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Framing Your Essay

When you write a personal essay, you don’t have to follow the rigid five-paragraph structure you learned in fourth grade: an introduction, three pieces of evidence, and a conclusion. The college application essay allows you more freedom.

The kind of foundation you choose for your essay depends in part on your subject matter and on your own personal preference. If you do it well, the structure will help you tell a better story by framing your material, creating momentum, and emphasizing your point.

Let’s say you want to write about how you used to think your little sister was a brat and now you don’t. Maybe you had this realization about her one night when you were babysitting and you heard a noise that terrified you; she said something wise and comforting that made you see her in a new light.

    You could frame your essay in the following ways:
  • Flashback: You start with a flashback, describing the fear and panic you felt, where you were when you heard the noise, and the thoughts that went through your mind. You describe what your sister said and did and how that made you feel. Then you talk about how much this surprised you because until that moment, you always thought she was just a big pain and you never gave her a chance.
  • Cause/Effect: You begin by talking about how your sister used to follow you around and tell on you all the time. You tell an anecdote about how much she drove you crazy. Then you take the reader through this one event that made you realize how much she has to offer you.

These structures overlap a bit. For example, the cause/effect structure is also a narrative, taking the reader through the particular moment in time when your attitude changed. For both options, you might conclude in a similar way, by saying that you look forward to continuing to get to know her as a person as you both grow up. You might even broaden your scope and talk more generally about how it’s important to give people a chance or how much you can learn from others if you keep your mind open.

The Narrative Essay

Most admissions officers agree that the narrative approach is often the most effective and compelling foundation for an essay. Anyone can write a narrative because everyone has a story to tell.

A narrative approach is useful when you focus on a single event. You can also trace the origin and development of a particular passion by describing several brief scenes relating to it. But don’t try to cover a long period of time. You know those people who tell stories with too many details that take too long to tell? You don’t want to be one of them.

Here is the introduction to an essay that uses the narrative approach:

My dad and I are driving down the winding South Carolina roads. We’re on the six-hour drive from Atlanta to Edisto, and it’s midnight now. We’re over halfway there. A heavy layer of fog lingers in the air around our car, clearly defining our headlight beams as they hit the moist particles. The curving road is desolate and unlighted, but occasionally, as we round its bend, a truck approaches from the opposite direction. We squint at its blinding headlights as my dad flicks off our brights. This occasional trucker is the only other human life form we see. The trees that line the road, however, seem nearly human; their arm-like branches bend toward our car as if they are trying to pluck us from the road. The passenger-side window is cold and a curtain of condensation hinders my view. I pull the sleeve of my sweatshirt over my hand and wipe a frosty layer off the glass so I can see the passing trees. Our windshield wipers provide the only sound: an eerie rhythmic pumping. Eyes wide, I turn to my dad, a smile spreading across my face, and say, “This is the perfect setting for a scary movie.” I could not be happier.

Narrative Tips
  • Use vivid descriptions.
  • Start and end with action, if appropriate.
  • Keep the story moving forward.
  • Be clear about the chronology of events.
  • Don’t give too many details.
  • Include dialogue where appropriate.
  • Use action verbs.
  • Explain why you are telling this story.
  • Be specific.
  • Don’t repeat yourself.

The narrative form is flexible and can be used in many ways. Here are several options:

Survey of Events

One way to approach a narrative is to tell various relevant anecdotes that prove your point. Let’s say you are writing about your role model, Great Aunt Matilda. You could start with your first memory of Aunt Matilda and then go on to describe several moments when she taught you important lessons, ending with a more recent event involving Aunt Matilda.

Focus on a Single Event

However, you need to be careful—the survey approach can get a little boring. It is usually more powerful to hone in on a single, specific event. The very act of applying more intensive focus will imbue it with more meaning.

Flashback

When you use a flashback to start your narrative essay, the body of the essay can serve as a reflection on how that past experience shaped who you are today.

If you choose this approach, you can consider ending with a different part of the original scene than what you used as your introductory paragraph. For example, let’s say you are writing about a road trip you took with your father. You start with the two of you in a gas station, lost, and asking for directions. The rest of the essay is about what you learned about yourself on your trip with your father. Consider ending the essay with the two of you in that same gas station. For example, after you got the directions, you climbed into the driver’s seat instead of the passenger’s seat, claiming your role as an adult.

Analytical Essay

This structure showcases your ability to analyze a topic. You might discuss an issue of importance to you, exploring two different solutions to a problem and explaining the pros and cons of each. Additionally, you can use this method to compare and contrast two people and their different influences on you. For example, maybe your maternal grandfather was a rabbi and your paternal grandfather was a fireman. While they were wildly different in demeanor, background, religious beliefs, and physical appearance, they both taught you the importance of helping others.

You can also examine the pros and cons of an issue to show you’re thoughtful, open-minded, and able to see more than one side of an issue. You should only use this structure if you are open-minded enough about the topic to see the shades of gray. You’d want to show why the issue matters to you, and then look at both sides before offering your final thoughts. If you are still conflicted about the topic, there’s nothing wrong with saying so.

For example, if you are writing about the pros and cons of reinstating the military draft, you could first write about how mandatory service in the army could instill a sense of civic pride in people. You could counter this by saying that a draft would force people to enlist even if they are philosophically opposed to the military. The bulk of your argument should be nuanced, explaining how a pro could be con and vice versa. For example, you could note that while military service helps people from poorer communities pay for college, it also means people with less money are more likely to die in combat.

The Traditional Essay

As we’ve discussed, the traditional academic essay is five paragraphs long. It starts with a thesis statement, continues with three pieces of evidences that support the argument, and concludes with a paragraph explaining what the essay has illustrated.

This structure works well when trying to prove a point; it is strong and simple, and it allows you to illustrate several pieces of supporting evidence. You can use the traditional structure to answer most of the common application questions.

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

Your thesis could be:

My parents’ divorce taught me to see them for the first time as people separate from me, with their own sets of emotions, needs, and desires.

You would go on in the next three paragraphs to offer examples of how you see them as people, not just parents, and you’d conclude with a restatement of your thesis.

While it is useful for making a persuasive argument, the traditional academic structure can be too formulaic for a college essay. You might produce a successful essay based on this structure, but a narrative structure or a compare/contrast essay will infuse the story with more energy.

The Inventive Essay Structure

Oftentimes an essay prompt asks you to write something creative, like an obituary for yourself or a page from your autobiography. While the admissions officers who read these essays clearly want to see your creativity, there still needs to be a main point. Ask yourself whether your creative essay reveals something about you. If it doesn’t, then you’re not giving the admissions officers a glimpse into who you are and why you would be a valuable member of their school’s academic community.

 
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