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. In previous sections, we have cautioned that the criteria we set forth could not be used as steps to be followed, because there was so much overlap and interdependence. Here your task grows even more challenging, because some of the principles can be 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’s often a good idea to start with your strongest evidence. You may even highlight your most interesting experience in the introduction.
This applicant recognized that his most compelling, in-depth experience was not clinical work but his tenure as a camp counselor. He therefore opens with details about this experience and spends about three paragraphs gleaning insights into his character from it. Because he has been involved in the same summer camp for seven years, he can write with depth and sincere reflection.
In paragraphs 6 and 7, he discusses two other experiences, as a peer health counselor and an emergency room volunteer. Although these are more directly related to his future career, it makes sense to give them less weight for two chief reasons: 1) they are more typical and will make him blend in with other applicants; 2) he could not have achieved the same level of commitment and responsibility in those positions, and so there’s less potentially meaningful content available. These two paragraphs offer strong supporting evidence, but there is not enough substance in either one to warrant centering the entire essay around it.
This approach might invite a chronological order, but we maintain that chronology should not be reason in itself (as explained in sidebar of the Essay Structures introduction) 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. Chronology might not apply if you choose to show progress within a number of self-contained areas, thereby combining this approach with the Juxtaposing Themes approach described later.
This applicant chronicles the growth of his interest in medicine. The growth he describes is not merely a matter of accumulating one experience after another, but rather a process of enrichment in which he learns from new angles and adds layers each time. He begins with a childhood admiration, then discusses budding academic interests. In the third paragraph, research adds a new dimension to his attraction to science (this constitutes growth within a subsection – “interest in science” – of the overall progression). Then he shifts gears to show how clinical work and an experience as a patient added further depth to his determination to become a doctor.
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. His individual ideas combine to have a synergistic effect.
The strongest argument against a straight chronological order is the value of juxtaposing related themes and ideas. 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 applicant devotes her second paragraph to her passion for science and biology. She shows the self-contained unit of progression in her growth from curiosity to her college major to her research experience. There’s no indication of when this experience began, but it may very well have come after the applicant’s first volunteer position “three years ago.” But paragraphs 3 and 4 form another self-contained unit: the themes are not exactly the same, nor is there a clear sense of progression (other than the first experience “encouraging” the second). The two points, however, complement each other, with paragraph 3 discussing her interpersonal responsibilities and paragraph 4 detailing what she has learned from patients. By keeping these two points together, the writer builds strong connections that make both themes more forceful.
Not all essays will have potential in this area, but if you’ve undergone dramatic experiences, then you should by all means set your essay up 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 very clear problem in the first paragraph that’s tied to significant consequences. The issue of discrimination weighs on the reader’s mind throughout the course of the essay, though it doesn’t come up explicitly. As a result, we view the applicant’s subsequent experiences not just as achievements in themselves but as active struggles against this initial discrimination. The resolution comes not in the form of an answer but a statement of the applicant’s full confidence in his past decisions and the future they will create: “Now, with my goal in sight and so many recent experiences reaffirming my passion for medicine, I know that all of the dedication and sacrifice have been worthwhile.”