This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.
Writing the Personal Statement
The personal statement, your opportunity to sell yourself in the application process, generally falls into one of two categories:
1. The general, comprehensive personal statement:
This allows you maximum freedom in terms of what you write and is the type of statement often prepared for standard medical or law school application forms.
2. The response to very specific questions:
Often, business and graduate school applications ask specific questions, and your statement should respond specifically to the question being asked. Some business school applications favor multiple essays, typically asking for responses to three or more questions.
Questions to ask yourself before you write:
- What's special, unique, distinctive, and/or impressive about you or your life story?
- What details of your life (personal or family problems, history, people or events that have shaped you or influenced your goals) might help the committee better understand you or help set you apart from other applicants?
- When did you become interested in this field and what have you learned about it (and about yourself) that has further stimulated your interest and reinforced your conviction that you are well suited to this field? What insights have you gained?
- How have you learned about this field—through classes, readings, seminars, work or other experiences, or conversations with people already in the field?
- If you have worked a lot during your college years, what have you learned (leadership or managerial skills, for example), and how has that work contributed to your growth?
- What are your career goals?
- Are there any gaps or discrepancies in your academic record that you should explain (great grades but mediocre LSAT or GRE scores, for example, or a distinct upward pattern to your GPA if it was only average in the beginning)?
- Have you had to overcome any unusual obstacles or hardships (for example, economic, familial, or physical) in your life?
- What personal characteristics (for example, integrity, compassion, and/or persistence) do you possess that would improve your prospects for success in the field or profession? Is there a way to demonstrate or document that you have these characteristics?
- What skills (for example, leadership, communicative, analytical) do you possess?
- Why might you be a stronger candidate for graduate school—and more successful and effective in the profession or field than other applicants?
- What are the most compelling reasons you can give for the admissions committee to be interested in you?
Answer the questions that are asked
- If you are applying to several schools, you may find questions in each application that are somewhat similar.
- Don't be tempted to use the same statement for all applications. It is important to answer each question being asked, and if slightly different answers are needed, you should write separate statements. In every case, be sure your answer fits the question being asked.
Tell a story
- Think in terms of showing or demonstrating through concrete experience. One of the worst things you can do is to bore the admissions committee. If your statement is fresh, lively, and different, you'll be putting yourself ahead of the pack. If you distinguish yourself through your story, you will make yourself memorable.
- Don't, for example, state that you would make an excellent doctor unless you can back it up with specific reasons. Your desire to become a lawyer, engineer, or whatever should be logical, the result of specific experience that is described in your statement. Your application should emerge as the logical conclusion to your story.
Find an angle
- If you're like most people, your life story lacks drama, so figuring out a way to make it interesting becomes the big challenge. Finding an angle or a "hook" is vital.
Concentrate on your opening paragraph
- The lead or opening paragraph is generally the most important. It is here that you grab the reader's attention or lose it. This paragraph becomes the framework for the rest of the statement.
Tell what you know
- The middle section of your essay might detail your interest and experience in your particular field, as well as some of your knowledge of the field. Too many people graduate with little or no knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the profession or field they hope to enter. Be as specific as you can in relating what you know about the field and use the language professionals use in conveying this information. Refer to experiences (work, research, etc.), classes, conversations with people in the field, books you've read, seminars you've attended, or any other source of specific information about the career you want and why you're suited to it. Since you will have to select what you include in your statement, the choices you make are often an indication of your judgment.
Don't include some subjects
- There are certain things best left out of personal statements. For example, references to experiences or accomplishments in high school or earlier are generally not a good idea. Don't mention potentially controversial subjects (for example, controversial religious or political issues).
Do some research, if needed
- If a school wants to know why you're applying to it rather than another school, do some research to find out what sets your choice apart from other universities or programs. If the school setting would provide an important geographical or cultural change for you, this might be a factor to mention.
Write well and correctly
- Be meticulous. Type and proofread your essay very carefully. Many admissions officers say that good written skills and command of correct use of language are important to them as they read these statements. Express yourself clearly and concisely. Adhere to stated word limits.
- A medical school applicant who writes that he is good at science and wants to help other people is not exactly expressing an original thought. Stay away from often-repeated or tired statements.
For more information on writing a personal statement, see the personal statement vidcast.
This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.
Examples of Successful Statements
Below are samples of personal statements. You may also select "Sample Statement" in the Media Box above for a PDF sample.
My interest in science dates back to my years in high school, where I excelled in physics, chemistry, and math. When I was a senior, I took a first-year calculus course at a local college (such an advanced-level class was not available in high school) and earned an A. It seemed only logical that I pursue a career in electrical engineering.
When I began my undergraduate career, I had the opportunity to be exposed to the full range of engineering courses, all of which tended to reinforce and solidify my intense interest in engineering. I've also had the opportunity to study a number of subjects in the humanities and they have been both enjoyable and enlightening, providing me with a new and different perspective on the world in which we live.
In the realm of engineering, I have developed a special interest in the field of laser technology and have even been taking a graduate course in quantum electronics. Among the 25 or so students in the course, I am the sole undergraduate. Another particular interest of mine is electromagnetics, and last summer, when I was a technical assistant at a world-famous local lab, I learned about its many practical applications, especially in relation to microstrip and antenna design. Management at this lab was sufficiently impressed with my work to ask that I return when I graduate. Of course, my plans following completion of my current studies are to move directly into graduate work toward my master's in science. After I earn my master's degree, I intend to start work on my Ph.D. in electrical engineering. Later I would like to work in the area of research and development for private industry. It is in R & D that I believe I can make the greatest contribution, utilizing my theoretical background and creativity as a scientist.
I am highly aware of the superb reputation of your school, and my conversations with several of your alumni have served to deepen my interest in attending. I know that, in addition to your excellent faculty, your computer facilities are among the best in the state. I hope you will give me the privilege of continuing my studies at your fine institution.
(Stelzer pp. 38-39)
Having majored in literary studies (world literature) as an undergraduate, I would now like to concentrate on English and American literature.
I am especially interested in nineteenth-century literature, women's literature, Anglo-Saxon poetry, and folklore and folk literature. My personal literary projects have involved some combination of these subjects. For the oral section of my comprehensive exams, I specialized in nineteenth century novels by and about women. The relationship between "high" and folk literature became the subject for my honors essay, which examined Toni Morrison's use of classical, biblical, African, and Afro-American folk tradition in her novel. I plan to work further on this essay, treating Morrison's other novels and perhaps preparing a paper suitable for publication.
In my studies toward a doctoral degree, I hope to examine more closely the relationship between high and folk literature. My junior year and private studies of Anglo-Saxon language and literature have caused me to consider the question of where the divisions between folklore, folk literature, and high literature lie. Should I attend your school, I would like to resume my studies of Anglo-Saxon poetry, with special attention to its folk elements.
Writing poetry also figures prominently in my academic and professional goals. I have just begun submitting to the smaller journals with some success and am gradually building a working manuscript for a collection. The dominant theme of this collection relies on poems that draw from classical, biblical, and folk traditions, as well as everyday experience, in order to celebrate the process of giving and taking life, whether literal or figurative. My poetry draws from and influences my academic studies. Much of what I read and study finds a place in my creative work as subject. At the same time, I study the art of literature by taking part in the creative process, experimenting with the tools used by other authors in the past.
In terms of a career, I see myself teaching literature, writing criticism, and going into editing or publishing poetry. Doctoral studies would be valuable to me in several ways. First, your teaching assistant ship program would provide me with the practical teaching experience I am eager to acquire. Further, earning a Ph.D. in English and American literature would advance my other two career goals by adding to my skills, both critical and creative, in working with language. Ultimately, however, I see the Ph.D. as an end in itself, as well as a professional stepping stone; I enjoy studying literature for its own sake and would like to continue my studies on the level demanded by the Ph.D. program.
(Stelzer pp. 40-41)
This handout provides information about writing personal statements for academic and other positions.
Advice from Admissions Representatives
Director of Admissions and Aid
The University of Chicago Graduate School of Business
The mistake people make most often is not to look at what the questions are asking. Some people prepare generic statements because they're applying to more than one school and it's a lot of work to do a personal essay for each school. On the other hand, generic statements detract from the applicant when we realize that we're one of six schools and the applicant is saying the same thing to each and every school despite the fact that there are critical differences between the kinds of schools they may be applying to. They don't take the time. They underestimate the kind of attention that is paid to these essays. Take a look at what the essay asks and deal with those issues articulately and honestly.
At least two, and sometimes three, people read each essay. I read them to make the final decision. Our process works so that each person who reads the application does a written evaluation of what hthey have read and the written evaluations are not seen by the other reader.
(Adapted from Stelzer, p. 49)
Director of Admissions and Financial Aid
J. L. Kellogg Graduate School of Management (Northwestern University)
We're looking for a well-written, detailed essay that responds directly to the question. The questions are about extracurricular activities, motivation, challenges, commitment to the school, that kind of thing. We see a variety and that's fine. Our approach is very individualized. The way the applicant devises the answer, determines the length, develops the response, is all part of the answer. The level of effort applicants put into essays varies considerably, which sends messages to the admissions committee as well. Over-involved, elaborate essays send one message, while very brief and superficial essays send another message.
Trying to second-guess what we are looking for is a common mistake—which we can sense.
We can tell when applicants use answers to other schools' questions for our essays; we're sensitive to this. Poorly written essays are a bad reflection on the applicant.
Don't over-elaborate; we're reading a lot of these kinds of essays. Also, don't be too brief or superficial. We like to have major ideas presented well.
(Adapted from Stelzer, p. 55)
Michael D. Rappaport
Assistant Dean of Admissions
UCLA School of Law
Applicants should take the time to look at what the law school is asking them to write about. At UCLA, we say, "We know you have lots of extracurricular activities—we want to know how you differ, what makes you unique? What can you bring to the first year class that's going to make you distinctive from the other 99 people who are already there?" The fact that you were active in your fraternity or sorority is really not going to do it. What we're looking for is somebody who, in their personal statement, stands out as being so unusual, so diverse, that they're extremely attractive as a law student for the first-year class. Maybe what's going to make them distinctive is the fact they spent six months living in a log cabin in Alaska. You try to give the law school some justification for admitting you. With a lot of people, there's nothing that's going to make them distinctive. If that's the case, they've got to recognize that, indeed, the essay is not going to make that much difference here at UCLA.
We're also asking if there's any reason their LSAT or grades are not predictive of their abilities. You'd be amazed at the number of people who completely ignore this—they don't take advantage of the opportunity.
Most law schools operate fairly similarly. There's a certain group of applicants whose grades and LSAT scores are so high that the presumption is that the applicants are going to be admitted unless they do something terribly stupid to keep themselves out. I have seen applicants whose personal statement has done that, but it's extremely rare. At the other extreme is another group of applicants who, no matter what they write, are not going to get in.
The applicant has to realize, first of all, where they stand. If you have a straight-A grade point average and a perfect LSAT score, you don't have to spend a lot of time worrying about your personal statement. On the other hand, if you know you're in the borderline area, that's where the personal statement becomes very, very important.
The applicant should take the time to read the application to see what the schools are asking for. Sometimes the school will ask for a general description of why you want to go to law school, or why they should admit you, something of that nature. In such case you can be fairly sure that the school is just interested in the essay to see how well you write. So what you say isn't as important as how you say it. On the other hand, some schools are more specific—UCLA being a very good example of that.
Make sure the essay is grammatically and technically correct and well written. Avoid sloppy essays, coffee stained essays, or ones that are handwritten so you can't read them. You'd be amazed at what we get!
(Stelzer, pp. 70-71)
Director of Admissions and Financial Aid
University of California at Berkeley School of Law (Boalt Hall)
We're trying to gauge the potential for a student's success in law school, and we determine that, principally, on the basis of what the student has done in the past. The personal statement carries the responsibility of presenting the student's life experiences.
Applicants make a mistake by doing a lot of speculation about what they're going to do in the future rather than telling us about what they've done in the past. It is our job to speculate, and we are experienced at that.
Applicants also tend to state and not evaluate. They give a recitation of their experience but no evaluation of what effect that particular experience had on them, no assessment of what certain experiences or honors meant.
They also fail to explain errors or weaknesses in their background. Even though we might wish to admit a student, sometimes we can't in view of a weakness that they haven't made any effort to explain. For example, perhaps they haven't told us that they were ill on the day that they took the LSAT or had an automobile accident on the way. Such things are legitimate reasons for poor performance. I mean, we understand that life is tough sometimes. We need to know what happened, for example, to cause a sudden drop in the GPA.
Another mistake is that everyone tries to make himself or herself the perfect law school applicant who, of course, does not exist and is not nearly as interesting as a real human being.
Between l and 5 people read each application.
(Stelzer, p. 72)
Dr. Daniel R. Alonso
Associate Dean for Admissions
Cornell University Medical College
We look for some originality because nine out of ten essays leave you with a big yawn. "I like science, I like to help people and that's why I want to be a doctor." The common, uninteresting, and unoriginal statement is one that recounts the applicant's academic pursuits and basically repeats what is elsewhere in the application. You look for something different, something that will pique your interest and provide some very unique insight that will make you pay some notice to this person who is among so many other qualified applicants. If you're screening 5,500 applications over a four- or six-month period, you want to see something that's really interesting.
I would simply say: Do it yourself, be careful, edit it, go through as many drafts as necessary. And more important than anything: be yourself. Really show your personality. Tell us why you are unique, why we should admit you. The premise is that 9 out of 10 people who apply to medical school are very qualified. Don't under any circumstances insert handwritten work or an unfinished piece of writing. Do a professional job. I would consider it a mistake to attempt to cram in too much information, too many words. Use the space as judiciously as possible. Don't submit additional pages or use only 1/20th of the space provided.
Chairman, Committee on Admissions
Washington University School of Medicine
We are looking for a clear statement that indicates that the applicant can use the English language in a meaningful and effective fashion. We frankly look at spelling as well as typing (for errors both in grammar and composition). Most applicants use the statement to indicate their motivation for medicine, the duration of that motivation, extracurricular activities, and work experience. So those are some of the general things we are looking for in the Personal Comments section.
We also want applicants to personalize the statement, to tell us something about themselves that they think is worthy of sharing with us, something that makes them unique, different, and the type of medical student and future physician that we're all looking for. What they have done in working with individuals—whether it's serving as a checker or bagger at a grocery store or working with handicapped individuals or tutoring inner city kids—that shows they can relate to people and have they done it in an effective fashion? What the applicant should do in all respects is to depict why they are a unique individual and should be sought after. Of course, if they start every sentence on a whole page with "I," it gets to be a little bit too much.
(Stelzer, p. 82)
An excellent source of help is a book available in the Writing Lab (226 Heavilon Hall): Richard Stelzer's How to Write a Winning Personal Statement for Graduate and Professional School (Princeton, NJ: Peterson's Guides, 1989). $9.95
The book has guidelines for writing, examples of successful statements, and advice from admissions officers. This handout summarizes Stelzer's guidelines and contains a few of the examples he includes of statements and admissions officers' advice. If you wish to read more examples and do not purchase the book, you may read the Writing Lab's copy, which is on reserve in the lab.
Personal Statement: Top 10 Rules and Pitfalls
Writing the Personal Statement: Top 10 Rules
- Strive for depth rather than breadth. Narrow focus to one or two key themes, ideas or experiences
- Try to tell the reader something that no other applicant will be able to say
- Provide the reader with insight into what drives you
- Be yourself, not the 'ideal' applicant
- Get creative and imaginative in the opening remarks, but make sure it's something that no one else could write
- Address the school's unique features that interest you
- Focus on the affirmative in the personal statement; consider an addendum to explain deficiencies or blemishes
- Evaluate experiences, rather than describe them
- Proofread carefully for grammar, syntax, punctuation, word usage, and style
- Use readable fonts, typeface, and conventional spacing and margins
Writing the Personal Statement: Top 10 Pitfalls
- Do not submit an expository resume; avoid repeating information found elsewhere on the application
- Do not complain or whine about the "system" or circumstances in your life
- Do not preach to your reader. You can express opinions, but do not come across as fanatical or extreme
- Do not talk about money as a motivator
- Do not discuss your minority status or disadvantaged background unless you have a compelling and unique story that relates to it
- Do not remind the school of its rankings or tell them how good they are
- Do not use boring clichéd intros or conclusions
- "Allow me to introduce myself. My name is..."
- "This question asks me to discuss..."
- "I would like to thank the admissions committee for considering my application."
- "It is my sincere hope that you will grant me the opportunity to attend your fine school."
- "In sum, there are three reasons why you should admit me..."
- Do not use unconventional and gimmicky formats and packages
- Do not submit supplemental materials unless they are requested
- Do not get the name of the school wrong
- Do not incorporate technical language or very uncommon words
Stewart, Mark Alan. Perfect Personal Statements. New York: Simon & Schuster Macmillan, 1996.
The Academic Essay
The academic essay is merely a specific writing genreas is the love letter, newspaper editorial, or pop-fiction. As a genre, it functions within a set of norms, rules, and conventions. The purpose of this discussion is to make clear to you what those rules and norms are, and how to use them to express your argument clearly.
The purpose of the academic essay is to persuade by reasoned discourse. Scholars use the essay amongst themselves to advance ideas. Its value as an instructional tool is to assist students in developing their critical thinking skills. As you recall, critical thinking is defined as: the ability to read theory accurately, appropriate it meaningfully, apply it independently, generate results based on that application, analyze the results, and form a clear argument based on those results that can be defended with a specific line of reasoning.
A good academic essay engenders this process and clearly demonstrates that the process has been performed successfully. With this in mind let's examine how to write an academic essay.
Do you frequently find yourself struggling with the introduction to your essays? Do you not know how to begin the essay? Do you find yourself searching for a generalizing statement that will get things going, and trying to find a delicate balance between BS'ing and saying something meaningful? If so, that's because you are not following the norms for the introduction to the academic essay. Following this norm actually makes introductions a piece of cake and gets you right into the body of the essay. Here is the norm:
The purpose of the introduction is two-fold:
1. To introduce the theoretical framework that will guide your analysis
2. To introduce the thesis statement that will organize your paper.
Following this norm allows you to cut to the chase. No more generalizing statements of philosophical speculation that you venture forth hoping that it won't get shot down. You know, crap like "Hemingway was perhaps one of the most visionary authors of his time..." or "The Western is perhaps the most uniquely American of all the genres..." Rather, if the purpose of the essay is to demonstrate that you have appropriated a theory and applied it independently to produce results, then the function of the introduction becomes more focused: to introduce the theoryor theoretical frameworkthat you have decided to use. Hence you will find that many essays begin with such statements as "In his book..." Or, "In her essay..."
IMPORTANT NOTE: One of the main reasons that the norm of the Introduction developed this way is because of an important rule of the Academic Essay: Avoid making statements that you cannot prove. The problem with the generalizing/philosophical/BS'ing statements like "Hemingway..." and "The Western..." is that they cannot be proven through reasoned discourse. Moreover, to even try and do so would require voluminous amounts of discourse for something that is not even your thesis: what you actually ARE setting out to prove. As a result, the genre of the Academic Essay has evolved into the above norm. It still meets an introduction's purpose of orienting the reader, it just does so in a very specific manner.
Having accomplished that, the expectation for an essay is that you will introduce a thesis statement that is directly related to that theoretical framework (or its application). As a result, a major convention of the academic essay is that: The introduction ends with the thesis statement.
Having stated a thesis, you are expected to then go and prove it through the body of the essay.
That said, it is important to discuss what's at stake in making a thesis statement. There are four basic logical forms for a thesis statement:
A banal thesis statement
A simple thesis statement
A complex thesis statement
An impossible thesis statement
Let's discuss each of these quickly before moving on.
A banal thesis statement is a statement that does not really say anythingit is in fact meaningless because it is either so overly general or so evident as to not be of significance. Here's an example from literature. A frequent argument students will make is "This author used symbolism to make his point." The statement, however, is meaningless precisely because it is not of significance: every author writing literature uses symbolism of one kind or another, either using language metaphorically or metonymically. Thus, to attempt to single out or make a distinction of a piece for using "symbolism" is to not say anything that even needs proving to begin with.
A simple thesis statement is not quite what it may sound like. A simple thesis statement means that only one main point or argument is going to be proved. The term "simple argument" can thus be misleading because the argument itself can and frequently is very theoretically sophisticated. What makes them simple is that in terms of their logical structure, they only take on one line of proof, and hence, their organization of proof will be simple. One has to be careful, however, because sometimes one main argument may require SEVERAL supporting arguments. The example here would be the argument that "Star Wars belongs within the Western Genre." Here the writer has only one thing to prove, but in order to do so will have to establish the elements that comprise the Western Genre and demonstrate how the film embodies them--not a small task.
Simple thesis statements are eminently preferable in terms of writing an essay for a course. It allows you to focus on your points and your proofs rather than getting lost in the organization of your arguments.
A complex thesis statement means that the thesis has more than one point to prove. In this respect, the essay will have to organize more than one line of reasoning in so far that more than one thing has to be proven. Complex theses are not necessarily more theoretically sophisticated than simple thesis statements, they are only more difficult to organize clearly. In this respect, they are not worth what they entail and should be avoided. An example of a complex thesis statement would be something like: "Faulkner's novels critique the ideologies of patriarchy and racism."
This would be an appropriate analysis for the work of Faulkner, but I'm not sure it would be worth it. To begin with, it is not clear what the writer has to gain in terms of proving BOTH of these aspects of the work rather than just the one. Instead, with this complex thesis, there are going to be long sections of the essay where half of what needs to be proved will be left suspended while the other half gets discussed. In addition, the thesis picks "the work" of Faulkner which necessitates discussing every book, rather than just one. Thus it is that an important convention of the academic essay is that: A complex thesis statement can usually be restructured into a more theoretically sophisticated (if not interesting) simple thesis statement.
The impossible thesis statement is a kind of corollary of the banal thesis statement insofar as you want to stay away from it. Rather than saying something which is evident or meaningless, however, the impossible thesis statement puts forward something which cannot reasonably be proved, as a result of there being no agreed upon or stable criteria from which to render conclusions. Examples of impossible statements abound, but the one most related to this course would be "The Plague is great art," or "The Plague is the most realistic of all Camus' novels." In each case, there is no stable criteria. Take the first one. What distinguishes between "good" art and "great" art? Furthermore, the essay would not be able to point to a stable definition of "art", a concept that art historians, artists, and cultural critics have been arguing over for centuries. The latter thesis has a similar problem since "realistic" is not a stable concept with firm criteria.
Making an Argument
As stated earlier, the academic essay is an exercise in reasoned persuasion. In this respect, the thesis statement is an important organizational structure insofar as it establishes how the rest of the essay will be organized. Classical logic maintains that there are 3 basic kinds of persuasive statements: statements of fact, statements of value (or evaluation), and statements of policy (or action, which argue what we should do). Unless otherwise specified, the first of these, the statement of fact, is the form that the thesis statement for an academic essay should takethe obvious exception being when you write evaluative criticism (which you will NEVER do in my course).
Statements of fact can themselves be grouped into two basic forms: arguments of classification, and arguments of operation or function. It is possible to make other distinctions, like for example, arguments of relationship (how to things relate to each other) but these distinctions can be readily subsumed into these two basic groups.
Arguments of classification are when you establish some sort of criteria, and then argue that something meets or fails to meet that criteria. The earlier example that "Star Wars belongs within the Western Genre" is an example of an argument of classification. Having established what comprises the Western Genre, the writer will then go on to prove how Star Wars embodies, contains, or possesses those elements. The writer will, in other words, prove that Star Wars meets that criteria.
Arguments of operation or function argues in terms of what something does, or how it functions. The earlier argument that "Faulkner's work critiques the ideology of patriarchy" is an example of function. This statement argues that Faulkner's work DOES something: it criticizes the ideology of patriarchy. Note that unlike the argument of classification, the writer of this essay SEEMS to have to do more to prove their thesis. They will not only have to define what the ideology of patriarchy isand thus establish criteriathey will also have to demonstrate that Faulkner's work DOES something with that criteria. The question of HOW leads to a discussion of the body of the essay.
The Body of the Essay
From a conceptual standpoint, the function of the body of the essay is to prove the thesis statement laid out in the introduction. Easy enough. This section discusses how the writer accomplishes that proof.
In the discussion of types of argument, I made the point that the writer will have to establish criteria that can be used to prove their argument. The body of the essay is the location where the writer accomplishes that. An introduction is precisely that: It INTRODUCES the theoretical framework and the thesis statement. It does not DESCRIBE or DISCUSS these two things. This is a fairly common mistake that beginning essay writers make. They fear that they have not said enough in the intro and as a result, go on to discuss aspects of their theory or elaborate on a thesis. The problem with doing so is that it screws up your organization. What comes next is no longer clear to the reader.
If you keep it clear to yourself that the purpose of the introduction to your essay is to only INTRODUCE your theoretical framework, and your thesis statement, then the function of the body of your essay will also become evident to the reader. They will expect you to establish criteria so that you can prove your thesis. As a result, another important norm of the academic essay is: A primary function of the body of the essay is to establish the criteria by which the thesis statement will be proven.
Thus it is that having argued that Star Wars is a Western, the body of the paper is going to have to first establish the elements that comprise the Westernit will have to establish the criteria by which the thesis can be proven. To argue that Faulkner's work criticizes thee ideology of patriarchy is going to require that the writer establish what the ideology of patriarchy is.
Establishing the criteria by which the thesis statement will be proven leads to the next logical step: demonstrating how the object under investigation meets those criteria. Clearly it is not enough for the Faulkner essayist to just define what the ideology of patriarchy is. Their thesis is that Faulkner's work criticizes that ideology. As a result, they will have to point to specific things within the text and argue that they relate to those criteria IN A SPECIFIC WAYin this case through a process of criticism. This process of relating the object of investigation back to the established criteria is another fundamental component of the body of the essay. Without it, the proof is not complete. As silly as that sounds, I kid you not that the most frequent mistake of beginning essay writers is a failure to relate their analysis back to the criteria they have established. Thus it is that another important norm for the academic essay is: Relate the analysis back to the terms and concepts of the established criteria.
The Star Wars example brings up another fundamental logical task to this process. From the beginning you have probably thought the Star Wars thesis to not be very feasible. The film is not set in the West, and it occurs in the future. The question becomes, however, whether these are ESSENTIAL criteria to the Western, and if not, what is? In terms of proving that thesis statement, the writer is going to have to clearly establish what the elements of the Western Genre are, and then relate aspects of the film back to ALL of those criteria. Herein lies the essential importance of "completeness" to that process. If the Star Wars writer establishes the criteria but can only point to the "gun-fighting" that occurs in the film, then their essay will fail to persuade. Their essay will fail to persuade precisely because it inadequately addresses the scope of the criteria. Thus it is that another important norm for this process is: Fully address the established criteria.
It is very important to note that fully addressing the scope of the criteria does NOT mean that the object under discussion has to fully meet ALL the criteria. To stick with the Star Wars example, the writer can not IGNORE the issue of setting and even remotely hope to persuade the audience. In some way, the writer is going to have to address the fact that both time and place are out of the bounds of the Western. This is the point precisely. The author will have to ADDRESS that pointthose criterianot necessarily MEET those criteria. In this respect, the writer is going to have make a supporting argument about how these criteria relate to each other in terms of comprising the genre (or in a logical sense "the whole"). The important point is that all criteria are addressed adequately. Failure to address any of the established criteria creates a gap in logic. Subsequently, the reasoning process (and its ability to persuade) fails.
Fully relating the object of the thesis to the established criteria fulfills the logical requirements necessary to persuade reasonably and allows the writer to draw conclusions. Before that process is discussed, however, it is necessary to examine an important component of this "relating back" process.
The Role of Description
Relating "the object of investigation" or the "object of the thesis" back to the established criteria is necessarily going to involve description. Description is frequently an unclear and thorny issue for writers of the academic essayespecially in terms of scope (how much is enough?). The purpose of description, however, clarifies the issue of scope. The purpose of description to is to make clear, or establish WHAT in the object of investigation (the film, the scene, the shot) relates to the criteria being used. It therefore becomes important for the writer to use description in such a manner as to establish the basis of the relationship between the object and the criteria. Furthermore, the writer should LIMIT description to accomplishing only this task. Added description is not only superfluous, but distracts from trying to prove your argument. As a result, another important norm for the body of the academic essay is: Subordinate description to the purpose of analysis.
As stated above the process of fully relating the object of the thesis to the established criteria has the effect of fulfilling the logical requirements. It is THAT task which ultimately persuades, not the conclusion itself. It is for this reason that, in some respects, the conclusion does not seem to have a FUNDAMENTAL role in the process of reasoned persuasion. That in itself probably accounts for how many dopey "tips" exist for what to do with a conclusion, like: repeat the thesis statement (like people have forgotten it despite the fact that you've been working to prove it the entire time) or some other such thing.
What to do with a conclusion if the work of proof is already done? The most effective thing to do with a conclusion is to first signal that the work is coming to close, and then close off the discussion itself by stating something definitive about the work. Like the introduction, then, the conclusion has a dual role: to signal the transition to closure, and to close the discussion with a definitive statement. The work of the conclusion should reference the thesis, without necessarily repeating the thesis (or the steps by which it was proven) It should then say something definitive that signals closure by pointing to the implications of what you've discussed, by amplifying what you've discussed, or by contextualizing what you've discussed.
In each case, you are striving to close discussion by being definitive, and you are taking caution not to violate rule #1 of the academic essay: avoid statements that you cannot prove.
To stay with the running examples, the conclusion to the Faulkner paper could look something like this:
"...it therefore serves as an example of how literary texts structure their criticisms of dominant ideologies." (pointing to the implications of proving your argument).
"Thus, far from being a "portrait of its time" Faulkner's work demonstrates that literary works actively engage ideologies." (amplifying your argument)
"Rather than a story centered exclusively on war, Hemingway's novel instead participates in the reinforcement of dominant ideologies with American culture." (Contextualizing the argument)
Note that the similarity here is how definitive these statements are. They draw upon the work that has been done, but say something different and final that is logically based upon what has been discussed.
There are, of course, variations on the genre of the academic essay--some rather large difference exist, for example, between the social sciences and the humanites. This discussion is based on the humanties approach. Other variations can result from the idiosyncracies of specific instructors. To the degree that what is written here sounds heavy handed and inflexible, I caution instead that such tone is trying to reflect the manner in which your own analysis and writing will need to sound precise and rigorousthe standards by which the academic essay is evaluated.
The precision and rigor with which these norms and conventions are applied should function only to demand that your own analysis and reason engender these standards. They are thus meant to elevate your thinking, not control it. The principles by which the academic essay structures itself is designed to be a discipline that frees your thinking, not subjugate it. Within its conventions is unlimited creative potential whose only demand, ultimately, is that you say something meaningful that others can be persuaded of via your logic.
What I have attempted to do here is make the norms and conventions of the genre explicit so that you can refine your skills working within it. Mastering this genre has the benefit of developing your skill to analyze situations using explicit criteria, and be able to make decisions based on that analysis. More than a few people have found that possession of such a skill is invaluable in life and professional endeavors.