Getting From Here to There: Transitions

By Ryan Hickey + updated on December 22nd, 2009

Whether a full sentence or a single word, transitions can bridge the gap between a good essay and a great one. An essay without effective transitions is like a series of isolated islands; the reader will struggle to get from one point to the next and will probably end up frustrated or lose interest along the way. If the transitions in your essay are choppy, the first thing you should examine is the overall organization of the piece.

Awkward transitions are often symptomatic of poor organization. If the structure of the essay makes sense and the concepts follow each other logically, then transitions should write themselves. Thus, step one in creating effective transitions is ensuring that your essay is organized well.

Many applicants believe that creating an effective transition simply means using one of the mainstay transition words, such as however or furthermore. These become problematic when they are used too much, though, and instead of enhancing the logical flow of an essay can actually detract from it. Sometimes a writer will tack on a however at the front of a sentence in order to contradict a previous one, but fail to notice that the previous sentence expresses multiple ideas; how then is the reader to know which of those preceding ideas is being contradicted?

The best way to transition is to take baby steps in logic from one idea to another. Each sentence should add one more step to the argument without getting ahead of itself. One good tool is the use of keywords (or key concepts). In this method, a sentence introduces a concept and then the next sentence picks up this concept before introducing another one:

Looking back, I see that my family instilled within me a sense of social obligation. Given their example, I have always assumed that public service would be the underlying motivation for everything I do. This commitment to serving the public good has found its expression in foreign affairs. My fascination with international relations was inspired by my own mixed heritage and that of my native New Zealand, a country formed by a dynamic mix of European, Maori, Polynesian, and Asian cultures. Such an international perspective convinced me to leave my home and attend Harvard as an undergraduate.

Here, the key concepts provide a logical bridge from one sentence to the next:

family’s influence –> social obligation / public service –> foreign affairs / international relations –> mixed heritage / international perspective –> leaving home to go abroad

This paragraph might rely too heavily on key words, but it is presented here to show what an extremely logical and effective progression of ideas looks like.

Beyond organization and transition words, a lesser-known trick to improve transitions is to use short paragraphs, limiting each to its own specific detail or idea. Because most students are accustomed to writing lengthy papers, applicants often compose essays consisting of 2-3 large paragraphs. Given the limits placed on length in most application essay prompts, however, short paragraphs are usually much more effective.

Short paragraphs make an essay more readable by allowing the reader to absorb concepts in small packages. They also give each idea its own moment in the reader’s mind. A well-placed paragraph break can often work in lieu of a verbal transition by highlighting subtle differences or adding a dramatic pause. It saves the reader from having to think about these nuances.

All EssayEdge editors are well versed in the art of effective transitions. They can help you ensure that your piece is organized as well as possible while smoothing breaks between paragraphs and ideas.

Finally, happy holidays from everyone here at EssayEdge! Be sure to check back frequently over the coming days… you don’t want to miss the gift we’ll be giving out on December 25th!

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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