Essays that fall under this category require you to discuss a particular number (usually one) of experiences as well as a particular kind. For example, you may discuss an ethical dilemma, a leadership experience, or the three accomplishments of which you are most proud. The reason that structuring these types of essays is less complicated is that you have one clear primary task: to answer the question. You don’t have to worry about integrating multiple ideas into a single structure, because the main theme has been provided for you.
Although the task is clear, there are still ways to mishandle it. The following are strategies for ensuring that the structure you choose fulfills its purpose.
- Make sure the topic is clear from the beginning. Sometimes, for example, people will describe a muddled situation but never clearly define where the ethical dilemma lies. Whenever you’re facing a question that specifies a kind of experience, clarify how the situation you’ve chosen fits that category by the end of the first paragraph. If the reader has to puzzle over exactly what your topic is, that will distract him or her from the heart of your discussion.
- Allow the story to unfold naturally. For essays in which you focus on a single experience, tell the story on its own terms, before you try to impose retrospective insight. For example, in an essay about leadership, offer the full details of what you did before you attempt to draw conclusions about leadership in general. If you want to tie a point to a specific example, put the idea after the evidence, so the flow within each paragraph is still from specific to general.
- Cultivate dramatic appeal. Not all stories will have a natural sense of drama, but when the opportunity is there, you should capitalize on it. Set up the situation in the introduction, but don’t give away the resolution. In subsequent paragraphs, show the gradual progress you made, but also don’t hesitate to mention intermediate failures and obstacles you had to overcome. The effect of all this anticipation will be a more satisfying and impressive conclusion.
- Consider using headings when discussing multiple experiences. When a question asks for the three accomplishments of which you are most proud, you are not expected to write a single essay integrating three topics. That’s why we defined “straightforward questions” as those that define your scope for you. If you have to write about two or three experiences, you can treat each as a self-contained answer. To avoid awkward transitions such as “A second accomplishment that I am proud of…,” you can use headings for each one. They shouldn’t just be “Accomplishment One,” but something more descriptive, such as, “Community Service Involvement.”
On the other hand, if you do have a way to integrate your topics, you should not hesitate to do so. As always, a coherent picture has more potential to convey the depth of your character than a fragmented one. The reason we point out that you don’t need to integrate your topics is to encourage you to think broadly when choosing them rather than deciding on a set that is easy to package.
This applicant uses the introduction to orient the reader to the context of the challenge he faced and the leadership role he played. After the initial orientation, he goes on to tell the details of his story, though within each paragraph there are implicit lessons (e.g., “Combining these incentives allowed me to show them that, although their performance had been fine, they needed to make an even greater effort to complete the project successfully.”). Finally, only at the end does he explicitly acknowledge what he learned.
The result is a simple but effective structure: the topic is clear, the story flows without interruption, and the insights come naturally.