Writing an introduction can be hard; writing a conclusion is even harder. How does a student close a paper without summarizing what has already been said or introducing new material without time to fully unpack it? Below are two methods for writing effective conclusions:
The Circle Back / Echo (by Melissa Smith)
Ask students if they can identify an interesting word or phrase from the introduction or early in their first body paragraph that they can link back to in their conclusion. We certainly want to avoid regurgitating thesis statements and summarizing what’s already been stated; that’s not the goal of this strategy. The circle back method requires some finesse and stylistic nuance—because in order for it to be effective, it should only be a whisper or an echo from the opening. But when executed skillfully, the echo can give the paper a cyclical completeness, and possibly even serve as a wow-moment.
Here’s an example from a previous student’s college application essay (which is the type of writing I find this method of conclusion to work most wonderfully for)
This is his introduction:
With a grimace, I sat up in my bed as the doctor came in, my body groaning in protest.
My heart began to beat a little bit quicker as he greeted my mother and me. My stare locked on
to the papers in his hands, knowing they held the results of my latest blood samples. For two
weeks, the results had been coming back negative, condemning me to continue my hospital
stay, but each day, I managed to hang on to a sliver of hope. One day, I was sure, my numbers
would be high enough to resume life outside the lonely hospital. After an agonizing wait, the
doctor held up the paper and began to read.
And his conclusion:
The journey was wrought with adversity, but now as I look back with pride on the barriers
I passed and the things I accomplished, my failure has provided its final gift. I had no idea what
was coming when I accepted my own challenge in that hospital bed. Overcoming the struggles
and strife that were to follow has now given me the confidence in myself to know I can do what
is necessary to achieve my goals. My resilience after this failure has given me these three traits
that will help me finish high school, complete college, and enter the workforce as a productive
and impactful citizen.
AP Central also has a solid example in their posted exemplar essays online. This one is from 2010B and it scored an 8.
In the excerpt from Maxine Clair’s “Cherry Bomb,” the adult narrator recounts her memories of her fifth-grade summer. Through the narrator’s story of her private box and her cherry bomb, Clair captures the innocence and youthfulness of childhood.
By the ending paragraph, where the narrator says that she kept the cherry bomb as a “momento of good times” suggests the importance of embracing and treasuring those childhood moments and memories, when all that was dangerous and scary in the world was the Hairy Man and when all your secrets could be safely tucked away in a cigar box.
And one of my former students circled back to her introduction in an analysis essay of Mary Oliver’s poem “Crossing the Swamp.”
We all must cross a swamp of some sort during the course of our lives. Be it a challenge within the workplace, within your family, or within yourself, the waters may become so deep that we feel we will never resurface again. Mary Oliver uses structure, figurative language, and shift in tone to convey the speaker’s evolving relationship with the swamp in her poem “Crossing the Swamp.”
Sometimes we must fall in order to realize that we have the power to get back up.
No repeating full ideas—just an echo is all they need—to give their essay a sense of closure and show off their style and voice.
Universal Truths / Extend the Idea (by Susan Barber)
Another way to concluding an essay is to connect the essay to a universal theme. This includes big picture ideas which expand and extends the essay forward to push the reader to consider broad implications about humanity. When forming this type of conclusion, students should consider what universal truth they want the reader to be thinking about at the end of the essay then explain how the essay relates to this universal truth. These conclusions answer the “so what” and the “larger why” of the analysis.
Meredith Lawrence from Round Rock, TX has her students think about organizing essays using the following questions. This format lends itself perfectly to end with a conclusion about a universal theme.
What’s the answer to the question? (introduction)
How does the author develop this? (body paragraphs)
Why is this important? (conclusion)
Consider the following conclusions from exemplar essays:
“Igao’s cruelty is the cause of everyone’s, including his own, downfall, but he himself is not the only man responsible. His cruelty reveals more about his victims than it does about himself. It is shown through Desdemona that it is not necessary to become cruel when one has had cruelty done on himself, but many characters still fall prey to this. One cruel action fuels another, and the evil prevails when one has at least a hint of evil in himself. Cruelty functions in many ways, but it is nearly always guaranteed to bring more cruelty.”(FRQ3 – Cruelty AP Central)
Often the circle back and universal theme approach go hand in hand as seen in this college essay from a former student who is now studying at Notre Dame. I loved his essay about playing board games with his family which strongly showcased his voice. His conclusion effectively highlights a universal theme and also circles back to the introduction.
“I tossed the dice into the box lid, my brothers waiting on the edge of their seats. It was our second time of the day playing Settlers of Catan, and I was playing for back-to-back wins. Two and five made seven, so I got to steal a card! Being the good sport that I am, I chose to steal from my brother, Jack, as he was the only family member who’s settlement I had not already blocked. Sadly, my youngest brother Gus would beat me in the end.” (introduction)
“I realize that I can’t win every game. What I do know is that I can always keep improving my strategy. I know that stepping up to lead my peers makes life a whole lot more fun. I’m excited for my next opponent, whether it be Gus in chess or a disgruntled professor, and once it’s my turn, he’ll be in checkmate.” (conclusion)
In conclusion, avoid beginning conclusions paragraphs with the phrase “In conclusion.”
Don’t repeat the thesis verbatim in the conclusion.
Don’t throw in a random current event to make the paper relevant.
Avoid summarizing the paper.
There is no one right way to write a conclusion since conclusions are crafted from individual writers with different styles and voices. Our goal as teachers is to provide students with tools for writing effective conclusions through mentor texts, workshop, and specific feedback. In doing so, students will not view conclusions as an afterthought but rather a way to either bring closure to an idea or push the reader even further into thought. That’s all, folks. (Please tell your students not to end a paper this way).
From the parking lot, I could see the towers of the castle of the Magic Kingdom standing stately against the blue sky. To the right, the tall peak of The Matterhorn rose even higher. From the left, I could hear the jungle sounds of Adventureland. As I entered the gate, Main Street stretched before me with its quaint shops evoking an old-fashioned small town so charming it could never have existed. I was entranced. Disneyland may have been built for children, but it brings out the child in adults.
I thought I would spend a few hours at Disneyland, but here I was at 1:00 A.M., closing time, leaving the front gates with the now dark towers of the Magic Kingdom behind me. I could see tired children, toddling along and struggling to keep their eyes open as best they could. Others slept in their parents' arms as we waited for the parking lot tram that would take us to our cars. My forty-year-old feet ached, and I felt a bit sad to think that in a couple of days I would be leaving California, my vacation over, to go back to my desk. But then I smiled to think that for at least a day I felt ten years old again.