Paragraphs

As in the case of those that include narratives, most of your paragraphs will have the same underlying structure. You begin with a transition, you offer supporting evidence, and you offer a resolution. Supporting evidence for the most part affects the strength of individual paragraphs, but transitions and resolutions are even more crucial because they affect the coherence and impact of the essay as a whole. The beginnings and endings of each paragraph are the places to draw connections between experiences, demonstrate progression, and highlight your key themes.

Not every paragraph you write will have these three distinct parts, but it is worthwhile to look at how typical paragraphs are structured so you know how to evaluate your essay on this level.

Transitions

The basic purpose of a transition is to serve as a topic sentence. It should give enough direction so the reader knows what to expect. When your essay is following not only a chronological order but a single train of thought, the paragraphs may flow smoothly anyway. For example, in this essay, note the ways in which Paragraphs 2 and 5 begin: with clear references to time. The step-by-step flow of the essay is logical and easy to follow.

The topic sentence has more work to do when you move from theme to theme or experience to experience. The reader has to know where you are going next. This applicant prefaces her subsequent discussion about how she is sometimes considered an outcast from other African-Americans with the following: "My color, without regard to my race or identity, causes me to be affiliated with the white community." The sentence sounds natural, a distinct idea in itself but also one that intimates what is to follow. Note that the transition is smooth because it takes a step back and makes a somewhat general point.

The strongest transitions will not only introduce the ensuing material but will draw connections to prior paragraphs. These connections can note both similarities and differences. For example, this applicant notes the irony of her racial constitution: "I find it ironic, however, that my greater struggle has been, not to be considered equal to the majority society, but rather to be included by the Black American community." She has discussed previously her obvious African-American heritage, yet also focuses upon the unique contrast between that background and how she is considered at times part of the Caucasian community because she is fair-skinned.

What Not to Do

The most common mistake—other than not including transitions at all—is to rely on words such as "also" or "further," which do not provide any thematic link. Using such substance-less transitions makes your essay sound like a list instead of a logical argument. For example:

Bad: "Volunteering at the local hospital also provided a great deal of useful experience.

Good: "Although working at St. Anne's soup kitchen showed me the fulfilling nature of community service, my longer and more in-depth interactions with patients at Mercy Hospital proved to me that I want to pursue a career where I can serve others."

Whenever possible, you should aim to create transitions with as much depth as this one has. When you can make a substantive statement both about what is to follow and what preceded, then you not only ensure a smooth flow, but you also reiterate and highlight your key themes.

Supporting Evidence

While the transition statement can be general to orient the reader, your very next sentence should be specific. The movement within each paragraph should be from specific to general, rather than vice versa. There are two main reasons for this approach: 1) the reader will be more interested in the specifics of your situation than in generic, broad themes; 2) you can draw much more interesting, in-depth insights after you have laid out the evidence. The principles here are therefore the same as for stories.

Consider the following paragraph, taken from this essay:

"While the shape of my star stayed the same, the shape of my life took off in many directions. I still wore my necklace, but always over my required uniform of the Papa Murphy's Pizza shirt and apron. Tomato paste and oil splattered onto the chain and occasionally onto the stone. One evening, an irritable old man came in near closing. As I took his order, I noticed that he too wore a Star of David. I started a conversation meant to last seconds that turned into ten minutes. We talked of voyages to Israel, Rabbis that made us question, and my distaste for parsley and salt at Passover Seders. I left work that night and walked in the cold air caressing my star with a sense of connection, a feeling of closeness to the people of my faith."

The reader-friendly orientation comes with "the shape of my life took off in many directions," but after that, the writer focuses on the details of her experience: how she always wore the necklace, even when it became dirty, and how it served as common ground to appease an angry customer and identify what she had in common with the man. The writer saves the broader lesson for the final statement of the paragraph. Looking at this example, you might think that this is the natural, obvious approach, and it seems that way because it works so seamlessly. But writers who are not conscious of what they are doing will often go the opposite route. Their paragraph might look something like the following:

"While the shape of my star stayed the same, the shape of my life took off in many directions. I soon had an experience that gave me a sense of connection to other people of the Jewish faith. I still wore my necklace, but always over my required uniform of the Papa Murphy's Pizza shirt and apron. Tomato paste and oil splattered onto the chain and occasionally onto the stone. One evening, an irritable old man came in near closing. As I took his order, I noticed that he too wore a Star of David. I started a conversation meant to last seconds that turned into ten minutes. We talked of voyages to Israel, Rabbis that made us question, and my distaste for parsley and salt at Passover Seders. I left work that night and walked in the cold air caressing my star."

These writers will be wise enough to keep the resolution at the end, but they will state a general point closer to the top. Their reasoning is that the big lesson needs to be highlighted, but they do not realize that bringing it up prematurely gives it less weight and in turn downplays the uniqueness of their personal details.

Resolutions

It is a shame to see a paragraph with vivid, powerful details end on a flat note, but that is precisely what happens even in otherwise strong essays. The challenge is to state something both meaningful and personal. Most resolutions are too broad and superficial. For example, a writer might conclude a strong paragraph about his interactions with a person dying from cancer as follows: "Learning about Jane's struggles taught me that life is precious and must be lived to the fullest." Even if we overlook the use of two egregious clichés, we are left with no real insight into the writer's character because this resolution is so far removed from his personal situation.

The other mistake that writers tend to make is just to state the obvious. For example, every paragraph will end with some form of the following: "This experience reaffirmed my passion for community service." Such a poor attempt not only hurts the impact of the paragraph but also makes the writer appear simple-minded and superficial. A better format is to present a point that has broader significance, while closely tying it to the specifics of your experience. For example: "Besides instilling within me a desire to help others who are ill, my experience with my mother also heightened my sensitivity to other people and the difficulties with which they sometimes must cope."

Ultimately, your approach to writing resolutions should follow the same basic principles you use for other areas: be detailed, personal, specific, and concrete. The additional challenge arises from the fact that you also must speak to some broader significance, and it is tempting either to get carried away and write too generically or to take the easy way out and conclude something superficial.

Next: Lesson Four: Style and Tone