The conclusion is the second most important part of your essay, after the introduction. Just as the introduction had the primary purpose of drawing the reader in, the conclusion's foremost function should be to leave the reader with a lasting impression. This section will offer guidelines on how to maximize the impact of that impression. These guidelines can be grouped into three categories, each of which encompasses a lesson of what not to do.
Synthesize, Don't Summarize
The chief difference between these two tactics is that the former deals with themes while the latter deals with facts/experiences, though there is some overlap. You do not need to recap the essay paragraph-by-paragraph. You do not need to remind the reader of the experiences you discussed (except as individual experiences might be tied to certain themes you want to synthesize).
You do want to reiterate key themes, but preferably not in a way that merely repeats them. Ideally, the process of synthesizing them will add a fresh perspective. Try to tie themes together and demonstrate how they complement each other. Of course, you should stay away here as always from trite and clichéd generalizations.
This applicant spends the bulk of his essay describing his compassion and the work he did after not being accepted to medical school the last time he applied. As the essay progresses, he shows how his current work has made him more conscious of his desire for personal interaction. Thus the intersection of his two topics grows apparent, and in his last sentence he offers the following synthesis: "I know that this process of maturing will make me a better and more compassionate doctor, and I now feel more prepared than ever for the rigors of medical school." He does not overstate his case but makes a natural connection between maturity and compassion. The point is both coherent and, at this stage of the essay, fresh - the two elements that make for a lasting impression.
If in the process of synthesizing you can invoke your introduction, that will add a strong sense of closure. There are a number of different ways this could be accomplished. You might complete a story you started in the introduction, or you might show how something has changed in your present since the timeframe of the introduction.
Expand on Broader Significance - Within Reason
One way to ensure that your last paragraph has something fresh to say is to tie your ideas to some broader implications, whether about yourself or your field. But don't get carried away: some applicants think they have to make reference to saving the world or derive some grand philosophical truths from their experiences. Stay grounded and focused on your personal details.
This applicant brings up a problem with the health care system in his second paragraph. Thus his conclusion relates this issue to a greater principle: "As a doctor, I hope to participate in these changes in order to benefit more people than are currently being served. Doctors should be able to serve people of all different races, ages, backgrounds, and cultures. I intend to use my skills and unique experiences to achieve this vision of what I think a doctor should be." Again, appealing to outside principles is only one way to speak to broader significance. You could achieve similar results by relating your experiences in medicine to general trends in your life. The point is not to reach as far as possible, but rather to fulfill that primary purpose of leaving a lasting impression by having something fresh to say at the end.
Don't Add Entirely New Information, Except to Look Ahead
We have used the word "fresh" several times here, and we're thinking mainly of perspectives and ideas. You should avoid adding entirely new information about your experiences. In shorter essays, you might have to pack details in everywhere, but in general, if it's an important experience, it should come earlier.
That said, speaking of goals in your conclusion is a strong way to end. Some essays will be chiefly about the writers' qualifications and intentions, but they won't touch on specific goals until all of that has been established. The delineation of goals can be like a process of synthesizing, because you are trying to tie your themes together in the context of where you will go next.
This applicant enumerates specific goals in his last paragraph: what position he hopes to obtain, what he will specialize in, and where he will work. The essay clearly has been building up to this point, and so the conclusion is fitting.
You may also want to make reference to the specific schools to which you are applying (some questions will ask why you want to attend). This information can come earlier, but it's not unacceptable to bring it up in the conclusion.
Next:Lesson Six: Editing and Revising
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Part 2: How to Begin (Goal: Engage the Reader)
Before you begin to write, I recommend that you:
- Develop a list of qualities you want to demonstrate and
- Think of events or situations that highlight these qualities
Then, you should write about one of these events or situations in a way that demonstrates these qualities and captures the reader’s attention.
1. List Your Greatest Qualities
To answer the personal statement prompt more easily, focus again on the question of what you want admissions committees to know about you beyond your numbers and achievements.
I’m not talking about your hobbies (e.g., “I followed Taylor Swift to every concert she performed in the US during this past year”), although you could certainly point to aspects of your lifestyle in your essay to make your point.
Instead, I’m talking about which of your qualities–character, personality traits, attitudes–you want to demonstrate. Examples include:
- Extraordinary compassion
- Willingness to learn
- Great listening skills
- And so on
If you have difficulty thinking of your great qualities (many students do), ask family members or close friends what you’re good at and why they like you; that will take care of things :)
Finally, choose the two or three qualities that you want to focus on in your personal statement. Let’s use compassion and knowledge-seeking as the foundational qualities of an original example for this article.
(Note: I cannot overstate how important it is to think of the qualities you want to demonstrate in your personal statement before choosing a situation or event to write about. Students who decide on an event or situation first usually struggle to fit in their qualities within the confines of their story. On the other hand, students who choose the qualities they want to convey first are easily able to demonstrate them because the event or situation they settle on naturally highlights these qualities.)
2. When or Where Have You Demonstrated These Qualities?
Now that I’m off my soapbox and you’ve chosen qualities to highlight, it’s time to list any event(s) or setting(s) where you’ve demonstrated them.
I should explicitly mention that this event or setting doesn't need to come from a clinical (e.g., shadowing a physician, interacting with a young adult patient at a cancer center, working with children in an international clinic) or research experience (e.g., making a finding in cancer research), although it’s OK if it involves an extracurricular activity directly related to medicine.
In fact, since most students start their essays by describing clinical or research experiences, starting off with something else–travel (e.g., a camping trip in Yellowstone), volunteering (e.g., building homes in New Orleans), family (e.g., spending time with and learning from your elderly and ill grandmother back home in New Hampshire), work (e.g., helping out at your parents’ donut shop)–will make you immediately stand out.
Let’s start with the example of building homes in New Orleans. Why? Because we could easily demonstrate compassion and knowledge-seeking through this experience. Notice how the qualities we select can choose the story for us?
3. Describe Your Event as a Story
Here’s where the art of writing a great personal statement really comes in.
Admissions officers read thousands of essays, most of which are very cliché or dry. Therefore, it’s critical that you stand out by engaging the reader from the very beginning.
By far the best way to capture admissions officers early is by developing a story at the start of your essay about the event or situation you chose in Step 2.
In a previous article, I wrote about the three critical elements for writing a great admissions essay story: 1) a compelling character, 2) a relatable plot, and 3) authenticity)
However, I want to go one step beyond that article and provide an actual example of how the same event can be written in a routine vs. compelling way. That way, you can avoid the common pitfalls of typical personal statements and write a standout one.
One of my most eye-opening experiences came when I volunteered with Habitat for Humanity in New Orleans during the summer months of 2014. Up to that point, I had only heard about the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to volunteer, it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.
New Orleans was hot and humid during the summer months of 2014–no surprise there. However, for a native Oregonian like me, waking up to 90-degree and 85% humidity days initially seemed like too much to bear. That was until I reflected on the fact that my temporary discomfort was minute in contrast to the destruction of communities and emotional pounding experienced by the people of New Orleans during and after Hurricane Katrina 9 years earlier. Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people was as much about lifting spirits as making physical improvements.
Many people may feel the Routine example is pretty good. Upon closer look, however, it seems that:
- The focus is as much on New Orleanians as the applicant
- The story is not particularly relatable (unless the reader had also volunteered there)
- There isn’t much support for the writer actually being touched by the people there
On the other hand, the Compelling example:
- Keeps the spotlight on the applicant throughout (e.g., references being from Oregon, discusses her reflections, interacting with Jermaine)
- Has a relatable plot (e.g., temporary discomfort, changing perspectives)
- Is authentic (e.g., provides an example of how she lifted spirits)
(You can find yet another example of a typical vs. standout admissions essay introduction to engage readers in this earlier post.)
4. Demonstrate Your Qualities
(Note: This section applies to all aspects of your essay.)
“Show, don’t tell” is one of the most common pieces of advice given for writing personal statements, but further guidance or examples are rarely provided to demonstrate what it looks like when done well.
This is unfortunate because the best way to understand how standout personal statements demonstrate qualities through an engaging story is by reading two examples of the same situation: one that “tells” about a quality, and another that “shows” a quality.
Let’s take a look at the last sentence of each story example I provided in the previous section to better understand this distinction.
Telling (from Routine story)
“…it was not until I observed the emotional pounding the people of New Orleans had experienced that I developed a greater sense of compassion for their plight.”
Showing (from Compelling story)
“…actually building homes and interacting with the locals, like 9 year-old Jermaine, who cried as I held his hand while we unveiled his rebuilt home, taught me that caring for people…”
Notice how the second example demonstrates compassion without ever mentioning the word "compassion" (hence no bolded words)?
Moreover, the same sentence demonstrates knowledge-seeking: “Although pictures and stories of the aftermath compelled me to understand its effects on the community and volunteer, actually building homes and interacting with the locals...”)
That’s what you’re going for.
Think about it. Who do you consider to be more kind:
- A person who says, “I’m really nice!”; or
- A person who you've seen do nice things for others?
Clearly, the second person will be seen as more kind, even if there's no difference between their levels of kindness.
Therefore, by demonstrating your qualities, you will look better to admissions committees, and also seem more authentic.