As we said, you will probably read your rough draft, and
it will be a bit of a mess: disorganized thoughts, no introduction
or conclusion, clunky transitions. That’s fine. There’s a reason
why it’s called a rough draft. It’s important not
to get discouraged at this point. Although you still have some work
ahead of you, you’re on the right track. The rough draft was all
about getting your ideas down; now that you have something to work
with, you can go back and create a cohesive, clear, concise, and
Keep in mind that you’re allowed to be creative when writing
your essay. The organization tips we present here should guide your
writing, but you can certainly deviate from some of these if they don’t
work with the structure you’ve chosen. For example, if you’re writing
a narrative essay that builds toward a conclusion, your main point
won’t necessarily be explicit in your introductory paragraph. Nonetheless,
everything you write should ultimately connect to a unifying theme.
The Main Point
No matter what structure you use for your essay, it should
have a main point. In a traditional essay, this element is called
the thesis statement, or simply the thesis. If
your essay prompt asks you to answer a specific question, your thesis
shouldn’t just answer the question; it should resonate with the
reader. Go deeper. Some students make the mistake of simply restating
the question. While that may be okay if you are in English class,
the application essay is supposed to be an expression of who you
are. For example, suppose you are given the following prompt on
your application essay:
“Describe the biggest challenge you have faced or
expect to face.”
Your thesis shouldn’t simply state:
The biggest challenge I ever faced was
learning how to salsa dance.
For your rough draft, that thesis would have been fine
to get your ideas flowing. But now you need to dig deeper. See how
the following thesis statement differs:
Learning how to salsa dance may have
been the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced, but it also taught me
the importance of patience, humility, and learning how to take the
Ultimately, you want to write a compelling first sentence
that pulls your reader into the story and a well-written last sentence
that nicely ties up your argument and leaves a lasting impression
on your reader. Everything you say in between should logically connect
Paragraphs: The Building Blocks
The purpose of organizing your writing into paragraphs
is to present your information in a way that is
understandable to the reader. Unlike your rough drafts, your writing
now has to be coherent to your audience. You’ll need to review all
details and start to build “blocks” of information that focus on
one idea. Every sentence and detail in the paragraph should support
the idea so your reader clearly understands the meaning of the
Starting a new paragraph signals to your reader that you’re
writing something new—an additional example, a change of scenery,
or a new part of the story. Sometimes a transitional word can bridge your
ideas for the reader. You can arrange information within or between
paragraphs in a number of ways: chronologically, by location or
scene, in order of importance, or building toward a conclusion or
Here are some examples:
In this essay, the author takes the reader through her
travels, from early childhood through high school. We’ve only included
the beginning of each paragraph to give you a sense of how the essay progresses.
In my life, I have taken many journeys
without which I would not have experienced important truths. My
father started us off early, taking us on many journeys to help
us understand that true knowledge comes only from experience. We
took trips every winter break to Madrid, Mexico, Costa Rica, and
to Jamaica and Trinidad, my parents’ homeland for Christmas…. My truths
were the truths of the tourist brochures: beautiful hotels, beaches,
I learned more about these truths in my sophomore
year of high school, when I was among a group of students selected
to visit Cuba…
My first impression of Cuba was…
The journeys I have taken have been colored by
my prior experiences and by what my feelings were in those moments…
Here, the author starts by describing a memory of driving
with her father, and then connects that moment to a memory of her
with her brothers at home. Again, we’ve only included the beginning of
My dad and I are driving down the winding
South Carolina roads…. I pull the sleeve of my sweatshirt over my
hand and wipe a frosty layer off the glass so that 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.
My passion for video making sprouted from my long
time interest in scary movies. I’ve loved movies ever since I was
five, when my sister and I would squeeze between our two older brothers
for our weekend ritual: watching an episode of the Indiana Jones
Since then, my taste for “scary movies” has developed
into an appreciation for many genres. I understand that anticipation
can be created as much in a documentary as from a gigantic boulder
rushing to crush our hero, but that initial kernel of excitement
Order of Importance
The author starts by addressing his greatest concern over
the Patriot Act and gradually works his way through examples that
are most important to him.
Perhaps the most pressing issue concerning
our country today is the Patriot Act, a bill passed by Congress
shortly after the attacks of September 11, 2001…
The policies that have been set into motion have
come under heavy criticism from many Americans who claim that the
Patriot Act infringes upon their constitutional rights…
While the Patriot Act has its shortcomings, it
does contain some positive aspects, namely the taking down of the
figurative walls constructed between different branches of government. These
“walls” were put up during the Ford administration as a result of
Building Toward a Conclusion
The author starts by telling a story from his life in
New York City; it is only at the end that we come to realize the
connection these events have to his appreciation for the city’s
I bounced my head to the music radiating
from my earphones as I passed the platform for the shuttle train.
The people around me were moving so fast that they created a blur
of faces, heavy jackets, and quickly moving legs.
I noticed another man standing nearby. He was
a middle-aged man who looked as if he had just stepped off the set
of The Sopranos. After listening to the musician play a song, the
man took his own guitar off of his back and unzipped it. He placed
the strap around his neck and gave the sitting musician a look that
said, “Do you mind if I join you?”, to which the elderly Asian man
responded with a friendly, welcoming smile as he nodded his head.
The two men began to play together…
Moments like this are what make us human beings.
We aren’t just individual entities concerned only with our own goals
and not aware of the people around us…. I realized then that there
were few other places in the world where such a diverse group of
people could come together and all share the same bond—the bond
of New Yorkers.
Think of the topic sentence as the “thesis statement”
of each paragraph, which establishes the paragraph’s main idea.
The topic sentences need to encompass all the points you want to
discuss in that paragraph. Every sentence that follows the topic
sentence serves as evidence to support the main point of that paragraph.
Occasionally a topic sentence can go at the end of the
paragraph, to emphasize your point, but in general it works best
as the first sentence in the paragraph as in this following example:
I realize in retrospect that the process
I went through in adjusting to the divorce is analogous to the five
stages Elisabeth Kübler-Ross writes about in On Death and Dying:
denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.
In an academic essay, the thesis statement is usually
the first or second sentence. However, when you are writing your
college application essay, you can choose to organize and develop
your ideas in more creative ways. For example, instead of starting
with a thesis statement, you can start with an anecdote. Instead
of saying, “Taking karate lessons taught me the importance of patience
and humility,” consider hooking your reader by describing a scene
where you are practicing in class. This is what newspaper writers
call a lead. A lead should orient your reader and
get him or her excited to read your piece.
For a Solid Introduction
- Jump right in.
- Start in the middle of a scene, with an action.
- Be concise.
- Provide direction.
- Be original.
- Grab the reader’s attention.
- Don’t announce.
- Don’t excessively set up the scene.
- Give a glimpse of the main idea.
- Set the tone for the rest of the essay.
Chances are you will probably delete your first sentence.
As one New York City high school English teacher describes: “Often
a kid comes to me with a draft. It reads ‘blah, blah, blah, blah,
blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ Then somewhere
near the middle or end there’s a terrific sentence. I say, ‘Oh good, that’s your
first sentence.’ And I tell him to cross out everything else before
This is common. For many writers, their ideas form more
fully and their writing comes to life only after they’ve started
writing. This process is called writing into it.
Your challenge is to step back and look at your earlier
drafts to find a compelling and unusual opening. You may need someone
else to help you identify a great opener that may be buried somewhere
in your essay. Or, with a little distance, perhaps you can find
Here’s what you’re looking for:
- You should really like your
first sentence. If you don’t, your reader won’t either. Remember, you
want to make a good first impression.
- The first few sentences should be clear and should have
a hook. Intrigue your reader. If your reader wonders “Why?” after
your opener, you probably have a good lead.
- Your first sentences should orient your reader. Make it
clear where you are, what you are doing, and whether your essay
is set in the past, present, or future.
- Your first sentences should be attention-grabbers: something
that points to the significance of your topic.
Example: According to Mother Teresa,
“If you judge someone, you have no time to love them.” I first saw
this quote when it was posted on my sixth-grade classroom wall,
and I hated it.
After hooking your reader with your first sentence or
two, you’ll need to include facts that will help your reader understand
the context of the situation.
You need to include just enough background so it’s clear—where
are you, who else is there, what are you doing, and why. Don’t overwhelm
your reader with too many details. Remember, the admissions officer
does not want to read everything that has happened to you since
you learned how to walk. Here’s an example of including just enough
details to make the picture clear:
I feel sick. I’m nervous and my stomach’s
turning. The room is lined with neat rows of desks, each one occupied
by another kid my age. We’re all about to take the SATs. The proctor
has instructed us to fill out section four: “race.”
A Strong Introduction Might Include
- An interesting observation
- An intriguing comment
- A thought-provoking question
- An anecdote
- A confession
- A shocking statement
- A preview
- A quotation
- Relevant dialogue
- A relevant quote
A thousand essays begin with the horror and dread of waking
up. Everyone wakes up in the morning; there is nothing interesting
or unusual about it. Consider starting with an image of you doing something
that has an implied action, so the reader wonders “Why?” For example,
let’s say you start by saying that you were standing on a bridge
with a rock in your hand. That’s interesting because the reader
will want to know “Why does he have that rock in his hand? What’s
going to happen next?”
In your introduction, you should give your reader clues
about the content and theme of your essay so he or she knows what
you’re trying to convey and can follow along as you make your case.
Provide direction without being obvious. Don’t talk about what you
are going to do in the essay: just do it.
Example: I cannot be placed into
a single racial category, although I’m sure that people walking
down the street don’t hesitate to label me “Caucasian.” Never in
my life has a stranger not been surprised when I told them I was
You want to leave a lasting impression on your reader.
The conclusion, of course, is your last chance to do just that.
Your conclusion must relate to your main point. The end has to be
true to the beginning. Don’t introduce a new topic in the conclusion.
You can, however, save a surprising or powerful nugget for the end.
Don’t drag your reader through salutary phrases such as in
summation or therefore. You risk insulting
your reader if you announce what you just said in the essay.
Starting All Over Again
Hearkening back to the introduction in your conclusion
can be effective. For example, if you started with an anecdote,
consider ending with a different part of the story you started with. Think
of when you’re watching a movie, and you can tell it’s about to
end because suddenly you’re at the same café, dinner table, or airplane
scene where the movie began two hours ago. Look at this example:
At this point I realized that I had to
be home soon and thanked him profusely for his generosity in answering
my questions. As we walked toward the door, I noticed that I had
left my hat on the table. I turned back to retrieve it, but by the
time I had reached the doorway again, Che Guevara had disappeared
into the mix of afternoon sunlight and shadow cast by the “El” tracks,
as mysteriously as he had come.
The conclusion needs to complete the thought you’ve developed.
But be careful not to restate all your points again. Don’t say,
“In this essay I’ve explored and shown X, Y, and Z.” If you need
to announce the points you were trying to make in the essay, it
means you didn’t make the point clear enough in the body of your
The Ripple Effect
If you don’t have a conclusion, the last point you make
will take on more weight than it deserves. Addressing a broader
concept in the conclusion keeps your last point in perspective.
Take your ideas further. What are the broader implications
of your main point? Your thesis probably describes the topic’s significance
to your immediate life. Expand upon your original thesis to explore
what this means to your future, to your community, or perhaps even
apply it universally.
Example: Through census forms, racial
questionnaires on the SATs and other devices, our society tries to
draw conclusions about people based on appearance. It is a quick
and easy way to categorize people without taking the time to get
to know them, but it simply cannot be done.
Tips for a Great Conclusion
- Don’t repeat the same points.
- Tie up loose ends.
- Don’t summarize.
- Don’t introduce new topics.
- Keep it brief.
- Leave a strong impression.
- Match the rest of essay in tone and content.
- Expand to broader context.
- Create feeling of completion.
- Make your strongest point.