Essay Writing Blog

Strategies for Answering Open Ended Questions

Open-ended questions are those that do not define the scope you should take (i.e., how many and what kinds of experiences to discuss). Like personal statements for other types of applications, open-ended essays have more room for creativity, as you must make the decision on issues such as how expansive or narrow your topic should be. For business schools, the most common question of this type asks about your personal background, but many questions that look straightforward are actually relatively open-ended.

For example, a question that asks you to describe your leadership style is more open than a question that asks you to describe a single leadership experience. This question defines the kind of experience you should discuss, but not the number. Therefore you still face decisions on how many examples to use and how to integrate them. On the other hand, a question that asks you to discuss your most important activity limits you to one example, but leaves open from which realm you will choose that example. Therefore you still face decisions on what theme you will use to drive your discussion. In both cases, you should use the guidelines discussed in this lesson to structure your essay.

The key aims of this lesson are the same as for the previous one: you will learn how to identify and develop an overarching theme and to organize your content in the most effective structure. There will also be some overlap in subsections.

Themes

As we explained in the last lesson, the overarching theme you decide on will inform the manner in which you organize the rest of your content. But in contrast to the type of essay discussed in the previous lesson, you don’t have a series of questions to guide your thought process for these open-ended types. Instead, you must analyze your main ideas and examples and identify the underlying theme that ties them together.

There are two extremes that you should avoid, as demonstrated by the following examples:

TOO BROAD: “A variety of experiences have shaped me into the person I am today.”
TOO NARROW: “My character is defined by hard work.”

It is better to err on the side of specificity, but to avoid the problem of sounding too narrow and over-simplistic, you should add layers to create a more sophisticated theme. For example: “While perseverance helped me to survive academically during my first years in the U.S., I discovered a more profound love of learning when I chose my major in college.”

The same two methods of articulating your theme apply here as they did to the complex essays. We will go through them again with different examples.

The Upfront Approach

The idea here is to articulate your theme in the introduction, suggesting the focus of your argument as you would in a thesis statement. This applicant faces the question, “What matters most to you and why?” Many people will choose a concrete topic, such as family or religion. In those cases, it’s still essential to have a theme in addition to the topic, so the essay doesn’t amount to a disordered listing of facts. The approach that this applicant uses is unique in that the topic is itself a theme: “a lifelong pursuit to improve myself as a human being.” To add further depth to this theme, he explains how he will approach the topic from three angles: professional, spiritual, and personal.

Not all essays need to be as clearly outlined as this one is. Nevertheless, this essay demonstrates the effectiveness of asserting a clear theme that offers direction for the rest of the discussion.

The Gradual Approach

Because you are writing personal essays, you might prefer to allow the argument to unfold more naturally as a story. Each paragraph will build upon previous points as an underlying theme gradually emerges. The conclusion then ties these individual themes together and includes some kind of encapsulation of the material that preceded it. This applicant writes a summary of his personal and family background. He begins by making each point on its own terms, without trying to force an all-encompassing interpretation on his life.

Gradually, however, ideas begin to recur about obstacles, sacrifice, and the united resolve that his family showed. He puts these pieces together in the final paragraph: “My family created a loving home in which I was able to develop the self-confidence that I need in order to overcome many of the challenges that I face in my career. In addition, growing up in a family of very modest means, and being conscious of my parents’ sacrifices, has given me a powerful sense of drive.”

Organization

Answering open-ended questions will naturally give you more freedom in adopting an arrangement for your ideas. While one strategy comes from the previous lesson, the other two are new.

Hierarchy of Evidence

This approach will be less common for open-ended questions because the majority of them ask about personal background, and in those cases you’re not looking to emphasize accomplishments by bringing them to the forefront. Nevertheless, if there’s something in your personal background that would make you stand out, you should not hesitate to open with that rather than stick to more conventional orderings.

Showing Progress

We do not have a section advising chronological order, because despite its convenience, you should not choose such an approach for its own sake. A chronological essay often reads like a dull list, undiscriminating in its details. On the other hand, the Showing Progress approach often results in a chronological order for independent reasons.

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 faces a variation of the failure question. Instead of being asked to discuss one failure, he has to reflect on the quotation, “Mistakes are the portals of discovery.” (Note: here the theme is given to you, but the scope is not defined. Therefore the example is still useful, as the writer has to choose how to organize his evidence.) After discussing his initial mistake, he describes subsequent actions with clear comparisons to the original experience that demonstrate the progress he has made. Moreover, his choice to discuss two separate mistakes creates a second level of progress, as the lessons he learns after the second mistake are clearly more advanced and mature.

Juxtaposing Themes

If two experiences are closely related but occurred years apart, it makes more sense to develop them as one set of ideas than to interrupt them with unrelated points. This essay, quoted above under the Gradual Approach subsection, moves through the applicant’s personal background point by point, instead of attempting to tell a chronological story. He devotes separate paragraphs to different family members and discusses his experience with the religious conflicts in Ireland in its own segment. Thus each idea is developed in full without being interrupted by points that would fit in only because of chronology.

Your decision between these latter two approaches comes down to the nature of your content—most importantly, the number of ideas you’re juggling. Moreover, showing progress is more significant in an essay about self-development than one about more external factors. Finally, note that you can combine the two approaches by showing progress within self-contained thematic units.

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