Create an outline before writing your essay to save time and improve quality

Please share story options in outline form 

Applicants trust Agos Admissions Consultants to help them select the best story that fits the questions BEHIND the question. Before spending hours writing a complete essay draft that might fail to impress admissions office readers, please share all possible answers with us. In your session, you and your consultant can discuss these options and pick the best one. Once you know that your story fits the question, please outline and write a full draft without worrying about the word limit. Cutting words from your story comes at the END of the brainstorming and drafting process.


As we read application essays, Agos Admissions Consultants ask ourselves four questions:

  1. Do I understand your story?

  2. Do I believe you made an impact?

  3. Do I care about the impact you made? 

  4. Do I think what you want me to think? For example, can I imagine you making a similar impact at your target school? 


The best Agos admissions consulting clients share ideas with us BEFORE they spend hours writing. Then, they continually scrap and build their story. They structure story options into a simple outline or framework.


For now, please share two or three story options. Which examples might fit the question? What are your reasons to choose (or perhaps NOT choose) a particular story?


Here is one possible structure for sharing your ideas with your consultant:



Please use the STAR method (or another simple framework that best fits the question) to organize your answer. STAR stands for situation, task, action, and result.

A STAR framework might look like this: 

1. Situation – What was the problem?

2. Task – What was your idea for how to solve the problem? Why did you think that idea would work? 

3. Action – What steps did you take? Of those action steps, which one seemed to have the most impact? What was the turning point?

4. Result – What happened in the end? What impact did your actions have on others? Can you quantify your results with numbers such as money or percentages? Can you qualify your impact with words like first, youngest, only, or best?


Finally, please tell us how you feel about this story. What are the pros and cons of selecting it? List the 


Pros (reasons to use this story)



Cons (reasons NOT to use this story)














































I have compiled several frameworks that my clients use to structure their essay and interview answers. Use them, but do not abuse them.
Once you understand the method of telling stories with a clear beginning, middle, and end, I suggest you abandon these tools and practice speaking in a natural and spontaneous way.
Remember, your interview is a conversation. Do you enjoy meeting new people? Show your interpersonal skills at the interview - you can impress your interviewer and boost your chances of admission.



PAR stands for Problem-Action-Results
  • First you state the problem that existed in your workplace, then you describe what you did about it, and finally you point out the beneficial results.
  • Here’s an example: “Transformed a disorganized, inefficient warehouse into a smooth-running operation by totally redesigning the layout; this saved the company thousands of dollars in recovered stock.”
  • Another example: “Improved an engineering company’s obsolete filing system by developing a simple but sophisticated functional-coding system. This saved time and money by recovering valuable, previously lost, project records.”

Write Accomplishment Statements

For each accomplishment, write out not only what you did (the key skills and actions you took), but describe the problem as well as the result. Accomplishment statements can highlight one primary action and result or may contain a few lines of information that stress additional skills and specific results.
Use the Problem-Action-Result (PAR) approach for each accomplishment
State the Problem - (The challenge, need, opportunity or goal.) Aim to state the main problem/challenge in one to two sentences. This provides the context for the actions you took.
State the Key Actions Performed - (Begin each sentence with a key skill word.) This helps to target your skills to the requirements of the job.
State the Result - (Quantify the result(s) when possible.) Use percentages, numbers etc. to demonstrate the significance of your actions. If you cannot quantify the result, try to qualify the result by stating the type of improvement you observed.
  • Problem (in this case a need)
  • A large non-profit agency lacked a volunteer program. Valuable staff time was used to perform services which volunteers could do.


  • Action (key skills used)
  • Researched volunteer management theories. Interviewed volunteer coordinators. Prepared a cost/benefit analysis of hiring a coordinator to recruit and train volunteers. Drafted and submitted a proposal.


  • Result (quantify or qualify benefits of your actions)
  • The organization created a full-time position that expanded the agency services and maximized staff time.

Summarized PAR for Use in Resume

Expanded agency's service and maximized staff effectiveness by researching and recommending new volunteer program with a full-time volunteer coordinator.
Incorporate your completed accomplishment statements into the body of your resume and expand upon these accomplishments in your interview to communicate the specific skills and unique benefits you bring to the position.

(found at; accessed 2009/10)
Source for above plus other "par" related info here:


Variation 1: R-PAR

I suggest using a modified PAR template: R-PAR. Put the result at the beginning.
  • Results (headline)
  • Problem
  • Action
  • Results (paraphrase)


Variation 2: STAR

  1. Situation: give an example of a situation you were involved in that resulted in a positive outcome

  2. Task: describe the tasks involved in that situation / what was your ultimate goal? try to define your task as narrowly as possible

  3. Action: talk about the various actions involved in the situation’s task. Show your progress in implementing your idea / trying to reach your task. This should include:

    • Problems - what obstacles did you encounter that threatened your project / kept you from achieving your task? How did colleagues and/or supervisors resist your efforts?

    • Solutions - specific actions and decisions you took to overcome the obstacles. How did you overcome the resistance of others?

  4. Results: what results directly followed because of your actions? show the impact of your success as broadly as possible

  5. Takeaways/Learnings: what did you learn from this experience?

  6. Application: when have you applied your lessons in another situation (optional in many cases but good for brainstorming to test if your "learning" was real).


Example of a STAR Answer

Situation: During my internship last summer, I was responsible for managing various events.

Task: I noticed that attendance at these events had dropped by 30% over the past 3 years and wanted to do something to improve these numbers.

Action: I designed a new promotional packet to go out to the local community businesses. I also included a rating sheet to collect feedback on our events and organized internal round table discussions to raise awareness of the issue with our employees.

Result: We utilized some of the wonderful ideas we received from the community, made our internal systems more efficient and visible and raised attendance by 18% the first year.

(found at; accessed 2011/10)


Variation 3: PART

  • Problem

  • Action

  • Results

  • Takeaway (what you learned)



Variation 4: SOAR

  • Situation

  • Obstacle

  • Action

  • Result

Provide a structured framework to keep your answer clear and concise, while conveying how you effectively overcame the challenge.


Variation 5: SOFT

  • Situation

  • Obstacle

  • Failure

  • Takeaway (what you learned)




One of my writing gurus is Professor John Cochrane at The University of Chicago Booth School of Business. His "Writing Tips for Ph.D. Students" contains good advice for any writer. Here are some highlights from his article


  1. Use simple short words not big fancy words. “Use” not “utilize.” “Several” not “diverse”.

  2. Keep down the number of clauses in your sentences, and the number of things kept hanging.

  3. Every sentence should have a subject, verb and object. No sentences like “No sentences like this.”




How to Write an Outline

An essay outline is probably the most important friend you will have while writing your essay. It is the scaffolding of your paper and the skeleton of your ideas. It is the framework by which you will write a killer essay. And frankly, it is difficult to write one without an outline.
What is it?
An outline is a general plan of the material that is to be presented in a speech or a paper. The outline shows the order of the various topics, the relative importance of each, and the relationship between the various parts.
Order in an Outline
There are many ways to arrange the different parts of a subject. Sometimes, a chronological arrangement works well. At other times, a spatial arrangement is best suited to the material. The most common order in outlines is to go from the general to the specific. This means you begin with a general idea and then support it with specific examples.
Thesis Statement of Summarizing Sentence
All outlines should begin with a thesis statement of summarizing sentence. This thesis sentence presents the central idea of the paper. It must always be a complete, grammatical sentence, specific and brief, which expresses the point of view you are taking towards the subject.
Types of Outlines
The two main types of outlines are the topic outline and the sentence outline. In the topic outline, the headings are given in single words or brief phrases. In the sentence outline, all the headings are expressed in complete sentences.
Rules for Outlining

1. Subdivide topics by a system of numbers and letters, followed by a period.












2. Each heading and subheading must have at least two parts.

3. Headings for parts of the paper of speech such as, Introduction and Conclusion, should not be used.

4. Be consistent. Do not mix up the two types of outlines. Use either whole sentences of brief phrases, but not both.




Topic Outline
Choices in College and After
Thesis: The decisions I have to make in choosing college courses, depend on larger questions I am beginning to ask myself about my life’s work.

    I. Two decisions described

A. Art history or chemistry

1. Professional considerations

2. Personal considerations

B. A third year of French?

1. Practical advantages of knowing a  foreign  language

2. Intellectual advantages

3. The issue of necessity

    II. Definition of the problem

A. Decisions about occupation

B. Decisions about a kind of life to lead

    III. Temporary resolution of the problem

A. To hold open a professional possibility: chemistry

B. To take advantage of cultural gains already made: French



Sentence Outline

Choices in College and After
Thesis: The decisions I have to make in choosing college courses, depend on larger questions I am beginning to ask myself about my life’s work.
I. I have two decisions to make with respect to choosing college courses in the immediate future.
A. One is whether to elect a course in art history or in chemistry.
1. One time in my life, I planned to be a chemical engineer professionally.
2. On the other hand, I enjoy art and plan to travel and see more of it.
B. The second decision is whether to continue a third year of French beyond the basic college requirement.
1. French might be useful both in engineering and travel.
2. Furthermore, I am eager to read good books which are written in French.
3. How necessary are these considerations in the light of other courses I might take instead?
II. My problem can be put in the form of a dilemma involving larger questions about my whole future.
A. On the one hand I want to hold a highly-trained position in a lucrative profession.
B. On the other hand I want to lead a certain kind of life, with capacities for values not connected with the making of money.
III. I will have to make a decision balancing the conflicting needs I have described.
A. I will hold open the professional possibilities by electing chemistry.
B. I will improve and solidify what cultural proficiency in another language I have already gained, by electing French.


How to Write an Outline

An outline breaks down the parts of your thesis in a clear, hierarchical manner. Most students find that writing an outline before beginning the paper is most helpful in organizing one's thoughts. If your outline is good, your paper should be easy to write.
The basic format for an outline uses an alternating series of numbers and letters, indented accordingly, to indicate levels of importance. 
Here is an example of an outline on a paper about the development of Japanese theater:
I. Thesis: Japanese theater rose from a popular to elite and then returned to a popular art form. The thesis is stated in the first section, which is the introduction.
  • II. Early theatrical forms
    • A. Bugaku
    • B. Sarugaku
    • C. Primitive Noh
    • D. Authors and Audience
  • III. Noh theater
    • A. Authors
    • B. Props
      • 1. Masks
        • a. women
        • b. demons
        • c. old men
      • 2. Structure of Stage
    • C. Themes
      • 1. Buddhist influence
      • 2. The supernatural
    • D. Kyogen interludes
    • E. Audience
  • IV. Kabuki
    • A. Authors
    • B. Props
      • 1. make-up
      • 2. special effects
    • C. Themes
      • 1. Love stories
      • 2. Revenge
    • D. Audience
  • V. Bunraku (puppet) theater
    • A. Authors
    • B. Props
    • C. Themes
      • 1. Love stories
      • 2. Historical romances
    • D. Audience
The body follows the introduction, and breaks down the points the author wishes to make. Note that some section have subdivisions, others do not, depending on the demands of the paper. In this outline, II, III, & IV all have similar structure, but this will not necessarily be true for all papers. Some may only have three major sections, others more than the five given here.  
VI. Conclusion Your conclusion should restate your thesis, and never introduce new material.
When you begin writing an essay outline, use the following model as a guide:
Opening Sentence:___________________________________________.
Detail 1:____________________________________________________.
Detail 2:____________________________________________________.
Detail 3:____________________________________________________.
Transition/Opening Sentence:_________________________________.
Detail 1:____________________________________________________.
Detail 2:____________________________________________________.
Detail 3:____________________________________________________.
Transition/Opening Sentence:_________________________________.
Detail 1:____________________________________________________.
Detail 2:____________________________________________________.
Detail 3:____________________________________________________.
Transition/Opening Sentence:_________________________________.
Detail 1:____________________________________________________.
Detail 2:____________________________________________________.
Detail 3:____________________________________________________.
Reconfirmed Thesis:_________________________________________.
If you use this rough guide and fill in the blanks as you are researching your essay, you will find writing the essay so simple. You have all you need in front of you. It is researched and organized. All you have to do now is fill in the blanks with transition words and smooth language.
Need more hints? Check out Vince's best writing links here ▸


Related articles



Show your essay to MBA alumni LAST, not first. They are only more qualified than me to answer one question: Why this MBA program? (Why Columbia? Why Wharton? Why Stanford?)

Remember, MBA alumni are experts on their EXPERIENCE. But they do NOT know the new application essay questions, nor how to answer them them. 

Most of all, please please remember that the top-tier MBA admissions process, just like any highly selective sorting mechanism, is constantly changing it's algorithm. Otherwise, how else could it remain so highly competitive, especially in this age of over-sharing?


Need more hints? Check out Vince's best writing links here



Information is subject to change. Please verify all data with the schools.


- Updated by Vince on 9 Apr 2016

  • I have been a full-time international graduate admissions consultant since 2002

  • Based in Tokyo, Japan, I help clients around the world 

  • In 2007, I launched VincePrep because I wanted to help the best candidates aiming for the top schools

  • To share my insights with a talented team, I rejoined Agos as Consulting Director in 2014 

  • Now, I lead 10 professionals who deliver Japan’s best graduate admissions results

  • I also serve as president-elect of The Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC)

  • Given my ongoing professional and personal commitments, I accept very few clients

  • Usually, I refer prospects to one of my highly-experienced and successful colleagues   

  • If interested, please complete this intake form

  • Meanwhile, please explore my YouTube channel, and be sure to subscribe for the latest updates

  • Thank you for your interest, and best wishes for your success!


Vince's clients
admitted since 2007
Kellogg  24
Stanford 1
Tuck  8
Wharton  26

+8 Fulbright Scholars

Full list here




"You encouraged me to be genuine, and helped me find the right, true stories that captured who I am. In this way, you offer applicants not only an effective admissions advisory, but also a unique journey of self discovery and empowering dreams."

Harvard Business School Class of 2015, with Fulbright Scholarship (also admitted Stanford GSB)


"First, you limit the number of your clients so that you can maintain the high quality of your services while many other MBA consultants accept clients almost beyond their capacity. Second, you are really great 'catalyst.' Each question you asked me made me think and thus deepened my stories. Thanks to you, I was able to come up with excellent ideas that I could never come up with alone."

Kellogg Class of 2015 (also admitted Berkeley Haas)


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