Common application essay format requirements
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How to Format A College Essay: 15 Expert Tips
When you’re applying to college, even small decisions can feel high-stakes. This is especially true for the college essay, which often feels like the most personal part of the application. You may agonize over your college application essay format: the font, the margins, even the file format. Or maybe you’re agonizing over how to organize your thoughts overall. Should you use a narrative structure? Five paragraphs?
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll go over the ins and outs of how to format a college essay on both the micro and macro levels. We’ll discuss minor formatting issues like headings and fonts, then discuss broad formatting concerns like whether or not to use a five-paragraph essay, and if you should use a college essay template.
How to Format a College Essay: Font, Margins, Etc.
Some of your formatting concerns will depend on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box on an online application form or attaching a formatted document. If you aren’t sure which you’ll need to do, check the application instructions. Note that the Common Application does currently require you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.
Most schools also allow you to send in a paper application, which theoretically gives you increased control over your essay formatting. However, I generally don’t advise sending in a paper application (unless you have no other option) for a couple of reasons:
Most schools state that they prefer to receive online applications. While it typically won’t affect your chances of admission, It is wise to comply with institutional preferences in the college application process where possible. It tends to make the whole process go much more smoothly.
Paper applications can get lost in the mail. Certainly there can also be problems with online applications, but you’ll be aware of the problem much sooner than if your paper application gets diverted somehow and then mailed back to you. By contrast, Online applications let you be confident that your materials were received.
Regardless of how you will end up submitting your essay, You should draft it in a word processor. This will help you keep track of word count, let you use spell check, and so on.
Now I’ll go over some of the concerns you might have about the correct college essay application format whether you’re copying and pasting into a text box or attaching a document, plus a few tips that apply either way:
Plus, online submission doesn’t require any stamps!
If You’ll Be Copy-and-Pasting Into a Text Box:
First, check that Your whole essay transferred over and wasn’t cut off!
Word counts can get messed up by wonky formatting or be counted differently in the text box, so be aware that you may need to make slight adjustments there.
When you copy and paste, You may lose formatting like bold or italics. Sometimes bold and italics also just won’t work in the text box, so you may be better off just not using them.
Your Paragraph spacing may get messed up when you copy and paste your essay over. So make sure that all of your paragraphs are clearly delineated, either through tabs or through a skipped line if tabbing doesn’t work.
Font will probably be standardized, but if it’s not, Choose a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial (you’ll probably have limited options anyways) and a normal size (12 pt).
If You’re Attaching a Document:
Use One-inch margins all around. This is standard and easy to read.
While single-spaced essays are usually acceptable, your essay will be easier to read if it’s 1.5 or double-spaced.
Clearly delineate your paragraphs. A single tab at the beginning is fine.
Use a font that’s easy to read, like Times, Arial, Calibri, Cambria, etc. Avoid fonts like Papyrus and Curlz. And use 12 pt font.
You may want to include a college essay heading with a page number and your application ID. Don’t include your name unless it’s specifically requested.
Oftentimes, you’ll need to submit your college essay in a specific file format. The application may only accept certain versions of Word files (i. e. only. doc and not. docx), .rtf or. pdf files. So just be sure that you are saving your file in an accepted format before you upload it! I recommend. pdf files whenever possible, because they are uneditable and always look the same.
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Formatting Guidelines That Apply No Matter How You End Up Submitting the Essay:
Unless it’s specifically requested, You don’t need a title. It will just eat into your word count.
Avoid cutesy, overly colloquial formatting choices like ALL CAPS or
Or, heaven forbid, emoji and #hashtags. Your college essay should be professional, and anything too cutesy or casual will come off as immature.
Keep these out of your essay!
How To Structure Your College Essay
Maybe you’re less concerned with the micro-level college essay format, like fonts, and more concerned with the macro-level format, like how to structure your college admissions essay. Is there’s some secret paragraph formula that will make writing easy and clearly express all of your strengths to an awestruck admissions committee?
Sadly, no. However, the good news is that A college essay is actually a good opportunity to play with structure a little bit and break free from the five-paragraph essay. (You’re certainly not disallowed from writing a five-paragraph essay, but it’s by no means guaranteed to be the best college essay structure.)
A good college essay is like a sandwich, where the intro and conclusion are the pieces of bread and whatever comes between them is the sandwich toppings. A sandwich without bread is a bad sandwich, but a good sandwich could have any number of things between the bread pieces.
So you need a clear introduction that gives a pretty clear idea of where you will be going in the essay and a conclusion that wraps everything up and makes your main point clear.
However, How you approach the middle part is up to you. You could structure your essay more like a narrative, relating an important experience from your life. You could use an extended analogy, where each paragraph is a part of the analogy. You want to adhere broadly to the wisdom that each paragraph should have an identifiable main idea, but a college essay is definitely a great chance to break free from the five-paragraph essay.
For more in-depth advice on how to structure your essay, check out our expert step-by-step guide on tackling the essay.
Mmm, delicious essay. I mean sandwich.
Why College Essay Templates Are a Bad Idea
You might see college essay templates online that offer guidelines on how to structure your essay and what to say in each paragraph. I strongly advise against using a template. It will make your essay sound canned and bland—two of the worst things a college essay can be. It’s much better to think about what you want to say, and then talk through how to best structure it with someone else and/or make your own practice outlines before you sit down to write.
You can also find tons of successful sample essays online. Looking at these to get an idea of different styles and topics is fine, but again, I don’t advise closely patterning your essay after a sample essay. You will do the best if Your essay really reflects your own original voice and the experiences that are most meaningful to you.
College Application Essay Format: Key Takeaways
There are two levels of formatting you might be worried about: the micro (fonts, headings, margins, etc) and the macro (the overall structure of your essay).
Tips for the micro level of your college application essay format:
- Always draft your essay in a word processing software, even if you’ll be copy-and-pasting it over into a text box.
- If you are copy-and-pasting it into a text box, make sure your formatting transfers properly, your paragraphs are clearly delineated, and your essay isn’t cut off.
- If you are attaching a document, make sure your font is easily readable, your margins are standard 1-inch, your essay is 1.5 or double-spaced, and your file format is compatible with the application specs.
- There’s no need for a title unless otherwise specified—it will just eat into your word count.
Tips for the macro levelOf your college application essay format:
- There is no super-secret college essay format that will guarantee success.
- In terms of structure, it’s most important that you have an introduction that makes it clear where you’re going and a conclusion that wraps up with a main point. For the middle of your essay, you have lots of freedom, just so long as it flows logically!
- I advise against using an essay template, as it will make your essay sound stilted and unoriginal.
Plus, if you use a college essay template, how will you get rid of these medieval weirdos?
If you’re not sure where to start, consider these tips for attention-grabbing first sentences to college essays!
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.
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College Essay Format (aka Structure) Step-by-Step + Examples
Written by Kate Stone, College Essay Guy Team
Mark Twain once said, “I like a good story well told. That’s the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”
At College Essay Guy, we too like good stories well told. The problem is that sometimes students have good stories… that just aren’t well-told. They have the seed of an idea and the makings of a great story, but the college essay format or structure is all over the place.
And what can happen if you don’t find a great college essay format when it comes to writing your essay?
The college admissions reader may see you as disorganized and
Your essay doesn’t make an impact.
So, if you’re here, you’re probably wondering:
How do I pick a college application essay format? How do I structure it? How do I outline it?
In short: How do I make my essay flow?
Good news: That’s what this post answers, in a step-by-step way.
College Essay Format (In a Nutshell)
Brainstorm the best topic.
Learn to structure your essay.
Decide on a structure that works.
Test and revise your essay to see if the format works.
TABLE OF CONTENTS
Step 1: How to Brainstorm a Topic
Before we even get to college admission essay format we HAVE to talk about topic. Why? Because without a great topic, the structure doesn’t matter (or it matters much much less).
So here’s our first bit of advice: choose a topic that is elastic. What do we mean by that? It means choosing a topic that stretches to talk about many different skills/qualities/values you possess.
How do you do this?
Spend about 10 minutes on each of these exercises.
We get it. You’re already like, “But I already have my topic—I just want to know how to make it better.”
But do you? Is this topic the best topic for you? Is it the most elastic topic you can find? Are you sure, if you’re sure, you can skip ahead. But if you’re not sure that this topic is your deepest story, spend a little time on the exercises above. You may find that you have not one, but several possible stories to tell (that’s a good things, btw).
Once you have a topic (or several topics) in mind, you’re ready to move on to college admission essay format (aka structure).
At College Essay Guy, we believe a good college essay should either go Deep, discussing one moment that fundamentally changed your life, or go Wide, discussing many different elements of your life. The Narrative Structure, will help you go deep, while the Montage Structure will help you go wide.
Step 2: Learn About the Different College Essay Formats and Structures
The narrative structure is the basis for the majority of American films today. This structure is time-tested and, therefore, pretty reliable. Joseph Campbell, who spent his life’s work decoding the mythological structure, called it the “Hero’s Journey.” The basic elements if this college essay format are:
Inciting Incident/Status Quo
Raise the stakes
Moment of Truth
Outcome/New Status Quo
This college essay format can work especially well for students who have faced challenges in their lives. Here’s how it works:
Status Quo: This the very beginning of the story, which establishes the world of the main character (that’s you). Then.
Inciting Incident/Status Quo: Something big happens: a new club, your family moves to a new city, a death in the family—this thing will change your life forever.
Raise the stakes: Then, the changes get even bigger! The new club loses funding, you’re getting bullied in that new city, that death in the family leads to financial difficulties. This step is important because it raises the dramatic tension. It leaves the reader wondering “How will this person get out of this situation?”
Moment of Truth: This is the climax of the story. The moment that will decide whether or not you will make it out of the problem. Will your club win that scholarship competition? Will you confront the bully and make a new friend? Will you discover a passion that will pull you out of your grief?
Outcome/New Status Quo: What happens after, aka the “so what” of the story. Ideally, you should end up with a few things you didn’t have before—talents, skills, values or a new perspective. Answering “so what” in a compelling way is (in our opinion) the key to a great college essay.
The montage structure works best when you prefer not to focus on a challenge, but instead want to focus on, say, 3-7 different qualities/skills/values and find a way to connect them.
But first, what is a montage? It’s an editing technique that involves creating a new whole from separate fragments (pictures, words, music, etc.) in which glimpses of a larger whole are juxtaposed to compress time and convey a lot of information in small vignettes or scenes (in your essay these will be your paragraphs). Consider the classic “falling in love” montage, commonly used in romantic comedies.
We don’t see every single interaction; instead, we see:
He surprises her at work with flowers.
They walk through the park.
They dance in the rain.
They pass an engagement ring store and she eyes a particular ring.
You get the idea. A few images tell the whole story. And you can use this technique for your essay. The juxtaposition of vignettes, anecdotes, or fragments of your life come together to create the overall message you want your reader to walk away with.
So, what vignettes should you choose? To help you decide, consider beginning by searching for a focusing lens for your college essay format. What’s that, you ask? It’s the thematic thread or element that connects all the vignettes. For one student, it was scrapbooking (Click here to read that essay). For another student the focusing lens was “travel and languages” (Click here to read that one). Here are some.
TIPS FOR FINDING A GOOD FOCUSING LENS
Make it visual. Storytelling is a visual medium. Use a lens that will help conjure images in the reader’s mind. We’ve had too many students try to write “soundtrack” or “mix-tape” essays in which their favorite songs provide the soundtrack for their lives. The problem with writing this type of essay, however, is that the reader can’t hear the music (and often doesn’t know or have the same emotional connection to the songs referenced).
Write what you know. Know how to cook? Use food. Play chess? Use that! Use your Essence objects list for ideas.
Find a focusing lens that allows you to “go wide.” Use a metaphor, in other words, that is “elastic” (i. e. stretchy) will allow you to discuss several different aspects of who you are.
Step 3: Pick a College Essay Format (i. e. Structure)
Here’s the simple difference between the Narrative and Montage Structures: while Narrative Structure connects story events in a causal way (X led to Y led to Z), Montage Structure is a college essay format that connects story events in a thematic way (X, Y and Z are all connected because, for example, they are all qualities of a great Endodontist).
Remember: There is no surefire approach for essay writing. No essay (or college essay format) will, on its own, get a student into a college. Many different students are accepted to colleges each year with many different types of essays. Having said that, the task of the college essay is to shape the student’s life into coherent narratives. And don’t be afraid of blending these college essay format if you can find a compelling way to do so.
Step 4: Test to See if Your College Essay Format or Structure is Working
First, take The Great College Essay Test to make sure your essay is doing its job. The job of the essay, simply put, is demonstrate to a college that you will make valuable contributions in college and beyond. So, how do you do it? We believe these four qualities are essential to a great essay:
Core Values (aka information)
Insight (aka ‘so what’ moments)
Core values are the things that are so important to you that you would fight for them. Here’s a list, for reference. To test what values are coming through…
Read your essay aloud to someone who knows you and ask:
Which values are clearly coming through the essay?
Which values are kind of there but could be coming through more clearly?
Which values could be coming through and were opportunities missed?
To know if you’re being vulnerable in your essay, ask:
Now that you’ve heard my story, do you feel closer to me?
What did you learn about me that you didn’t already know?
To search for “so what” moments of insight, review the claims you are making in your essay. Are you making common or uncommon connections? The uncommon connections are often made up of insights that are unusual or unexpected. (For more on how to test for this, click The Great College Essay Test link above.)
Craft is the sense that you know the purpose of each paragraph, each sentence, each word. How do you test this? For each paragraph, each sentence, each word, ask: Do I need this?
Still feeling you haven’t found your topic? Here’s a list of 100 Brave and Interesting Questions. Read these and try freewriting on a few. See where they lead.
Finally, here’s an.
Example College Essay Format Analysis: The “Burying Grandma” Essay
To see how the Narrative Essay structure works, check out the essay below, which was written for the Common App «Topic of your choice» prompt. You might try Reading it here first before reading the paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown below.
They covered the precious mahogany coffin with a brown amalgam of rocks, decomposed organisms, and weeds. It was my turn to take the shovel, but I felt too ashamed to dutifully send her off when I had not properly said goodbye. I refused to throw dirt on her. I refused to let go of my grandmother, to accept a death I had not seen coming, to believe that an illness could not only interrupt, but steal a beloved life.
The author begins with the Inciting Incident. You won’t know this until you’ve read the whole story, but this is the moment her want (to not deal with grandmother’s death) and need (to deal with it and let go/move on) is launched. She also sets up an objective correlative (the shovel) that will come back later.
When my parents finally revealed to me that my grandmother had been battling liver cancer, I was twelve and I was angry—mostly with myself. They had wanted to protect me—only six years old at the time—from the complex and morose concept of death. However, when the end inevitably arrived, I wasn’t trying to comprehend what dying was; I was trying to understand how I had been able to abandon my sick grandmother in favor of playing with friends and watching TV. Hurt that my parents had deceived me and resentful of my own oblivion, I committed myself to preventing such blindness from resurfacing.
In the second paragraph she flashes back to give us some context (i. e. the Status Quo), which helps us understand her world. It also helps us to better understand the impact of her grandmother’s death and raises a question: how will she prevent such blindness from resurfacing?
I became desperately devoted to my education because I saw knowledge as the key to freeing myself from the chains of ignorance. While learning about cancer in school I promised myself that I would memorize every fact and absorb every detail in textbooks and online medical journals. And as I began to consider my future, I realized that what I learned in school would allow me to silence that which had silenced my grandmother. However, I was focused not with learning itself, but with good grades and high test scores. I started to believe that academic perfection would be the only way to redeem myself in her eyes—to make up for what I had not done as a granddaughter.
In the third paragraph she takes off a hundred miles an hour… in the wrong direction. What does that mean? She pursues her want instead of her need. This Raises the Stakes because we as readers sense intuitively (and she is giving us hints) that this is not the way to get over her grandmother’s death.
However, a simple walk on a hiking trail behind my house made me open my own eyes to the truth. Over the years, everything—even honoring my grandmother—had become second to school and grades. As my shoes humbly tapped against the Earth, the towering trees blackened by the forest fire a few years ago, the faintly colorful pebbles embedded in the sidewalk, and the wispy white clouds hanging in the sky reminded me of my small though nonetheless significant part in a larger whole that is humankind and this Earth. Before I could resolve my guilt, I had to broaden my perspective of the world as well as my responsibilities to my fellow humans.
The fourth paragraph gives us the Turning Point/Moment of Truth. She realizes she needs perspective. But how? See next paragraph.
Volunteering at a cancer treatment center has helped me discover my path. When I see patients trapped in not only the hospital but also a moment in time by their diseases, I talk to them. For six hours a day, three times a week, Ivana is surrounded by IV stands, empty walls, and busy nurses that quietly yet constantly remind her of her breast cancer. Her face is pale and tired, yet kind—not unlike my grandmother’s. I need only to smile and say hello to see her brighten up as life returns to her face. Upon our first meeting, she opened up about her two sons, her hometown, and her knitting group—no mention of her disease. Without even standing up, the three of us—Ivana, me, and my grandmother—had taken a walk together.
In the second to last paragraph we see how the results of her moment of truth (which, admittedly, is somewhat ambiguous) led her to take action: volunteering at the local hospital helps her see her larger place in the world.
Cancer, as powerful and invincible as it may seem, is a mere fraction of a person’s life. It’s easy to forget when one’s mind and body are so weak and vulnerable. I want to be there as an oncologist to remind them to take a walk once in a while, to remember that there’s so much more to life than a disease. While I physically treat their cancer, I want to lend patients emotional support and mental strength to escape the interruption and continue living. Through my work, I can accept the shovel without burying my grandmother’s memory.
The final paragraph uses what we call the “bookend” technique by bringing us back to the beginning, bt with a change. So we’ll do the same.
. A good story well told. That’s your goal.
Hopefully you now have a better sense of how to make that happen.
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