Especially when lengthy application essays are permitted and desirable, and especially in the sciences, you might wish to include figures, tables, and equations within your personal essay, or they might be necessary to include in a part of the application where you describe an area of research or write a literature review. Obviously, the presentation of figures, tables, and equations must be both mechanically sound and necessary to the rapid understanding of the material. Both aesthetically and contextually, you should apply the same standards that you would if submitting material for publication.
Some commonly overlooked fundamentals of figures and tables follow:
- Figures are drawn or photographed pictures; tables are lists of numbers and words. Be sure to define them appropriately—many writers call a graphic a figure when it is really a table, or vice versa.
- Use line graphs to plot continuous variables (e.g., unbroken time measures); use charts or bar graphs to plot discontinuous variables (e.g., percentages that occurred in intervals).
- The caption for a figure appears below the graphic; for a table, above.
- Leave ample white space around the graphic that it doesn’t interfere with the reading of the text, but when considering space constraints keep in mind that modern word processing allows you to imbed graphics directly within paragraphs if needed.
- While producing a figure or table and its caption, follow the old maxim that the graphic could be ripped from the paper and still make sense. Thus you will caption the figure or table so that the reader can make immediate sense of the trend or data displayed.
- If using multiple graphics in your essay, refer to them consecutively by number, both within a relevant paragraph of text and within the caption.
- If the graphic comes directly from or is adapted from a source, it is critical that you cite the source after the caption, then include full bibliographic information for the graphic at the end of the essay.
For equations, follow these principles of aesthetics and grammar:
- Grammatically, treat an equation as a single noun that is a member of a sentence.
- Commonly, “we” is used to introduce equations, promoting the active voice and fluid readability.
- Short equations can be included as part of a sentence without any special spacing, as long as the equation flows within the sentence as a readable unit. Otherwise, equations are normally centered on the page, with a line skipped before and after. If an equation is too long for a single line, break it just before a “verb” or “conjunction.”
- When appropriate, define members of the equation just after presenting it, normally introducing those members with the word “where.”
- Equations may include punctuation marks after them, but your practice must be consistent within the essay.
For further detail about managing figures, tables, and equations, you can also visit Chapter 4 of the manual Style for Students Online.
For thorough discussion of the basics of figures and tables, check out these sites: