The conclusion is a very important part of your essay. Although it is sometimes treated as a roundup of all of the bits that didn’t fit into the paper earlier, it deserves better treatment than that! It's the last thing the reader will see, so it tends to stick in the reader's memory. It's also a great place to remind the reader exactly why your topic is important. A conclusion is more than just "the last paragraph"—it's a working part of the paper. This is the place to push your reader to think about the consequences of your topic for the wider world or for the reader's own life!
A good conclusion should do a few things:
- Restate your thesis
- Synthesize or summarize your major points
- Make the context of your argument clear
Restating Your Thesis
You've already spent time and energy crafting a solid thesis statement for your introduction, and if you've done your job right, your whole paper focuses on that thesis statement. That's why it's so important to address the thesis in your conclusion! Many writers choose to begin the conclusion by restating the thesis, but you can put your thesis into the conclusion anywhere—the first sentence of the paragraph, the last sentence, or in between. Here are a few tips for rephrasing your thesis:
- Remind the reader that you've proven this thesis over the course of your paper. For example, if you're arguing that your readers should get their pets from animal shelters rather than pet stores, you might say, "If you were considering that puppy in the pet-shop window, remember that your purchase will support 'puppy mills' instead of rescuing a needy dog, and consider selecting your new friend at your local animal shelter." This example gives the reader not only the thesis of the paper, but a reminder of the most powerful point in the argument!
- Revise the thesis statement so that it reflects the relationship you've developed with the reader during the paper. For example, if you've written a paper that targets parents of young children, you can find a way to phrase your thesis to capitalize on that—maybe by beginning your thesis statement with, "As a parent of a young child…"
- Don’t repeat your thesis word for word—make sure that your new statement is an independent, fresh sentence!
Summary or Synthesis
This section of the conclusion might come before the thesis statement or after it. Your conclusion should remind the reader of what your paper actually says! The best conclusion will include a synthesis, not just a summary—instead of a mere list of your major points, the best conclusion will draw those points together and relate them to one another so that your reader can apply the information given in the essay. Here are a couple of ways to do that:
- Give a list of the major arguments for your thesis (usually, these are the topic sentences of the parts of your essay).
- Explain how these parts are connected. For example, in the animal-shelter essay, you might point out that adopting a shelter dog helps more animals because your adoption fee supports the shelter, which makes your choice more socially responsible.
One of the most important functions of the conclusion is to provide context for your argument. Your reader may finish your essay without a problem and understand your argument without understanding why that argument is important. Your introduction might point out the reason your topic matters, but your conclusion should also tackle this questions. Here are some strategies for making your reader see why the topic is important:
- Tell the reader what you want him or her to do. Is your essay a call to action? If so, remind the reader of what he/she should do. If not, remember that asking the reader to think a certain way is an action in itself. (In the above examples, the essay asks the reader to adopt a shelter dog—a specific action.)
- Explain why this topic is timely or important. For example, the animal-shelter essay might end with a statistic about the number of pets in shelters waiting for adoption.
- Remind the readers of why the topic matters to them personally. For example, it doesn’t matter much if you believe in the mission of animal shelters, if you're not planning to get a dog; however, once you're looking for a dog, it is much more important. The conclusion of this essay might say, "Since you’re in the market for a dog, you have a major decision to make: where to get one." This will remind the reader that the argument is personally important!
Overview | What makes a college essay “work”? How can writers reveal themselves through writing? In this lesson, students explore sample college essays and then consider advice about what separates a great essay from a mediocre or ineffective one as well as essay-writing tips. Finally, they write essays based on the piece of advice that resonated with them.
Materials | Copies of sample personal essays, copies of the College Essay Checklist (PDF), computer with Internet access and projection equipment
Warm-Up | Begin by asking: What do you think college admissions officers are looking for when they read student essays? List responses on the board, and be sure to push the conversation beyond issues of mechanics and structure to content, voice and style.
Then read aloud this first paragraph from a college essay:
During the summer before my junior year of high school, I spent a weekend volunteering with the poor in post-Katrina Louisiana and realized that I am privileged. Most of what these people had had been ripped out from under them and life was very different there from my life in suburban Massachusetts. Amazingly, though, these people still seemed happy. I learned from this experience that money isn’t everything.
Ask: Judging just from this paragraph, do you think this essay will meet the expectations we just listed? Does this paragraph grab you? Are you interested in reading more of this essay? What do you think this paragraph says about this student?
Next, divide students into small groups of “admissions officers,” and give each “committee” a college essay to evaluate. Resources include Connecticut College’s Essays That Worked collection and these sample essays published in The Times. In addition, give them this handout (PDF).
Tell the “admissions committees” to imagine that each of these essay writers has applied for admission to their college or university. Each group is responsible for using the handout to evaluate the essay and decide whether to admit this student. They should assume that each student has a similarly strong profile in terms of grades, test scores, activities and recommendations.
Once students have read and evaluated the essay, reconvene the class. Invite each group to describe their essay and what they liked or didn’t like about it, and deliver their admissions decision.
After each group has shared, ask: How were these essays different from the excerpt with which we began? In what ways were they more effective? What is cliché? How did these essays avoid that trap? Is there a way to move the experience detailed in the opening essay beyond cliché? After considering these essays, what else should we add to our list about what college admissions officials are looking for in student essays?
Related | In his recent post on The Choice blog, Dave Marcus, author of “Acceptance,” offers advice for writing successful college essays and avoiding common pitfalls:
Here’s an essay that’s sure to make an admissions officer reach for the triple grande latte to stay awake:
“I spent [choose one: a summer vacation/a weekend/three hours] volunteering with the poor in [Honduras/ Haiti/ Louisiana] and realized that [I am privileged/I enjoy helping others/people there are happy with so little].”
Yes, the admissions folks have read it before. Many times.
“I would love to have a student answer the question, ‘Why is it that you have everything and they have nothing?'” said Cezar Mesquita, admissions director at the College of Wooster. “Or ‘What did others learn from your participation in the trip?'”
For many seniors, choosing the topic for a personal statement is more difficult than actually writing the piece. But don’t fret. “Some of the more mundane moments in life make great essays,” Christopher Burkmar, Princeton University’s associate dean of admissions, assured guidance counselors at a conference last month.
Read the entire article with your class, using the questions below.
Questions | For discussion and reading comprehension:
- Remember that essay we started class with? Why are the options presented in the “fill-in-the-blank” introduction in the post likely to not interest or impress a college admissions official?
- Why are more mundane topics often preferable?
- What other alternatives to the standard college essay fare does this post offer?
- What are some things to avoid in a college essay?
- Mr. Marcus quotes Matthew Whelan of Stony Brook University as saying that the best college essays “help us understand why we want the applicant here.” Thinking of your own experiences, what are some things that make you attractive to the college(s) of your choice?
Activity | Explain to students that they will now start developing personal essays for their college application packages, by evaluating and then capitalizing on advice on how to write effective essays.
First, project the multimedia feature “Counting Words, Courting College.” Ask: What advice do you take away from this audio slide show about what makes a great college essay?
Next, tell students to meet again in their groups to consider and evaluate advice about writing college essays from a variety of Times articles from the last decade or so. Divide students into small groups and distribute one of the following pieces to each group:
What are the top three pieces of advice you glean from this piece?
From whose perspective does this advice come?
Do you find this advice compelling? Why or why not?
Once students have finished their work, reconvene and ask students to share the most compelling advice from each piece. Compile a list on the board and discuss the wisdom and limitations of the suggestions.
Ask: What advice here seems most useful? Despite all of this advice, what don’t you know about writing college essays? What role does the reader play in determining what works and what doesn’t? How can you account for individual, unknown readers as you write?
Tell each student to choose one piece of advice they found most compelling and to craft a college essay that puts this suggestion into practice. They might, for example, take a risk, as Dave Marcus suggested, or “bring the reader into a moment in [their] life” as one reader advised.
But first, they have to choose a topic. As one parent contributor to The Choice blog notes, crafting an essay is really a foray into memoir writing. And while all of the advice they have gathered is useful, the question of what to write about remains.
To help students begin to discover topics that make for good essay fodder, ask them to create a timeline of significant events in their lives. Ask them to really think broadly, aiming to get at least 20 items on their list. They should include “major” events like births, deaths, travel, coming of age rituals, or course, but also the more mundane moments they remember that have marked their lives in some way — a car ride, a dinner, a chance meeting, etc. (You might encourage them to respond to our Student Opinion question “What ‘Mundane Moments’ in Your Life Might Make Great Essay Material?” and read what other student commenters wrote.)
Then, ask them to talk in pairs or small groups about what patterns, ideas or themes emerge when they review their timelines. Are there significant people who crop up again and again? What about an experience that truly changed their perspective on things in an important way? What inspires strong emotion? What seems clichéd or potentially boring? (Allow students who are gravitating toward stories that are particularly personal to work independently.)
In their discussions, ask students to narrow possible topics for essays to three they think will help a college admissions committee “understand why [they] want the applicant.”
Going further | Students use the topics they generated in class to draft a college essay around the piece of advice they thought was the most useful.
Offer those students who are not satisfied with their topic some or all of the following 15 prompts to help them generate more ideas:
- A significant relationship I had or have:
- A treasured object I possess:
- A time I took a risk:
- A time I felt humbled:
- One thing very few people know about me is:
- Something I regret:
- A time when I was, or felt, rejected:
- Something I am really proud of:
- Something that changed the way I think or look at the world:
- How I am different from most people I know:
- My greatest fear:
- A time I felt truly satisfied:
- A person I admire:
- An object I own that tells a lot about me:
- Something funny that I did or that happened to me:
Students who are still stuck might benefit from looking at these personal writing ideas from The Times. Or they might make their own creative prompts.
When students are finished drafting their essays, ask them to bring in their drafts for peer review. Use your favorite method or one of the options presented in our lesson Getting Personal, including using the College Essay Checklist (PDF). You might also suggest that students seek feedback from their school college counselor.
Standards | This lesson is correlated to McREL’s national standards (it can also be aligned to the new Common Core State Standards):
1. Uses the general skills and strategies of the writing process
5. Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process
7. Uses general skills and strategies to understand a variety of informational texts
8. Uses listening and speaking strategies for different purposes
Life Skills: Working With Others
1. Contributes to the overall effort of a group
4. Displays effective interpersonal communication skills
1. Understands that group and cultural influences contribute to human development, identity and behavior
2. Understands various meanings of social group, general implications of group membership and different ways that groups function
3. Understands that interactions among learning, inheritance and physical development affect human behavior
4. Understands conflict, cooperation and interdependence among individuals, groups, and institutions
Arts and Communication
3. Uses critical and creative thinking in various arts and communication settings
4. Understands ways in which the human experience is transmitted and reflected in the arts and communication