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Lesson Three: Structure and Outline


Now that you have seen the complex themes with which you must engage and have begun thinking about the personal details you will use, it is time to begin the daunting task of structuring your essay.

Your first concern should be clarity. If your essay is haphazardly structured, the reader simply will not be able to follow your ideas, and your whole purpose will be lost.

Your second concern is focus. An essay could be clear on the sentence or paragraph level, but still lack overall coherence. Perhaps you have written three paragraphs, each clearly devoted to one topic, but you have not shown how each topic contributes to a larger point. The basic focus of every admissions essay is why you should be admitted to the school, but a more specific theme can be helpful. You want your reader to take away a clear point after he or she puts down your essay.

Your third concern is impact. Even a clear and coherent essay can fail to achieve the optimal structure that would maximize its overall impact. For example, the overarching theme of an essay might be your desire to help others. After outlining this clear focus in your first paragraph, you go on to write three clear paragraphs, each independently offering evidence of your desire to help people. What is lacking is a sense of progression: the reader sees repetition, not growth. To maximize impact, your structure must allow each point to build upon previous points, thereby improving not only your essay’s flow but also the overall force of your argument.

The purpose of this section is not to delineate one structural approach that will work for everyone’s individual essays, but rather to discuss principles of organization that should guide you in constructing your argument. Here your task grows even more challenging, because some of the principles can be mutually exclusive, and you may have to decide between them to determine which approach best suits your material.

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