Lesson Three: Essay Structures

Now that you have seen the complex themes with which you must engage and have begun thinking about the personal details you will use, it is time to begin the daunting task of structuring your essay.

Your first concern should be clarity. If your essay is haphazardly structured, the reader simply will not be able to follow your ideas, and your whole purpose will be lost.

Your second concern is focus. An essay could be clear on the sentence or paragraph level, but still lack overall coherence. Perhaps you have written three paragraphs each clearly devoted to one topic, but you have not shown how each topic contributes to a larger point. The basic focus of every essay is why you should be admitted to the school, but a more specific theme can be helpful. You want your reader to take away a clear point after he or she puts down your essay.

Your third concern is impact. Even a clear and coherent essay can fail to achieve the optimal structure that would maximize its overall impact. For example, the overarching theme of an essay might be your desire to help others. After outlining this clear focus in your first paragraph, you go on to write three clear paragraphs each independently offering evidence of your desire to help people. What is lacking is a sense of progression: the reader sees not growth but repetition. To maximize impact, your structure must allow each point to build upon previous points, thereby improving not only your essay's flow but also the overall force of your argument.

It is important to remember that these three areas overlap. You do not achieve the optimal structure by treating each one as an isolated step, but must keep each one in mind as you plan the structure of your essay.

The first subtopic, Overarching Themes, explains how to identify and incorporate the underlying principles or fundamental ideas that will give your essay focus. The second subtopic, Organization, details specific approaches to integrating your content in a clear and logical way. The third subtopic, Narratives, deals with the tricky issue of incorporating stories and anecdotes in an admissions essay and getting the most out of your details. The final subtopic, Paragraphs, explains how to structure individual paragraphs for maximum effectiveness and how to write the important transitions that affect your essay's coherence and impact.

EssayEdge Extra: The Deceptive Appeal of a Chronological Structure

At face value, the chronological approach seems great for all parties involved. The writer has the easy job of reconstructing his personal history precisely as it happened, and the reader can follow the resulting piece with little effort. It is very possible that a chronological essay will turn out to be ideal for your material because your life unfolded in a way that complements your themes. However, you should not feel bound to tell your story in the order in which it happened. Here are some specific pitfalls of which you should be aware:

  1. You may be including too much. If you start with "I was born on..." and proceed to recite your life's history, you have probably included a great deal of unnecessary information.
  2. Your essay might be boring and monotonous. The most enjoyable essays have a sense of drama, which usually requires a more creative structure. Perhaps the introductory paragraph sets up some problem, and the subsequent paragraphs detail attempts to solve that problem. On the other hand, a chronological structure seems inherently like a list.
  3. You show less thought and effort. It is obvious to the reader when an essay has been crafted with care and insight. Chronological essays might seem too effortless if there is no authorial imprint.
  4. You separate naturally related points. A thematically structured essay puts related points together and allows them to build upon each other. Unless your life developed along thematic lines, a chronological essay would sacrifice the synergy that juxtaposing these points would create.

Words of Wisdom from Admissions Officers

"It is a mistake to format your essay as though you are writing a term paper. Many students use a standard five-paragraph format—i.e., an introduction which lists three areas, followed by three paragraphs elaborating on these elements, and a conclusion. The problem with this approach is that it is difficult to bring personal meaning to a rigidly-structured essay. Unless the topic is extremely compelling, essays written in this standard format tend to be boring. At worst, such essays suggest that the student lacks the ability to express himself or herself other than within a pre-determined, school-oriented, classroom assignment format. Many successful essays read like long conversations with a good friend, providing real meaningful communication outside of a rigid structure."—Admissions Officer, Duke University

Next: Overarching Themes