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Essay Outline

Updated: Dec 13, 2023

Table of Contents

Feel free to skip around.

Outline


Note: this outline is a simplification that will hopefully help you show growth in your personal statement. Different authors have different ways of describing narrative structure.


Key Terms

Character-arc terms

  • Character arc: the main personal growth

    • Example: insecure (flaw) → confident

  • Flaw: the main weakness that is overcome

  • Flawed worldview: an inaccurate idea based on the flaw

    • Example: you have to be selfish to get ahead in life (the corresponding flaw is "selfishness")

Plot-arc terms

  • Plot Arc: the main goal or problem of the story

    • Example: take an evil, magic ring from the west to east end of a continent

  • Stakes: consequences for success vs. failure

  • Measurability: how we track your progress in the story toward success or failure

    • Example: a deadline

  • Scalability: the idea that, if you did something at a small or simple scale, you can continue to do similar tasks at a broader or more complex scale

    • Example: speech & debate → dream of being a politician

Story-Beat Terms

  • Story Beat: a small part of a story defined by its role. It's basically a scene. A story beat can be either a formal part of a plot arc (like "the climax") or a type of scene (like "the arrival" or "the betrayal").

  • Hook: the part of the intro that allows the reader to engage with the story by forming expectations or questions.

    • Expectations: the story tells us that it will tell us something.

    • Questions: the story tells us that it's not telling us something.

  • Exposition: essentially just "explanation." Exposition can explain character, plot, or setting.

  • Inciting incident: the event or reason that triggers the main character to take action.

  • Try/Fail Cycle: A character tries to do something and fails. You can repeat this process indefinitely in a story—until the character finally either succeeds or fails so badly that they can no longer try again. (For college essays, you would just fail once.)

  • Climax: The most dramatic point in a story.

  • Resolution: The answer to whether the character succeeds or fails + the consequences of this success/failure.

This won't work for all essay types

A plot outline will work for narrative essays (stories) but not rhetorical essays (arguments).

Narrative Essays ✅

Narrative essays feature personal growth and characterization, both of which benefit from a character arc and plot arc.

  • Common App main essay (any prompt)

  • UC PIQs (all prompts)

  • "How" essays:

    • How have you impacted your community?

    • How did you overcome an academic challenge?

    • How have you demonstrated leadership?

    • How have you demonstrated (or improved at) accepting diversity?

Rhetorical Essays ❌

You need a clear, unambiguous answer to these questions that you support with evidence. These essays are usually shorter than narrative essays.

We should be able to extract a simple, one-sentence answer from your essay.
  • Why this college?

  • Why this major?

  • What defines a successful college experience?

  • What is a major challenge impacting society (and how will you address it)?

You don't have to use this

The primary goal of a narrative admissions essay is to characterize yourself. As I mentioned in my Two Yous guide, you do this through what happens in the story and your writing style.

You don't have to read these, but here are great stories that don't follow a traditional 3-act plot (sorry, not all of these are free to access):

Common-App Example

Preface

I made this plagiarism proof by choosing a generic topic. My intro also comes from Chekhov's short story, "Rothschild's Fiddle." So if you steal from me, you're actually stealing from two people.


This is for the Common App main essay, which means the word limit is 650.


Arc Info

  • Character arc: selfish → selfless

    • Flaw: selfishness

    • Flawed worldview/premise: "I need to be selfish to be successful"

  • Plot arc: dealing with the unfair grading curve

    • Stakes: only one student can get an A

    • Expansion of stakes: As the main character begins to care about his new friends, he begins to feel guilty about trying to get the only A

    • Measurability:

      • the progression of the main character's grade through the story

      • the progression of time toward the semester final

Act 1

AP Stats was full of students who failed so rarely it wasn’t just unlikely but even annoying. You see, to teach standard distribution, Mrs. H. was grading on a bell curve—meaning only two percent of us would get As. In a class of thirty, that’d be less than one person! None of us believed her at first, but when I got a C- on the midterm (with 34.1% of the class), I swore I’d be the one to acquire the class’s coveted A. Or, 0.6 of me would, at least. Hopefully, the 0.6 that mattered to colleges.

100 words: ~15%


Hook (1st sentence): logical incongruity (being upset that students don't fail)

  • plot-arc foreshadowing: grades will be a central problem in the story

  • character-arc foreshadowing: this character is annoyed when other people don't fail, implying that they have a selfish outlook on success.

Exposition (sentences 2 & 3)

  • Establish stakes (only one A)

Inciting Incident (sentences 4–6): the C-

  • This character's selfishness (character arc) is now linked to his goal of getting an A (plot arc)

  • Measurability: current grade = C-

Act 2

Failed Attempt

But just studying wouldn’t make the grade: after midtermageddon, everyone was cramming content in a feverish ritual to our newfound Gaussian god. The bell curve was an impossible inchworm: always moving forward, never changing shape. So I made a plan: pick the smartest students for a study group, coast off their work, and finally (I’m ashamed to admit it now) sabotage them.
The people I picked to sacrifice were first-violin Steve, MUN Mary, and, to avoid suspicion, the guy who sat next to me (torn-Nikes Tim). After some scheduling Jenga (valedictorians-to-be are busy people), we had our first Sunright milk-tea study session. The combination of caffeine, sugar, and Keshi supercharged us. As expected, first-violin Steve could string formulas together like a virtuoso, and MUN Mary was a natural leader, keeping us on track. Especially Tim, who kept going on TikTok to show us cat videos. It was the most fun I’d ever had studying—any. Still, I kept a lookout for how to pull off my long-con GPA heist.

168 words: ~25%

  • The task is difficult: The "impossible inchworm" metaphor showcases how, despite studying harder, the character is no closer to getting an A.

  • Failure: Based on the main character's developing friendships, it's clear that sabotage won't work. This character needs to rethink his strategy.

Reflection

Our Sunright sessions were a successful failure. On the plus side, my grade went from a C- to a B. But, and this was a critical oversight, I was becoming friends with them. Even Tim. I wanted to get that coveted A, but did I really want to take it away from one of my friends? The semester final seemed so much more important now: it wasn’t just my grade on the line anymore. I knew I couldn’t be the only one thinking about it. Even if I was the only one who’d planned sabotage. Probably.

96 words: ~15%

  • Measurability (tracking the story's progress):

    • grade increased from C- to B

    • semester final coming up

  • Confronting flawed worldview: "did I really want to take it away from one of my friends?"

    • (This reflection is the story's turning point.)

  • Expansion of stakes: "it wasn't just my grade on the line anymore."

Challenge

Finish this story yourself! I do this with my students as an exercise to understand how character and plot arcs work.


Check out my sequel post for an explanation of how your ending will impact the theme.


Why is this post in this order?

I hate online recipes that make you scroll forever to find what you need. Plus, if you plan to use this as a resource to come back to, you won't need this part a second time.


– Aaron

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