As a college admission essay editor, I’ve run into more problems due to organization than any other issue. Even when ideas are freely flowing, even when I am expressing those ideas in the most precise terms, there is always the issue of order. What order should all of the sentences go in? What order should all of the paragraphs go in? Those who attempt to write their college admission essay in one shot, thinking there will be an automatic progression of ideas, a natural build-up, climax, and conclusion, are sorely mistaken.
Organizing your college admission essay requires you to engage in a mode of being that most people find very unpleasant: active thinking. I first learned the concept of active thinking in a test preparation class. They told us that there were two ways of tackling multiple-choice questions: by reading the question, looking at the choices, and deciding which choice seemed to answer the question best, OR by reading the question, contemplating what the correct answer should be, and then selecting that answer from the list.
To think actively in terms of organizing your college admission essay means examining each paragraph to see what expectations arise from it and which arguments need to be elaborated on. Let’s take the first paragraph of my own college admission essay as an example:
I am completely blind and live to fill the void it creates. I want only to touch upon what I’m missing, to poke a pinpoint through my darkness, so I can see red, and green, and periwinkle, and the night sky, and the sun. All I want is a speck of vision.
After reading this paragraph, any reader would have one main question: Is this guy really blind? As obvious as it sounds, recognizing the expectations that arise from every paragraph is crucial to organizing your college admission essay. And now that I’ve recognized that I created a question in the reader’s mind, I need to figure out how I will answer it.
If you read my college admission essay, you will see that I chose to prolong the tension, answering the question at the end of the third paragraph. I did this for two reasons: to keep the reader interested a paragraph longer, and to let the metaphor (blindness = forgetting your past) sink in. The important thing to take away from this example is that I actively thought about the way I organized my writing.
For your own college admission essay, I’d like you to use the following format. This format is common to most television shows, books, and movies. Since admissions officers are people too, it is reasonable to assume that they would be drawn in to a college admission essay in the same way that they are drawn in to the entertainment they enjoy at home.
1: Introduction with a “hook.” Here you should present the problem or challenge of the essay. Every essay must have a conflict that needs to be resolved.
2: Exposition: Introduce the characters, giving specific details. It is nice to have action in this section, but it’s all right if there isn’t. The reader’s interest has already been obtained by your initial “hook.”
3. Conflict set-up: If your college admission essay were Rocky, this would be the scene where he is challenged by the World Champion boxer.
4. Conflict Resolution, or climax: Rocky wins the World Championship. Or, you win the Reflections poetry contest in your elementary school.
5. Conclusion: This is an opportunity to talk about what happened after it was all over, or talk about the larger significance of what happened in your essay. It is not in any way an invitation to summarize what you have said or speak in general terms.
Now that you know the format, I don’t expect you to just rattle off a perfect admission essay. Learning to organize your writing can take years. That’s what I am here for. But you should use it as a guide, and don’t hesitate to call if you have any questions.