Notice how each of these objects are objective correlatives for the writer’s family. Taken together, they create an essence image.
Quick: What essence image describes your family? Even if you have a non-traditional family–in fact, especially if you have a non-traditional family!–what image or objects represents your relationship?
Based on the image the writer uses, how would you describe her relationship with her family? Close? Warm? Intimate? Loving? Quiet? But think how much worse her essay would have been if she’d written: “I have a close, warm, intimate, loving, quiet relationship with my family.”
Instead, she describes an image of her family "huddled in front of the fireplace while drinking my brother’s hot cocoa and listening to the pitter patter of rain outside our window.” Three objects--fireplace, brother’s hot cocoa, sound of rain--and we get the whole picture of their relationship. We know all we need to know.
There’s another lesson here:
Principle #2: Engage the reader’s imagination using all five senses
This writer did. Did you notice?
- Fireplace (feel)
- Brother’s hot cocoa (taste, smell)
- Pitter patter of rain (sound)
- Biggest photograph (sight)
And there’s something else she did that’s really smart. Did you notice how clearly she set up the idea of the scrapbook at the beginning of the essay? Look at the last sentence of the second paragraph (bolded below):
Cutting the first photograph, I make sure to leave a quarter inch border. I then paste it onto a polka-dotted green paper with a glue stick. For a sophisticated touch, I use needle and thread to sew the papers together. Loads of snipping and pasting later, the clock reads three in the morning. I look down at the final product, a full spread of photographs and cut-out shapes. As usual, I feel an overwhelming sense of pride as I brush my fingers over the crisp papers and the glossy photographs. For me, the act of taking pieces of my life and putting them together on a page is my way of organizing remnants of my past to make something whole and complete.
The sentence in bold above is essentially her thesis. It explains the framework for the whole essay. She follows this sentence with:
This particular project is the most valuable scrapbook I have ever made: the scrapbook of my life.
Boom. Super clear. And we’re set-up for the rest of the essay. So here’s the third thing we can learn:
Principle #3: The set-up should be super clear
Even a personal statement can have a thesis. It’s important to remember that, though your ending can be somewhat ambiguous—something we’ll discuss more later—your set-up should give the reader a clear sense of where we’re headed. It doesn’t have to be obvious, and you can delay the thesis for a paragraph or two (as this writer does), but at some point in the first 100 words or so, we need to know we’re in good hands. We need to trust that this is going to be worth our time.
Principle #4: Show THEN Tell
Has your English teacher ever told you “Show, don’t tell?” That’s good advice, but for a college essay I believe it’s actually better to show THEN tell.
Why? Two reasons:
1.) Showing before telling gives your reader a chance to interpret the meaning of your images before you do. Why is this good? It provides a little suspense. Also, it engages the reader’s imagination. Take another look at the images in the second to last paragraph: my college diploma... a miniature map with numerous red stickers pinpointing locations all over the world... frames and borders without photographs... (Note that it's all "show.")
As we read, we wonder: what do all these objects mean? We have an idea, but we’re not certain. Then she TELLS us:
That second page is incomplete because I have no precise itinerary for my future. The red flags on the map represent the places I will travel to, possibly to teach English like I did in Cambodia or to do charity work with children like I did in Guatemala. As for the empty frames, I hope to fill them with the people I will meet: a family of my own and the families I desire to help, through a career I have yet to decide.
Ah. Now we get it. She’s connected the dots.
2.) Showing then telling gives you an opportunity to set-up your essay for what I believe to be the single most important element to any personal statement: insight.
Principle #5: Provide insight
What is insight? In simple terms, it’s a deeper intuitive understanding of a person or thing.
But here’s a more useful definition for your college essay: Insight is something that you’ve noticed about the world that others may have missed. Insight answers the question: So what? It's proof that you’re a close observer of the world. That you’re sensitive to details. That you’re smart.
And the author of this essay doesn’t just give insight at the end of her essay, she does it at the beginning too: she begins with a description of herself creating a scrapbook (show), then follows this with a clear explanation for why she has just described this (tell).
Final note: it’s important to use insight judiciously. Not throughout your whole essay; a couple times will do.
So what can you steal from this for your essay?
- Principle #1: Use objects and images instead of adjectives
- Principle #2: Engage the reader’s imagination using all five senses
- Principle #3: The set-up should be super clear
- Principle #4: Show THEN Tell
- Principle #5: Provide insight
Parts of an Essay
What is an introduction paragraph?
The introduction paragraph is the first paragraph of your essay.
What does it do?
It introduces the main idea of your essay. A good opening paragraph captures the interest of your reader and tells why your topic is important.
How do I write one?
1. Write the thesis statement. The main idea of the essay is stated in a single sentence called the thesis statement. You must limit your entire essay to the topic you have introduced in your thesis statement.
2. Provide some background information about your topic. You can use interesting facts, quotations, or definitions of important terms you will use later in the essay.
Hockey has been a part of life in Canada for over 120 years. It has evolved into an extremely popular sport watched and played by millions of Canadians. The game has gone through several changes since hockey was first played in Canada.
What are supporting paragraphs?
Supporting paragraphs make up the main body of your essay.
What do they do?
They develop the main idea of your essay.
How do I write them?
1. List the points that develop the main idea of your essay.
2. Place each supporting point in its own paragraph.
3. Develop each supporting point with facts, details, and examples.
To connect your supporting paragraphs, you should use special transition words. Transition words link your paragraphs together and make your essay easier to read. Use them at the beginning and end of your paragraphs.
Examples of transition words that can help you to link your paragraphs together:
For listing different points
For counter examples
For additional ideas
To show cause and effect
Like all good paragraphs, each supporting paragraph should have a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and a summary sentence.
What is a summary paragraph?
The summary paragraph comes at the end of your essay after you have finished developing your ideas. The summary paragraph is often called a "conclusion."
What does it do?
It summarizes or restates the main idea of the essay. You want to leave the reader with a sense that your essay is complete.
How do I write one?
1. Restate the strongest points of your essay that support your main idea.
2. Conclude your essay by restating the main idea in different words.
3. Give your personal opinion or suggest a plan for action.
Overall, the changes that occurred in hockey have helped to improve the game. Hockey is faster and more exciting as a result of changes in the past 120 years. For these reasons, modern hockey is a better game than hockey in the 1890s.