I find it helpful to use one of four templates when I’m figuring out an essay’s basic structure.
1. The before, turning point, after (BTA) template
- Turning point
The BTA template focuses on how you change or grow. Here, for example, is a BTA outline of an essay I call “Women Like You”:
- Before: I didn't define myself by my skin color.
- Turning point: I was harassed in South Korea.
- After: I realized that my race is an indelible component of my identity.
2. The challenge and solution template
- External challenge
- Internal challenge
If you only identify an external challenge, your essay will be a record of your accomplishment, not a story about your personal growth. Your solution should encompass mental strength as well as skill.
Here is a challenge and solution outline of the essay I call “Defending a Neo-Nazi”:
- External challenge: the client shouted and the case was hard.
- Internal challenge: I had to defend the rights of man who would curtail my own.
- Solution: empathy and introspection, for I realized that even a racist deserves a fair trial.
3. The event, lesson, application template
Some essays conclude with a lesson. In other essays, the narrator learns a lesson and then applies it later. Here, for example, is an event, lesson, application outline of an essay I call “Tourné”:
- Event: I failed my first cooking test.
- Lesson: I’d been overconfident.
- Application: I humbled myself and practiced harder, finally passing my retest.
4. The injustice template
- Why I want to go to law school
Writing about injustice is like serving chicken at a wedding: it’s usually dry and humdrum, so you better make it compelling. Be wary of writing about an injustice you only witnessed. It’s better to write about an injustice that involves you personally.
Here, for example, is an injustice outline of the essay I call “Fighting for Sofia”:
- Injustice: immigration lawyers duped people in my town, including my friend Sofia’s family.
- Why I want to go to law school: to fight for people like Sofia.
A Note on Templates
Most essays could be described by more than one template. Here, for example, is an event, lesson, application outline of “Fighting for Sofia”:
- Event: immigration lawyers duped people in my town, including my friend Sofia’s family.
- Lesson: injustice is just as prevalent in America as it was in Colombia, and my family was lucky to have received a green card.
- Application: I volunteered for a community service center for new immigrants in college.
And here’s a challenge and solution outline of “Tourné”:
- External challenge: army cooking school.
- Internal challenge: my overconfidence.
- Solution: humility and extra practice.
Don’t get too hung up on which template is best. Choose whatever makes most sense to you, or don’t use any of them.
Indeed, templates aren’t for everyone. If you have an amazing story, I encourage you to tell it the best way you know how.
You may also want to write a two- or three-sentence outline without regard to the templates above. Here, for example, is a three-sentence outline of my personal statement:
- I was working on a novel about food policy.
- When a colleague told a great story at a writing camp, I realized I wanted to decouple my interest in storytelling from my interest in policy.
- I investigated the field of law and started a new policy-free novel.
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