignant because she employs specific examples to support her claims.
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 final points have more force because we have witnessed a process of growth: “It’s probably too late for me to become a concert pianist or ballerina, and I may never become the family’s first lawyer or doctor. Whatever I choose to pursue, I know that I will attack it with the same passion I had sharing those adventures with my brother.”
Not all essays will have potential in this area, but if you have undergone dramatic experiences, then you should set up your essay 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.
This applicant sets up a harrowing—yet undefined—problem in the first paragraph that is tied to significant consequences. The reader later learns that the problem is that the applicant’s father is battling cancer. The issue of cancer and its effects on families and children is a topic that should be executed with care and is one that weighs heavily on the reader’s mind throughout the course of the essay.
The middle of the exposition relates how the writer was affected by his father’s illness (“My bad grades, in turn, lowered my confidence even further, for my dad had always stressed academics quite heavily—but after seeing my grades, I felt like I had failed my father”). The success of the essay lies in this very fact that instead of simply relating his father’s painful battle with the disease, the writer personalizes the events for himself—how they affected him and how he has grown from them: “When I realized that by following his example I could surmount any obstacles, I made up my mind. I would face the world ‘brave and hard,’ and I would cast off the anxiety, which constrained my personality from growing.” Although this statement seems as if it would serve as a successful conclusion, the writer goes on to develop his theme further, providing precise examples on how he used this adversity to motivate himself to improve. The conclusion contains the most succinct thematic statement that serves to unify the entire piece: “His struggle with colon cancer became a model for my own struggle to improve myself.”