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How to brainstorm, unify and write your essay

For the First Five Minutes, Imagine a Debate to Help you Brainstorm
So you're sitting in the MCAT, and you just opened your first essay. Now is not the best time for writer's cramp. Take a deep breath. One thing veteran writers learn is the value of a 'generative device'. A generative device is a trick you play on yourself to get the ideas flowing. With my students over the years, we developed a generative device that helps you get started with the MCAT essay. For the first five minutes, imagine that you are witnessing 'debate night' at the local auditorium with the topic your essay prompt. Imagine the debate and write down a few notes about what you hear. Try to write one or two good sentences for each of the three tasks. Take about two minutes for each.
So in my small group course over the years, I would teach my students this game for the first five minutes to get their ideas going. I hate to say this, but learning this game practically guarantees that even a minimally literate person will earn at least an above average score on the MCAT essay. Is that justice? Mom and dad had the big bucks to pay me and their kids are now doctors! So work hard so you can do the same for your kids!! Anyway, here it is:

Imagine that your essay were the evening's topic at a debating club. The first speaker argues for the thesis. The second speaker argues for the antithesis. The third speaker is the wisest of all, representing the synthesis. The third speaker's point of view is like the point of view of the chorus of a Greek tragedy, who arrives at the end to explain the deeper truth.

So, take a couple of minutes for each task, no more than one or two, and imagine that you were watching the debate and take some notes on a piece of scratch paper. Write down one or two good, clear sentences that might be used in each stage of the debate.
Decide on which way you lean to unify the essay

Now that you have a few notes, look them over, and think about how you feel about the argument. It will nearly always be better for the overall unity of your essay if you consciously tilt the voice of the writing a little bit towards either the Thesis or Antithesis. With an MCAT prompt, there are always worthwhile arguments on both sides, so you must not lean so far that you set up the other as a 'Straw Man'. Creating a position that is artificially easy to refute, setting up a Straw Man is a logical fallacy that is one of the hallmarks of weak argument.
Leaning the essay a little bit one way or the other is how you generate dynamic critical energy, and give the essay a unified voice. Think about it. You are asked to describe a point of view. Next you are asked to take a critical perspective. Leaning a bit one way or the other signals to the reader that there is an author behind the essay with a point of view. Giving the essay a authorial voice is how you create a unified critical progression.
  • If you decide to lean towards the thesis, you voice the thesis with strong, declarative sentences, and then your discussion of the antithesis is modulated just a bit to give the reader a sense that you are taking an interlude to voice and address some worthy criticisms. Use a few rhetorical devices such as 'It could be argued with some validity that . . . ' or 'Many people strongly believe that . . .' to show that you are taking some time to address some criticisms which may be raised against the thesis. You make strong arguments, but just put a little bit of distance.
  • If you decide to lean towards the antithesis, you start out with a voice describing the thesis which is modulated to convey a sense of provisional understanding. You are questioning this interesting idea. Trying it out. Investigating it. Then, when you reach the second task, the voice of antithesis is stronger and more declarative.
  • But always, with the synthesis you give consideration to both sides. Keep your overall point of view, but show how reflection allows you to develop a new understanding and reconciliation of thesis and antithesis.

Writing the Essay

After the first five or six minutes, you now have a nice set of notes with a sentence or two for each of the three tasks. You have a sense of your overall point of view, your lean, and so you begin. The art of composition is balancing between the sense of overall form, which transcends the moment of writing and guides it, and the creativity of the moment itself. Too much structure, and the essay is stultified and dull, formulaic. Too much freedom, and the essay is a formless stream-of-consciousness. If you practice balance, you will become a good writer. A big part of balance is trusting yourself. Now that you have taken the time to structure the essay beforehand, trust yourself to be creative as you write.
Usually, at some stage in the composition, within a task, some break-point or transition will occur to you. If this happens, welcome it, because it will allow you to make at least one of the tasks two paragraphs. Think about the point of view of the graders. Three tasks. Three paragraphs. Over and Over. If you can use the paragraph unit to introduce a bit of depth and complexity within a task, it will be pleasing to the reader. I guarantee it. I suspect that the four paragraph essays score a point higher just by default.
Now you need to practice writing at least one of these every other module. If you do this, you will have a good mastery of this form going into the test.