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Tips & Info: The First Draft

The first draft is just a preliminary version of your essay. Unless you've already written a polished essay in your head, the first draft will be rough, imperfect. But it will contain the main ideas you'll include in the final, revised essay. To facilitate the task of getting your ideas down on paper for the first time, keep in mind the purpose of the essay, who the readers are, and what they'll be looking for (see "Putting the Essay into Perspective"). Focusing on these factors should make it easier to decide what to write.

So where do you begin? Let's suppose you've already read the question and selected a topic (see "Selecting Your Essay Topic"). To use a hypothetical example, let's say the question is: "What do you consider to be the most influential event in your life?" Perhaps you decided your topic would be your victory in a swimming competition, or the first time you saw a constellation through a telescope, or the time you met a relative from overseas. Now how do you get turn your general topic into an essay?

ESSAY COMPONENTS First, consider that all essays have three main parts: thesis, body, conclusion. The thesis is the main idea, the guiding theme which sets the essay's tone, is consistently upheld and supported throughout. Think of the thesis as a one-sentence answer to the essay question. The body is a set of supporting paragraphs that fleshes out your thesis statement. Here you explain your thesis statement and give detailed evidence to support it. The conclusion of the essay refers back to your thesis statement and connects the body to the thesis. Let's look at how to create each of these components.

Thesis How do you come up with a thesis? Take your topic and focus on some aspect that is especially interesting and helps the reader to understand better who you are. Continuing with one of the examples above, let's say you selected the topic of meeting a relative from overseas as the most influential event of your life. Now take your topic and narrow it, reducing it to a specific statement that reveals important information about you in connection with the event. Your thesis statement might be as follows: "When I met my great aunt from Thessaloniki, I had the feeling I was encountering someone completely foreign, someone whose life could have no possible bearing on my own."

Notice how this statement gives an intriguing personal glimpse into your mindset at the time you met your aunt. The reader will expect you to explain why you had this initial impression and how your impressions changed through the course of subsequent encounters. This material will form the body of your essay, where you'll give details about how the event changed you, made you grow.

Before we consider how to tackle the body, however, it is important to establish that your thesis statement does not need to be the opening statement of your essay. In fact, it doesn't even need to be stated directly at all if it can be clearly implied. In any event, at this stage, you should not worry about phrasing. Just formulate your main idea, and think of the thesis statement as the central orienting concept of your essay which will come through plain and clear no matter where you place it, or whether you state it outright.

Body Your main task now is to support your thesis statement in the body of the essay. Show how meeting your great aunt influenced your life in particular ways. You could start by explaining your initial impression. Describe specific factors that struck you in your first encounter: her accent; features of her manners and dress; her stories about life in a faraway, alien land. Give the reader a picture in words of how you felt and how your initial interactions transpired, utilizing details.

Then describe how and why things began to change. Maybe start with specific events that catalyzed changes in your perceptions. For example, maybe it was when she talked all afternoon about your first-generation immigrant grandparents, revealing details about their lives that made you feel you understood them better than you ever had before; or when she told a fascinating story about taking part in the resistance movement during World War II that revealed her deep courage and inner strength; or when she confided that she was so deeply proudly of you and your accomplishments, and wished she had had your educational opportunities.

From here, describe how your perceptions and behaviors or plans were changed by these subsequent encounters. For example, maybe getting to know your aunt helped to enlarge your world view and lift you from a parochial perspective, to make you aware of a great and ancient culture, to make you hunger for a deeper understanding of Greek and Southeast European affairs, etc. From these changes in your thinking, perhaps you were inspired to begin tracking down other relatives from overseas, or to engage your grandmother in building an oral history of her life, or to study the Greek language and culture, or to visit Thessaloniki. The main point is: show in detail how the meeting changed your attitudes, your behavior, your life. Don't worry about how you'll present this evidence, or in what order. For now, just focus on getting the "story" outline and generating details to include.

Conclusion Finally, in the conclusion of the essay, connect the event and the specific ways it changed you to your decision to apply for college admission or for an academic award. For example, you could say that the changes you underwent after meeting your great aunt inspired you to apply to a university with a strong European area studies program, or to study abroad, to apply for a scholarship to fund studies abroad, etc. The main point is to connect your attitudinal and behavioral changes to your current plans. This will refocus the reader's attention on why you are applying for college admissions or an award.

PUTTING THE PARTS TOGETHER When you start writing your draft, just try to get the three basic elements above laid out in preliminary fashion. Nail down the main points you'll include in each part. At this stage, you might find it useful to create a rough outline of the essay's main points. At least jotting down some of your general thoughts before you write the essay out in full sentences will probably help. To summarize, your draft should contain each element below and flow from one element to the next as follows:

  • the subject posed by the essay question (an influential event), to
  • the topic you chose (meeting your great aunt from Greece), to
  • the thesis that your attitudes changed dramatically through meeting your great aunt, to
  • the body of the essay in which you lay out evidence of how your attitudes and behaviors changed, to
  • the conclusion that ties these changes to your decision to apply to a particular school and/or for a particular award.

Now take your outline or jotted thoughts and flesh out the essay's parts in full paragraphs and sentences without worrying about exact wording, phrasing, or organization. Aim for writing at least three paragraphs: one each for the thesis, body, and conclusion. Within each paragraph, make sure that you have at least one main idea. If you can come up with more material than the minimums suggested here, all the better. It is often less difficult to cut down an essay than it is to build it up.

You've now completed the first draft of your essay! Even if it's very rough, you have a base to build on. Your task now is to revise and refine the draft. Where do you go from here?

GETTING DISTANCE FROM YOUR DRAFT The most important thing you can do to aid the revision process is to "get some distance" from your writing. Stand back and try to see your essay as objectively as possible. This is difficult for any writer, no matter how experienced. All writers, even those who are highly critical of their work, tend to become invested in words and ideas they've committed to paper. The mind starts to run in ruts already plowed and it becomes difficult to lift out of them.

There are two steps you can take to increase your ability to see your essay objectively. First, give yourself time away from your draft before you start revising. A day or two, or at least several hours, is ideal. When you go back to your writing, you'll see its strengths and weaknesses with a clearer perspective.

The second step is even more important: don't go it alone. Revision can be a solitary process or a process in which you engage outside readers to get their feedback. It is strongly advisable to pursue the latter approach, which--not accidentally--is the route almost all experienced writers take as a matter of course. The main pitfall of going it alone is that you can easily end up stewing in your own juices without making much progress, being too committed to your own words and ideas to let go. This is even more likely when the writing is of an personal nature. Plain and simple: a good outside reader will help you see your essay more clearly, and your ability to improve the essay will be aided by having someone help lift you out of your myopic perspective. The revision process will be enriched and also perhaps considerably shortened.

For these reasons, and given the importance of the application essay to your future, it is imperative that you seek outside feedback as you revise. The earlier in the process the better. The more you keep fooling with the essay on your own, the more attached to the writing you will likely become. Also, as you might want to seek feedback more than once in the revision process, and perhaps from more than one reviewer, you should allow time for this to happen. Experienced writers often go back and forth with multiple reviewers before they consider their writing complete. For advice on obtaining useful feedback, see "Getting Feedback on Your Essay." For advice on how to go about revising, see "Revising Your Essay."

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