Essay writing lesson 3: Structure and outline

The easiest way to sabotage all the work you have done so far is to skip this lesson. Writing is as much a discipline as it is an art, and to ensure that your essays flow well and make sense, you need to construct solid outlines before you write. Unless you conscientiously impose structure around your ideas, your essay will be rambling and ineffective. An outline should make sense on its own; the ideas should follow logically in the order that you list them. As you add content around these main points, these words should support and reinforce the logic of the outline. Finally, the outline should conclude with an insightful thought or image. Make sure that the rest of your outline reinforces this conclusion.

The body paragraphs should consist of events, experiences, and activities you have already organized in chronological order or in order of importance. In many of the essays that our editors read, the order of paragraphs seems to have been chosen at random. Make clear why one point follows another: each point in your outline should connect with the next; each main category should be linked to your introduction or thesis; and each sub-category should be linked to the main category. As you make your outline you should be able to see where there are holes in your essay.

Descriptions and Examples of Popular Essay Styles and Structures

Example Structure

The Example Structure follows the rules of a traditional academic essay: begin with a main argument or thesis statement, follow this with three pieces of evidence that support the argument, and wrap up by stating what the essay has shown. This is a good structure to use when making a single, strong point. Its power lies in its simplicity. Because it allows you to present several points neatly in support of a single claim, it is especially useful for making a persuasive argument. This format will be most helpful when writing short essays, but for longer personal statements, it might appear formulaic and dull. One of the more creative structures described below might draw attention more successfully to your writing.

Compare and Contrast

For some questions, this structure is a natural choice, as in the personal growth and development question, which asks you to compare yourself now to the way you once were. You can structure a cause-and-effect essay point for point, by comparing one aspect of the object or situation at a time. Or you can choose to employ the block method by thoroughly covering all the points of the first object or situation in the first half of the essay and then comparing it with all the points of the other in the last half.

Narrative or Chronological Structure

If you have decided to focus on a single event in your life, you will want to use this structure. It can be filled with action, dialogue, and subtle details. Although, you should not confuse effective drama with overwrought, Hollywood-style melodrama. The briefest and simplest of events can take on meaning when told convincingly. Using a chronological or narrative structure over a long period of time (anything more than a day or two) can often read like a ship's log. You don't want to sound like you're rattling off a schedule of events. Rather, take on the role of storyteller and provide great detail about a very specific set of events. The sequence of events will help reinforce flow from one stage of the essay to the next and will make the difficult task of transitioning between paragraphs very natural. While the narrative is one of the most effective forms of writing for an essay, it can also be difficult. Use the following tips as your write your narrative:

  • Make the reader aware of chronology and keep the story generally moving forward.

  • Don't feel obligated to tell more of the story than you need to convey your point. Extra details distract from the main drive of the story.

  • Try not to use reflective conclusions or introductions describing what you learned; start and end with the action and have everything take place within the context of the story.

  • Describe events, people, and places in very specific, colorful terms.

Narrative can be combined with other structures for an approach that is less risky but still interesting. Beginning an essay with a brief story is the most common and effective of such methods. Another twist on the narrative essay is one that describes a single place, person, or action in great detail. It appeals to the senses of the audience without necessarily drawing on the action of a story. There is no standard structure found in this type of essay -- each is differently organized -- but all rely on crisp imagery and sensory detail, leaving the reader with a single, vivid image. Single images are easier to remember than a list of points, qualities, traits, or qualifications, no matter how impressive any one or all of them may be. Still, this is a risky approach and is best employed when you have to provide multiple essays for one school so that you have a chance to structure your other essays more traditionally.

Descriptive Structure

This is similar to the chronological structure except that instead of walking step by step through increments of time, it follows step by step through a description of a place, person, or thing. The first paragraph gives an introduction describing the general feel of the place, person, or thing. The body paragraphs offer in-depth descriptions of two or three particular aspects of the place, person, or thing. In the last paragraph, the writer steps out of the descriptive mode and offers a brief conclusion of what the place, person, or thing says about him or her.

Cause-and-Effect Structure

Often times you will be asked for a life-changing experience or about someone or something that has had a great influence on you. This structure shows that you understand and appreciate the effect that other entities have had on your development and maturity. For these essays, you will want to use the body paragraphs to first describe the influence and then move onto how that has had an effect on you. You can either divide the essay into a "cause section" and an "effect section" or you can mesh the two together by taking each small description one by one and explaining the effect it has had on you. If you decide to use this structure, be sure that you don't write yourself out of the equation; make the point that you were the catalyst between the cause and the effect. That way, you demonstrate that you know how to take action and create change.

Sample outline and essay

Below you will find a sample outline and the essay written from that


Paragraph 1 (Introduction)

I. Leading sentence: "It took me eighteen years to realize what
an extraordinary influence my mother has been on my life."

II. Summary of main points: "I not only came to love the
excitement of learning simply for the sake of knowing something new, but
I also came to understand the idea of giving back to the community in
exchange for a new sense of life, love, and spirit."

Paragraph 2 (First Supporting Point)

I. Transition sentence: "My mother's enthusiasm for learning is
most apparent in travel."

II. Supporting point: Her mother's enthusiasm for learning.

III. Evidence: Learning through travel by using the example of a
trip to Greece.

Paragraph 3 (Second Supporting Point)

I. Transition sentence: "While I treasure the various worlds my
mother has opened to me abroad, my life has been equally transformed by
what she has shown me just two miles from my house."

II. Supporting point: Her mother's dedication to the community.

III. Evidence: Her multiple volunteer activities such as helping at
the local soup kitchen.

Paragraph 4 (Conclusion)

I. Transition sentence: "Everything that my mother has ever done
has been overshadowed by the thought behind it."

II. Reiteration of main points: "She has enriched my life with
her passion for learning, and changed it with her devotion to humanity."

III. Taking it one step further: "Next year, I will find a new
home miles away. However, my mother will always be by my side."

Click here to create your own outline


Note: The
below essay was not edited by EssayEdge Editors. It appears as it was
initially reviewed by admissions officers.

It took me eighteen years to realize what an extraordinary influence my
mother has been on my life. She's the kind of person who has thoughtful
discussions about which artist she would most want to have her portrait
painted by (Sargent), the kind of mother who always has time for her four
children, and the kind of community leader who has a seat on the board of
every major project to assist Washington's impoverished citizens. Growing
up with such a strong role model, I developed many of her enthusiasms. I not
only came to love the excitement of learning simply for the sake of knowing
something new, but I also came to understand the idea of giving back to the
community in exchange for a new sense of life, love, and spirit.

My mother's enthusiasm for learning is most apparent in travel. I was
nine years old when my family visited Greece. Every night for three weeks
before the trip, my older brother Peter and I sat with my mother on her bed
reading Greek myths and taking notes on the Greek Gods. Despite the fact
that we were traveling with fourteen-month-old twins, we managed to be at
each ruin when the site opened at sunrise. I vividly remember standing in an
empty amphitheatre pretending to be an ancient tragedian, picking out my
favorite sculpture in the Acropolis museum, and inserting our family into
modified tales of the battle at Troy. Eight years and half a dozen passport
stamps later I have come to value what I have learned on these journeys
about global history, politics and culture, as well as my family and myself.

While I treasure the various worlds my mother has opened to me abroad, my
life has been equally transformed by what she has shown me just two miles
from my house. As a ten year old, I often accompanied my mother to (name
deleted), a local soup kitchen and children's center. While she attended
meetings, I helped with the Summer Program by chasing children around the
building and performing magic tricks. Having finally perfected the
"floating paintbrush" trick, I began work as a full time volunteer with
the five and six year old children last June. It is here that I met Jane
Doe, an exceptionally strong girl with a vigor that is contagious. At the
end of the summer, I decided to continue my work at (name deleted) as
Jane's tutor. Although the position is often difficult, the personal
rewards are beyond articulation. In the seven years since I first walked
through the doors of (name deleted), I have learned not only the idea of
giving to others, but also of deriving from them a sense of spirit.

Everything that my mother has ever done has been overshadowed by the
thought behind it. While the raw experiences I have had at home and abroad
have been spectacular, I have learned to truly value them by watching my
mother. She has enriched my life with her passion for learning, and changed
it with her devotion to humanity. In her endless love of everything and
everyone she is touched by, I have seen a hope and life that is truly
exceptional. Next year, I will find a new home miles away. However, my
mother will always be by my side.

Short essays

Some schools require you to write a series of short essays rather than submit a single personal statement. If this is the case for you, then you should consider the impact that your essay set will have as a whole. You need to balance the structure and content of the set as much as you do within each essay individually. Yet, with these challenges come several advantages. More essays means more opportunity to sell yourself. Multiple essays give you ample space to do justice to all the different areas of your life, avoiding the pitfall of cramming too many points into one essay. And, you can take more risks being creative in one essay, while providing other traditional essays, thus appealing to readers with different tastes.

When you are required to answer multiple questions, there is often a strict word limit for each answer. But even though each essay is short, each one requires as much attention as long essays. The best way to approach a short essay is to write a regular, full-length essay and then cut it down. Let yourself write as long as you feel inspired, without time limits or length constraints. After you have the ideas on paper, go back and look for the pieces of gold buried under all of the words. Begin by reducing the introduction and the conclusion from one paragraph to one sentence each. Choose only the clearest, most direct parts.

Some short-answer questions ask for lists of activities, jobs, or honors. There are two approaches to answering such a question: the list and the paragraph. For each, provide complete information about the items you are listing, following the same format for each list. Include the activity, your involvement, and the time commitment. Make it clear that your activities have involved responsibility and effort. And don't worry about the number of activities you list -- when it comes to quality, less is often more.

We have stressed in numerous places throughout this course the importance of proofing your essays and getting feedback. While most applicants are stringent about taking this step after writing individual essays, some forget to apply the same advice to their essay set as a whole. Before you send in your application, assess the impression that your essays will make when taken together.

  • Are my main points evident?

  • Are there redundancies or apparent contradictions between essays?

  • Is a coherent image presented throughout the essays and does each essay contribute to the same image?

  • Is a consistent voice and style used throughout the essays? Does it sound as though they were written by the same person?

  • Does the essay set support the impression that is made in the rest of the application?

Essay templates

admissions essays is not formulaic; the best essays will have the most
personal detail and passionate writing. However, if you are suffering from
severe writer's block and need help piecing together an effective essay,
we have provided generic templates for the most common types of essays. If
you stick strictly to these templates, you will end up with pretty awful
essays; they are solely intended to jumpstart your writing in its earliest

If you rely heavily on these templates in your final draft, you will write
one of the worst admissions essays possible. Use these templates only to get
your own creative juices flowing.

An Influential Person

The person who has had the
biggest influence in my life is _______. Because ______ was __________
he/she taught me __________ but also much about __________. I have been
close to _______ ever since I was _____ years old and we ______. I feel a
debt of gratitude to ________ for always being there for me through

__________ has always been my
role model. I have long admired his/her success in ________, _________,
__________, and the way he/she ________. My goal in life is to be just like
him/her, to get the most I can out of life. Because of ______'s strong
influence, I find _________ fascinating. I am always impressed that he/she
started __________ at my age and rose to be ____________ in just a few
years. _______ has supported my interest in ________, and was very proud of
me when I __________.

I also admire __________'s
devotion to ____________. This was ___________ and quickly became
_____________. This endeavor took up his/her life for ______________ until
he/she _____________ in __________. Since then, ______________ has
_____________ in part because of ___________'s efforts.

accomplishments have meant _________to me. __________ has been ___________
in my life, showing me that ___________ and ___________. I hope to inherit
his/her virtues and _____________ in order to make him/her proud.

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an Activity Outside of the Classroom

________ has been a crucial
part of my life ever since ________. Back in _________ when I started
___________ I never imagined that __________. _________ used to encourage
me/cheer me on/drive me back and forth as I practiced/continued to
__________. During this time I met ___________, learned ____________, and
became better at ______________.

The best part of ____________
is _________________ because ____________. Doing ____________ means
__________. The __________ team/group/club/organization introduced me to
__________. For most of my peers in _______, the goal was ____________. But
for me, my main objective was ____________. I will never forget the time
when I/we __________. This team/organization gave me the opportunity to
_________ and learn ___________, which has benefited me in ___________.

In addition to the
fun/competition/other, ___________ has confronted me with many challenges. I
am not naturally a good ___________. I am not ______, _________, or
_________. However, I discovered that in order to excel at ___________, I
needed to ________. As a result, I am known on my team/organization as
_________. Each day, I become stronger at ________ and _________.

Whether I continue _______ or
not, I know that I have already built strong __________ and skills in
___________. My experiences with ___________ have taught me lessons that I
can apply beyond ___________, and I will always have __________ for years to

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an Issue of Importance

During the last __________
years, I have devoted a significant amount of time to ___________, an issue
that is often _______________ because of ___________. In my quest to
____________, I faced many obstacles of my own such as ______________. But
after _____________, I realized that I could _________________ and

One reason why this issue is so
________ is that ___________. Most people do not realize that _____________.
Moreover, those who find themselves ___________ do not have
________________. With ___________ and ____________ people who/a society
that is _____________ has little chance to ___________.

In this difficult ___________,
I realized there were many _________________ who needed my ______________.
By _______________, I helped ___________ to _____________. Finally, in
___________, I reached a turning point when I ____________ with
______________ at _____________. At this time, I had the opportunity to
_______________. I helped with _____________ and ___________. I realized
that in order to _______________, I had to _______________ and
______________. I started by ____________ and ____________, which had the
affect of _____________ and ________________.

Since this time in
_____________, I/we have accomplished/managed to/seen ____________. Many
problems remain, such as ____________ and ______________. But with
____________ in mind, I know/our organization is prepared to/our society can
________________. My interest in __________ has taught me that I am
__________, that my group is ___________, and that society/our culture is
_______________. In the future, I would like to continue ____________ for
the sake of ______________ and hope to incorporate ___________ into my time
at ____________.

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