Organization

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 compelling essay.

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 lead.

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 the two.

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 paragraph.

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 climax.

Here are some examples:

Chronological

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, and cities…

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…

Location/Scene

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 these paragraphs.

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 trilogy…

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 still remains.

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 Watergate…

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 diversity.

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.

Topic Sentences

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.

Introduction

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.
First Sentences

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 it.”

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 it yourself.

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.

Background

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
Avoid Clichés

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?”

Provide Direction

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 half black.

Conclusion

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.

Ending Gracefully

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 essay.

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.
 
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