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Planning Your Outline

Writing an outline is the best way to ensure that you have a clear, structured, and well-organized essay in which key information is accessible and easy for the graduate school admissions officer to pick out. Keep in mind that the average admissions officer reads over thirty submissions per day, so you will want that key information to be as available to him or her as possible.  Making an outline will ensure that your information is conveyed strategically.

Your outline should be a bullet-pointed summary of all of your essay’s main points. The more work you put into your outline, the easier your essay-writing will be. Your outline should be written such that if your admissions officer only skimmed your outline, it would be enough to get you into the graduate program.

There are four main components to an outline: (1) a theme, (2) subcategories, (3) supporting evidence, and (4) introspection. You may take this content from your brainstorming (see Brainstorming Writer's Block Away for information on brainstorming).

  • Your theme is your main idea. Every single point that you make in your essay will relate to this main idea. The entire theme of your essay should be stated clearly and deliberately in your thesis statement.
  • The theme is then supported by subcategories—main points that illustrate your theme. Each of these subcategories will make up one body paragraph.
  • Then, each subcategory must include supporting evidence and introspection. Supporting evidence demonstrates your points, and introspection includes your insight and ideas that you have developed on those points.

Drafting your Outline

There are many different ways to outline a paper. The following is the best method for writers who are looking to achieve top-notch structure and organization in their papers (often the most difficult element of essay-writing). Also, keep in mind when you are writing an outline that your essay is still in its early stages, and that nothing has to be perfect. Very little, some, or most of your outline can change by the time you have a completed and polished essay.

Step 1: Write the first draft of your thesis (Developing Your Thesis). Because the thesis should include your theme, as well as a perspective on that theme, it should be no less than ten words, and at time may need to be split up into two separate sentences. Strong theses usually include two or three subcategories to be further elaborated upon in the body. This is your working thesis. Feel free to change it as you continue your outline.

Step 2: Write down your subcategories in bullet points beneath your thesis statement. Make them into clear and concise sentences that relate back to the thesis. These will introduce each body paragraph.

Step 3: After each subcategory, write 1-3 indented bullets that include your supporting evidence. These can be segments from a longer narrative that you thread throughout the essay, or short anecdotes or examples.

Step 4: Indented below each point of supporting evidence briefly cite one or two pieces of introspection. The introspection is derived from your personal perspective, or what you have deduced based on this evidence.

Step 5: Write your hook as a bullet underneath your thesis.

Step 6: Write the first sentence of your conclusion at the end of your outline.

Step 7: Add content. Include a few sentences as bullet points indented under your thesis, stating generally what you wish to write about (see Writing an Introduction to learn how to write an introduction). Do the same for your conclusion (see The Conclusion).

Below is a visual of an outline’s structure, next to which you will find a sample of an outline from Stacey, a student who is pursuing a masters for music education:
My passion for playing the piano has had a significant influence on many aspects of my character; it has taught me discipline, patience, and the value of hard work. Thesis statement containing my theme, my opinion, and a reference to subcategory a, subcategory b, and subcategory c.
The biggest travesty of my young adult life happened when I broke the pinky finger on my left hand. First sentence or hook.
Ø  Since I had first started playing the piano, I had not gone more than three days without practicing. Now, I had to spend two weeks apart from my instrument facing the prospect of never being able to play professionally. A few sentences briefly citing main points for my introduction.


I have learned that discipline is vital for becoming a professional musician. Topic sentence on subcategory a.
Ø  For the past four years, I have practiced for three hours a day. Supporting evidence for subcategory a.


Ø  I can commit myself in this way now to anything I do. I realize that being a music student requires discipline on many levels, and I can apply myself to even the most mundane work knowing that, in the end, I will benefit from it. Supporting introspection for subcategory a.
Learning difficult pieces on the piano has given me patience, which I now consider an invaluable attribute for an educator. Topic sentence on subcategory b.
Ø  Mathematics and science have always been subjects that have proven difficult for me. The preparation for calculus exams take double or triple the preparation necessary for history and language arts. However, if there was anything I did not understand, I always took care to seek extra help from a teacher or a peer. I know feel like I can relate to student that struggle while learning music. Supporting evidence for subcategory b.
Ø  Patience is not only a virtue, but an invaluable attribute that I take pride in. I have found that my patience has separated me from other, sometimes more talented musicians and has given me the necessary confidence to push through challenges. I feel that no task is unattainable, no student unteachable and that some simply require more attention than others. Supporting introspection for subcategory b.
Hard work is always necessary when studying music. Topic sentence on subcategory c.
Ø  Playing the piano is a skill that is not natural for anyone. It is only possible after rigorous training and countless hours spent on every piece. Supporting evidence for subcategory c.
Ø  For this reason, I have learned never to rely solely on natural ability. I revel in the opportunity to learn new disciplines and take the necessary steps to better myself. I would inspire my students to do that same and never give up on themselves. Supporting introspection for subcategory c.
Playing the piano has had a significant impact on my character. I have learned to extract the lessons I have learned from my time studying music and apply them to all aspects of my life, including teaching. First sentence of my conclusion: rehashing the thesis statement.


Ø  The qualities I have gained will make me into a passionate and dedicated graduate student and educator. Brief explanation of the conclusion’s content.

Once you have written your outline, you are ready to start writing. Be sure to check out our articles (and the rest of this eBook) on each of the components of your graduate program admissions essay!

Prompt’s Essay Specialists reviewed 13,000 admissions essays in 2018, helping thousands of students submit their applications with confidence.

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