After the introduction, the conclusion is the second most important part of your essay. Just as the introduction had the primary purpose of drawing in the reader, the conclusion’s foremost function is to leave the reader with a lasting impression. This section will offer guidelines on how to maximize the impact of that impression. These guidelines can be grouped into three categories, each of which encompasses a lesson of what not to do.
Synthesize, Don’t Summarize
The chief difference between these two tactics is that the former deals with themes while the latter deals with facts/experiences, though there is some overlap. You do not need to recap the essay paragraph-by-paragraph. You do not need to remind the reader of the experiences you discussed (except as individual experiences might be tied to certain themes you want to synthesize).
You do want to reiterate key themes, but preferably not in a way that merely repeats them. Ideally, the process of synthesizing them will add a fresh perspective. Try to tie themes together and demonstrate how they complement each other. Of course, you should stay away, as always, from trite and clichéd generalizations.
This applicant begins with a story about donuts and justice, then moves on to describe her interest in international development. The intersection is not immediately apparent, until she offers the following synthesis in a very succinct conclusion:
“The lessons I’ve learned from my international colleagues have channeled my desire for service into the field of international development. I still wish to fight the ‘Biggest Get the Most’ Theory of Donut Distribution, but now on an international scale.”
The connection seems natural, not contrived, and yet it’s also fresh at this late stage of the essay.
If in the process of synthesizing you can invoke your introduction, you will have succeeded in adding a strong sense of closure. There are a number of different ways this could be accomplished. You might complete a story you started in the introduction, or you might—as this essay does—show how something has changed in your present since the timeframe of the introduction.
Expand on Broader Significance-Within Reason
One way to ensure that your last paragraph has something fresh to say is to tie your ideas to some broader implications, whether about yourself or your field. But don’t get carried away: Some applicants think they have to make reference to saving the world or derive some grand philosophical truths from their experiences. Stay grounded and focused on your personal details.
This applicant writes about his uneasy relationship with science. By the time he writes his conclusion, however, he has reached a clearer understanding of his work within the field of science, which is broader than he first conceived:
“I may not get my hands wet, but I use far more of my education and training than I ever did at the bench, and I am very much still in science. I firmly believe my experiences in science and patent prosecution will allow me to be a creative and contributing member of Villanova University, both as a student and as a future attorney representing achievement.”
Again, appealing to outside principles is only one way to speak to broader significance. You could achieve similar results by relating your experiences to general trends in your life. The point is not to reach as far as possible, but rather to fulfill that primary purpose of leaving a lasting impression by having something fresh to say at the end.
Don’t Add Entirely New Information, Except to Look Ahead
We have used the word “fresh” several times here, and we’re thinking mainly of perspectives and ideas. You should avoid adding entirely new information about your experiences. In shorter essays, you might have to pack details in everywhere, but in general, if it’s an important experience, it should come earlier.
That said, speaking of goals in your conclusion is a strong way to end. Some essays will be chiefly about the writers’ qualifications and intentions, but they won’t touch on specific goals until all of that has been established. The delineation of goals can be like a process of synthesizing, because you are trying to tie your themes together in the context of where you will go next.
This applicant uses his conclusion to reiterate his key themes, which flow naturally into specific goals:
“I know how to relate to and communicate with many different types of people, and I am interested not only in the possibility of pro bono work in my old neighborhood but also in legally serving a full spectrum of clients.”
The essay clearly has been building up to this point, and so the conclusion is fitting.
Similarly, this applicant ties his experiences together in a way that translates neatly into a career objective:
“My educational preparations combined with the diversity of my experience and multicultural background put me in an exceptional position to enter a profession that can bring Asia and America together in law and business.”
You may also want to make reference to the specific schools to which you are applying (some questions will ask why you want to attend). This information can come earlier, but it’s not unacceptable to bring it up in the conclusion.