The Importance of Reading Sample Essays
There are many places to find sample essays, such as here, for example. You will find others in the many books published for those applying to college. When you read an essay, write down what you like about it — the honesty, simplicity, sense of humor, cleverness, innovative nature, poignancy. Once you have settled on the characteristic that engages you, figure out how the writer created that characteristic. What scene does he or she set? What details set the scene? Which ones allow you to know the writer? Become involved immediately in his or her life and thinking? Why does what the person wrote matter to you the reader? Why does the essay mean they will be a good person to add to the class? What strategy does the essayist use that you admire and would like to use? Explain this to yourself.
Notice that Good Writing Has Shape
In writing there are eight patterns of thinking that you can look for in the essays you enjoy. Most essays combine two or more of them, but all essays usually rely most on one for overall organization: description, narration, how-to, comparison and contrast, cause and effect, division and classification, definition, and argument and persuasion.
- Description tells us about someone, something, or some event, and makes the subject so real to us that we feel we are there. This requires the use of words that appeal to the five senses and as little exposition (telling) as possible. Show, don’t tell is the rule here. If you want me to know your grandfather was a kind perfectionist, write some remembered direct dialog, something as he might have said it; show his characteristic gesture, or him doing a characteristic task. Let the reader know what you see, hear, touch, taste and smell if appropriate (for instance, woodchips in his shop or the pasta he is stirring on the stove).
- Narration tells about an event through time — you can narrate the story of a time you lost someone or some opportunity that was important to you, and in telling that story arrive at an insight about what matters most to you.
- Comparison and contrast allows you to tell how things are in comparison to how you would like them to be or to compare yourself to someone or some historical or literary character you admire, and discuss how college will facilitate becoming the person you want to be in the world.
- How-to is a way of sharing knowledge about how something is done or made and can come in handy for talking about how you made a meaningful achievement or how you’ll approach your college years.
- Cause and effect is a way of thinking about what situations, events, or reading impacted you and shaped your life and outlook.
- Classification and division allows you to talk knowledgeably on a subject by dividing it up into categories and building to the category most meaningful to you — ways of approaching life, for instance, or types of mentors or kinds of achievements, always ordered for impact’s sake with the most important group placed last.
- Definition comes in handy when discussing a role you have in life that has been instructive to you — coping with a chronic condition, being an immigrant, a minority, the sister or brother of a developmentally disabled sibling, or someone with local fame because of an event reported in the newspaper.
- Argument and persuasion is a pattern useful for taking on an event that concerns you. In this pattern of thinking, you can use your personal experience to support a belief and persuade others of its importance.
Think about how you use all of these patterns in everyday and school life — in conversations, classroom discussions, assignments, and test taking. Just recognizing these patterns will help you mine yourself for writing ideas and find strategies for presenting them on the page.
Look again at the sample essays you have read. Label the areas where you can discern one of the eight patterns of thinking. What about each pattern helps a writer put experience on the page?
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.”