Reread Your Clustering and Brainstorming Now That You Know More About the Shapes of Essays
Ask yourself what image you might start with — have your freewrites brought up an experience or activity you engaged in, one that might show you in the act of doing something that speaks to your character, talent, desire? Do you find you want to shape an assertion concerning something happening to you that changed you or formed your thinking? That would be a beginning. Next, you have to decide whether you are going to show the events leading up to the moment or the events after it, whichever are in support of what you want readers to know about you. You have to decide what attributes and talents you want readers to see in you. You have to decide whether you are going to show these by giving before and after pictures, discussing the effects of an achievement, describing the steps in getting there, telling the story of achieving an award or rewarding moment, defining a quality like success or good student, or categorizing ways you see others deal with difficult problems and showing how you reached your way of dealing with a problem. Any of these patterns (comparison and contrast, cause and effect, how to, narration, definition, division and classification) use description and can add up to an inferred argument: why the school should want you in their student body.
Notice which pattern of thinking helps you best explore your experience to address the question you have chosen. You might try thinking of multiple ways to go, ways to use various patterns of thinking before you decide on the approach that appeals to you. For instance, in my proposed Stanford personal statement, the student might make an outline that opens with the team in the championship games entering a dicey moment that will spell success or failure. After describing that moment, she might go back in time to talk about all it took to get to this moment, how she used her talent to encourage teamwork and all she learned from the process. Then she might end with a description of how the moment pans out with success, the team members becoming champions. The steps it took to arrive at that moment would be a how-to pattern of thinking, how she reached her goal.
This writer might choose another pattern of thinking — after opening the essay with that scene of the dicey moment, the speaker might go back and draw a portrait of how the team played before she intervened, and then show more about how the team is playing today before she ends with the success scene. By commenting on the way poor communication was hurting the team and then on how improved communication was helping, she’d be using comparison and contrast for the purpose of evoking the situation she’d worked with before and after. Alternatively, she could start the essay with a bit of dialog that portrays the team in the conflict it used to experience and then she could further describe that conflict and how she fixed it by learning to motivate and include the team member who handled conflict and competition differently. Finally, she could end with a brief scene of the team’s success, including a bit of dialog that shows how the players talk now. This organization would be part definition, as it describes the elements of bad communication and those of good communication.
Write Your Outline
Write an outline similar to the ones you’ve previously written to find out how other people’s essays work. Remember, your first section grabs the reader and pulls him/her into the world of the essay. The last section allows the reader to feel satisfied that he/she has discovered something while in that world, and to exit the essay without wondering about things the essay could have answered. The middle sections provide the roadmap to that journey.
What helps most in outlining is to support generalizations with specifics. Getting down to the level of 1 and 2 or even a) and b) usually means you will be offering adequate support. Since there is symmetry in outlining — if a I then a II or more sections; if an A subsection, then a B at least; if a 1 under that, then a 2 at least; and so on — you are guaranteed that you are looking at your subject in a way that will allow you to make a case, the case that you are the right candidate. When people ignore this feature of outlining and just dash off topic headers for the sections of the essay, they run the danger of not cultivating a point from their fertile material, but just offering one generalization after another, thinking they sound good.
When you read sample essays, you saw how they addressed the questions asked. A balanced outline helps guarantee that you are doing that, too, by writing a full story.
Thanks for joining us as we continue with Staying Sane through the College Essay Writing Process, an ongoing series that offers college applicants and their parents advice on how to stay on track for completing Ivy-worthy essays…without flying off the handle. We hope you enjoyed this next part of the series, and STAY SANE!
By Sheila Bender, former Accepted.com editor and founder of Writing it Real, a “community and resource center for writing from personal experience.”