Essay structure 101. You begin with an introduction that ends with a clear thesis statement, right? Then add paragraphs to support this thesis. The ol’ five paragraph essay.
I won’t get into my gripes about the five-paragraph essay right now. (Its value is something that reasonable people can disagree on.) But I can say with confidence that it is the wrong choice for any college admissions essay.
So, if you want your essay be more like this video…(without the annoying squawking, of course)
and less like this:
A Different Way to Approach Essay Structure
There are no rules and set frameworks, but there are tried and true techniques and strategies. Some writers use them without even knowing it. I’m going to describe one of them now.
This approach involves simple chronological storytelling (I used to do this, I remember doing that) emphasizing strategically chosen concrete details and vivid actions to develop an abstract idea about who you are.
Again, It’s About the Details
As always, details matter. Choose them well and the idea will unfold organically and naturally as in the following model essay.
This essay is deceptively simple, but as you read, look for the following:
- The concrete details and problems that catch the writer’s attention. How do these change as she matures?
- Where and how the writer makes claims and assertions about herself or the nature of her actions (I am a __________; I adapted my ______ to ______) That is, where is she telling vs. showing? (It’s necessary to do both!)
- How has she narrowed the scope of the essay? How does broaden it?
Model Essay: Share Your Story (Common App Prompt 1)
(Note the writer was admitted to 5 Ivy-League Schools & Stanford. What role did her essay play? We can’t say for sure. But we can say that the essay below does a great job of communicating who she is as a person. You can learn more about her story here.)
Prompt: Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
Managing to break free from my mother’s grasp, I charged. With arms flailing and chubby legs fluttering beneath me, I was the ferocious two year old rampaging through Costco on a Saturday morning. My mother’s eyes widened in horror as I jettisoned my churro; the cinnamonsugar rocket gracefully sliced its way through the air while I continued my spree. I sprinted through the aisles, looking up in awe at the massive bulk products that towered over me.
Overcome with wonder, I wanted to touch and taste, to stick my head into industrial-sized freezers, to explore every crevice. I was a conquistador, but rather than searching the land for El Dorado, I scoured aisles for free samples. Before inevitably being whisked away into a shopping cart, I scaled a mountain of plush toys and surveyed the expanse that lay before me: the kingdom of Costco.
Notorious for its oversized portions and dollar-fifty hot dog combo, Costco is the apex of consumerism. From the days spent being toted around in a shopping cart to when I was finally tall enough to reach lofty sample trays, Costco has endured a steady presence throughout my life. As a veteran Costco shopper, I navigate the aisles of foodstuffs, thrusting the majority of my weight upon a generously filled shopping cart whose enormity juxtaposes my small frame. Over time, I’ve developed a habit of observing fellow patrons tote their carts piled with frozen burritos, cheese puffs, tubs of ice cream, and weight-loss supplements. Perusing the aisles gave me time to ponder. Who needs three pounds of sour cream? Was cultured yogurt any more well mannered than its uncultured counterpart? Costco gave birth to my unfettered curiosity.
While enjoying an obligatory hot dog, I did not find myself thinking about the ‘all beef’ goodness that Costco boasted. I instead considered finitudes and infinitudes, unimagined uses for tubs of sour cream, the projectile motion of said tub when launched from an eighty foot shelf or maybe when pushed from a speedy cart by a scrawny seventeen year old. I contemplated the philosophical: If there exists a thirty-three ounce jar of Nutella, do we really have free will? I experienced a harsh physics lesson while observing a shopper who had no evident familiarity of inertia’s workings. With a cart filled to overflowing, she made her way towards the sloped exit, continuing to push and push while steadily losing control until the cart escaped her and went crashing into a concrete column, 52” plasma screen TV and all. Purchasing the yuletide hickory smoked ham inevitably led to a conversation between my father and me about Andrew Jackson’s controversiality. There was no questioning Old Hickory’s dedication; he was steadfast in his beliefs and pursuits – qualities I am compelled to admire, yet his morals were crooked. We both found the ham to be more likeable–and tender.
I adopted my exploratory skills, fine tuned by Costco, towards my intellectual endeavors. Just as I sampled buffalo chicken dip or chocolate truffles, I probed the realms of history, dance and biology, all in pursuit of the ideal cart–one overflowing with theoretical situations and notions both silly and serious. I sampled calculus, cross country running, scientific research, all of which are now household favorites. With cart in hand, I do what scares me; I absorb the warehouse that is the world. Whether it be through attempting aerial yoga, learning how to chart blackbody radiation using astronomical software, or dancing in front of hundreds of people, I am compelled to try any activity that interests me in the slightest.
My intense desire to know, to explore beyond the bounds of rational thought; this is what defines me. Costco fuels my insatiability and cultivates curiosity within me at a cellular level. Encoded to immerse myself in the unknown, I find it difficult to complacently accept the “what”; I want to hunt for the “why’s” and dissect the “how’s”. In essence, I subsist on discovery
How This Approach Works in the Essay Above
Let’s examine the writer’s choices, choices that you can follow to use this approach. The writer:
- Focuses on a specific place or set of experiences. In this case it’s shopping at Costco. By narrowing the setting or field of action she does something brilliant. She forces herself to dig deeper for concrete details—churros, frozen burritos, tubs of ice cream, cultured yogurt, shopping carts, plasma TVs. The place stays the same allowing the essay to focus on how she is changing and engaging.
- Identifies details and carefully crafts language to emphasize the message she wants to convey in each paragraph. This is key: Notice in paragraph two, for example, how she develops the image of herself as a conquistador by calling the pile of plush toys “a mountain” by referencing “El Dorado.” Using this language achieves two things: It focuses the message and it communicates that she has a working knowledge of the history of the world. She continues to do this referencing Andrew Jackson, language play (cultured vs. uncultured yogurt)
- Organically develops her message by changing up the details, her questions, and her actions in each paragraph. As the essay unfolds her concerns, still Costco inspired and focused, grow more internal, sophisticated, and intellectually challenging. By the end, in the next to the last paragraph, she moves more clearly beyond Costco, but also draws on it openly as a metaphor, comparing sampling buffalo wings to sampling calculus or cross country running. Note the word choice: “sample” this is deliberate and effective. Not overkill.
- Tells her story chronologically. There may be reasons why you would want to tell things in a different order, but this particular approach benefits from a chronological telling because it puts the focus, as I say above, on the details, on the events, on what is changing.
- Weaves in her thesis in strategically and actively. Look closely at paragraph three, where she addresses the role of Costco’s role in her life. She doesn’t try to make some grand all encompassing statement, but points to its role and then continues to develop it through her stories, through action.
- Risks choosing a setting like Costco. This could be a dangerous move. Will she come off as shallow? But it turns out that it’s brilliant. The choice makes her stand out. And because Costco is a place most readers have some knowledge of, she doesn’t have to waste a lot of time and precious essay “real estate” to explaining and describing the setting. Finally, deftly playing on our prejudices about Costco and its reputation for overabundance, she powerfully shows herself as a passionate consumer of the world of activity and ideas.
Want to Try This Out? Here Are Some Steps
- Make a list of what fills your days now. Don’t focus on what is meaningful or important. Not yet. Make sure to take into the account what you do in the “in-between” times, when you are waiting for volleyball practice to begin or for the carpool to arrive. If you are on your phone, what are you doing? What are you searching for? What grabs your attention? Write down everything.
- Now reflect on what filled your days as a child. Write it all down, what you loved doing, what you were forced to do, write down the stupidest thing you can think of, then, pick something unlikely and follow it, searching for details. Find some stories. What did you overhear while you were…hum…what… oh I’ve got it…when you were on the swing set in your friend’s yard? ? Were you afraid? Did you love it? How many hours did you log in every day? Did you talk? Or concentrate on your technique?
- Do some research, nose around, search, say, the history and the physics of the swing set. Which kind did you probably swing on? Have they changed?
- Or maybe you have a big story that you have to tell. You don’t need to search for a story. Maybe it’s obvious to you. But still I urge you to narrow your focus, think of small thing, the in-between times that you could focus on to shed light on this bigger story.
- Compare this to the list you made in item number one. See any connections to how your mind works, the places your spirit sends you?
- With these insights in mind try to find some good names/labels and descriptors for yourself and what you do. I am a (noun). I spend my days (verb), (verb,) and (verb). Maybe you are not a conquistador, who explores and conquers and surveys new kingdoms. Maybe you are a navigator who maps, plans, and charts. Or something else. Or a few things. Push the language and the descriptors into unusual places. Try some labels for size and see how they fit.
- Finally, remember. You can adapt this approach for other prompts. This one asks for a story. Below are brief suggestions for adapting this to a couple of other common app prompts for this year.
Other Common App Prompts
Prompt # 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised]
Ideas: Consider recounting a series of obstacles in the same setting or attempting the same thing over and over and how your responses changed.
Prompt #6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New prompt this year]
Ideas: This one fits very well with the approach used in the Costco essay. It virtually asks you to pick a feature about yourself, to find a thread or theme, and follow it. You can use any time frame. Consider showcasing yourself in various settings throughout your life or even in recent history engaging with this concept. Use the steps outlined above to help generate material.
BTW: Wondering what tense to uses in your essay, check out this post on using the present tense.