• M. Christine Benner Dixon

The College Essay, Part III: Purpose, Structure, and Revision

So, you know what story you want to write about for your college essay. You’ve chosen it because it authentically reflects who you are and who you want to be as an applicant. And you are ready to write this darn thing. But then you realize that all the essays you’ve written in recent memory have been academic, argumentative, or analytical. Is there a thesis statement in an essay like this? Do you need citations? How does one go about actually writing a personal essay?

A blank screen on a laptop computer.
It's easy. Just write down a lot of brilliant words to fill the gaping void of the computer screen

Welcome to Part III of the College Essay writing series. This post will focus on the mechanics of writing your essay.


I’m not going to spend a lot of time talking about the earliest stages of drafting—I trust that by now, you have a pattern that works for you. Some people like to do a free-form stream-of-consciousness draft. Some people like to make an outline first. Some people don’t actually write anything on the page the first time through—they talk it out aloud. Whether it’s in the form of voice notes, sketches, or paragraphs, do whatever it is you do to get started. If you're stuck on this part, Parts I & II of this series can help you figure out what to write about.


The one piece of advice that I will give you for this earliest stage of writing is to sit with the essay longer than seems reasonable. Take a break, sure, but then go back over what you have down so far and see if there is anything you want to add. This isn’t about perfecting the prose. This is about making sure you have given yourself space to bring in associations, details, or reflections that go beyond the obvious and the surface level. Take time to reflect, even if that means sitting in silence for a while. Good things happen when you give yourself the space to think.


Okay, now we take your initial reflections and turn them into a real essay. As you approach this work, ask yourself two questions:

WHY?

No, not "Why?!" in the sense of existential despair.

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Why tell this story? What does this story show about you as a student, a thinker, a community member, etc. that is worth sharing with a college? Try to actually put this into words: “When an admissions officer reads this essay, I want them to know that I am . . .” Fill in the blank:

  • I am driven by curiosity

  • I am not daunted by failure when I have a goal

  • I am willing to risk something for the sake of truth

  • I am someone who draws strength from my community

Obviously, your “why” should be something relevant to the college experience. Unless you are applying to a program renowned for producing comedic actors or writers, your whole purpose shouldn’t be to prove that you are hilarious. Mostly likely, your "why" will be something about your character, interests, or identity. Hold onto that “why” all through this process.


The next question we’re going to tackle is:


HOW?


An effective personal essay doesn’t exactly have a thesis statement and discrete supporting argumentative points. It doesn’t require citations or a clear description of the scientific method. But neither is it an amorphous, meandering rumination on your feelings and memories. Your essay needs structure.


A sketch of a human skeleton, torso only
Structure is important

There is no one way to structure an essay (even an academic essay), so choose something that suits your material. Here are some options to get you thinking:

  • The Braided Essay: go back and forth between your central story and one other concept or story. This can be hard to do well in a very short essay, but it can work beautifully. For instance, you could intersperse your story about a disaster group project with the details of a famous failed military campaign, tying the two together in the end. This structure also works for making comparisons, say between two similar experiences, one where you made a bad choice, and one where you made a good choice, having learned your lesson the first time.

A caramel-colored horse with a braided mane.
Your essay could be as majestic and noble as this horse.
  • The Circular Essay: bring the essay back to its starting point. This could mean that you literally begin and end the essay with the same scene (perhaps interpreted differently the second time around), but it could also mean that you return in a less literal way (e.g., parallel scenes of sitting beside your best friend in class, a return to “family” even though the second instance is thousands of miles away from home). This point of return, obviously, should be closely connected to the “why” of the essay. The circular essay can show how you have changed, how you have learned to think about your experiences differently, or how certain important things always remain the same.


A circular staircase, viewed from above.
Coming back around. Try not to get dizzy.
  • The Linear Essay: tell a story chronologically or in a straightforward cause-and-effect style. This works well if your story has a compelling plot, and the reader is motivated to read on to find out what happens (e.g., you are given a new debate partner, train together, then have your first tournament as a team).


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  • The Component Essay: structure the story around the discrete components of some element in the story. This might be the ingredients in a recipe, the key techniques to a perfect golf swing, the rules for a made-up game you played with your cousins, etc. By breaking out these component parts, you can create a satisfying and clear framework for your story. Ideally, you will do more than just describe these components one after another—you will use them to tell your story, weaving your experiences, thoughts, and personality into the telling.


Carpentry tools, nails, and lumber on a workbench. In the background, a young man is sawing a board.
Some assembly required
  • The Touchstone Essay: repeat a single image, word, or idea to link different parts of the story. This touchstone could be a physical object (your lucky t-shirt, worn through successes and failures), a thematic concept (moments when “responsibility” is demonstrated in different ways), or even an emotion (punctuating your story with times when you were pulled from apathy to anger). Repetition of any given element will embue it with significance, so choose carefully.

A close-up image of thread through the eye of a needle.
These repetitions will "thread" through the essay. Ha ha.

Whatever structure you choose, it must always bring us back to the “why.” Much like an academic essay, your writing does have a purpose. Use your analytical skills to demonstrate how this evidence (the details from your life) prove your thesis (that you are a certain kind of person). Talk explicitly about what you learned and how you changed along the way. You are the text, here, treat yourself with the respect and attention you deserve.


Your introduction and conclusion are powerful tools in communicating the “why” of your essay. As you know from other kinds of essay-writing, it pays to craft these paragraphs carefully. If you’re going to break out any rhetorical devices (artistic turns of phrase, poignant questions, euphonious diction, etc.), this is the place. Keep it within reason, of course. Keep it natural. But pay attention to how your writing sounds. It should be your best prose.


This is especially true of the first and last lines. Your first line might start in media res (i.e., in the middle of an ongoing scene), or it might make a bold claim. It might present a beautiful image, or it could deliver an admission of some sort (e.g., “I haven’t opened my locker in three months”). The final line might echo the first line, or it could make a statement of value (e.g., “They tell you to forgive and forget, but I know better now. Real forgiveness means remembering.”). Again, give it a little finesse so that the reader comes away feeling satisfied and enlightened. This isn't easy. Try a few different permutations to find something that suits you.


Keep going back and forth between the beginning and the end to be sure they work well together. What the introduction sets up, the conclusion spikes home. If the introduction employs a powerful image, you might bring it back in the conclusion. If the intro asks a question, the conclusion should answer it. If you make a strong claim in the opening, maybe you modify it in closing. Think of these two parts of your essay as being in cahoots. They talk to each other, work together, finish each other's sentences.


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With your first draft complete (i.e., it has a recognizable introduction, story, and conclusion), you're ready for revisions. Step one: give the essay some space. Go do something else for a while. You might look back at Part II to see if you can do more to develop your writing voice. Go back to Part I if you want to see that you are answering the prompts.


When it comes to revisions, it usually makes the most sense to move from big to little. Make the big idea-based changes first, then work on the language. Think of it like this:


Revision: global changes

  • changing the structure of the whole essay (linear vs. circular, etc.)

  • changing the organization of individual paragraphs (should this reflection come before the climax of the story or after it?)

  • changing the focus (this is actually a story about your brother, not your mom)

  • changing the conclusions or implications (it turns out this story shows your adventurousness more than your patience)

Editing: style changes

  • word choice (finding the precise word to say what you mean in a natural voice)

  • sentence structure (long, compound sentences vs. short, choppy sentences)

  • transitions (providing logical guides from one idea to the next)

Proofreading: line-level changes

  • punctuation

  • grammar

  • formatting


It can help to have at least one other reader who isn’t you. But avoid the temptation to get feedback from everyone you know. You will be overwhelmed, and the result will not be a better essay. Work on it with a teacher, a college counselor, a friend, a parent, or someone like me (who offers writing help for hire). Just, maybe not all of those people all at once. Find someone that you trust and stick with that person.


But trust yourself, too. You are the ultimate expert, here. This essay is, in the end, yours.


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I hope this series was helpful to you. If not, there are a ton of other resources out there to help you write the best possible college essay, so keep looking! I’m cheering for you.


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