Lily Fang 12 min read 12th Grade, Essay Tips

How to Format and Structure Your College Essay

College essays are an entirely new type of writing for high school seniors. For that reason, many students are confused about proper formatting and essay structure. Should you double-space or single-space? Do you need a title? What kind of narrative style is best-suited for your topic?

 

In this post, we’ll be going over proper college essay format, traditional and unconventional essay structures (plus sample essays!), and which structure might work best for you. 

General College Essay Formatting Guidelines

 

How you format your essay will depend on whether you’re submitting in a text box, or attaching a document. We’ll go over the different best practices for both, but regardless of how you’re submitting, here are some general formatting tips:

 

  • There’s no need for a title; it takes up unnecessary space and eats into your word count
  • Stay within the word count as much as possible (+/- 10% of the upper limit). For further discussion on college essay length, see our post How Long Should Your College Essay Be?
  • Indent or double space to separate paragraphs clearly

 

If you’re submitting in a text box:

 

  • Avoid italics and bold, since formatting often doesn’t transfer over in text boxes
  • Be careful with essays meant to be a certain shape (like a balloon); text boxes will likely not respect that formatting. Beyond that, this technique can also seem gimmicky, so proceed with caution
  • Make sure that paragraphs are clearly separated, as text boxes can also undo indents and double spacing

 

If you’re attaching a document:

 

  • Use a standard font and size like Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Make your lines 1.5-spaced or double-spaced
  • Use 1-inch margins
  • Save as a PDF since it can’t be edited. This also prevents any formatting issues that come with Microsoft Word, since older versions are sometimes incompatible with the newer formatting
  • Number each page with your last name in the header or footer (like “Smith 1”)
  • Pay extra attention to any word limits, as you won’t be cut off automatically, unlike with most text boxes

 

Conventional College Essay Structures

 

Now that we’ve gone over the logistical aspects of your essay, let’s talk about how you should structure your writing. There are three traditional college essay structures. They are:

 

  1. In-the-moment narrative
  2. Narrative told over an extended period of time
  3. Series of anecdotes, or montage

 

Let’s go over what each one is exactly, and take a look at some real essays using these structures.

 

1. In-the-moment narrative

 

This is where you tell the story one moment at a time, sharing the events as they occur. In the moment narrative is a powerful essay format, as your reader experiences the events, your thoughts, and your emotions with you. This structure is ideal for a specific experience involving extensive internal dialogue, emotions, and reflections.

 

Here’s an example:

 

The morning of the Model United Nation conference, I walked into Committee feeling confident about my research. We were simulating the Nuremberg Trials – a series of post-World War II proceedings for war crimes – and my portfolio was of the Soviet Judge Major General Iona Nikitchenko. Until that day, the infamous Nazi regime had only been a chapter in my history textbook; however, the conference’s unveiling of each defendant’s crimes brought those horrors to life. The previous night, I had organized my research, proofread my position paper and gone over Judge Nikitchenko’s pertinent statements. I aimed to find the perfect balance between his stance and my own.

 

As I walked into committee anticipating a battle of wits, my director abruptly called out to me. “I’m afraid we’ve received a late confirmation from another delegate who will be representing Judge Nikitchenko. You, on the other hand, are now the defense attorney, Otto Stahmer.” Everyone around me buzzed around the room in excitement, coordinating with their allies and developing strategies against their enemies, oblivious to the bomb that had just dropped on me. I felt frozen in my tracks, and it seemed that only rage against the careless delegate who had confirmed her presence so late could pull me out of my trance. After having spent a month painstakingly crafting my verdicts and gathering evidence against the Nazis, I now needed to reverse my stance only three hours before the first session.

 

Gradually, anger gave way to utter panic. My research was fundamental to my performance, and without it, I knew I could add little to the Trials. But confident in my ability, my director optimistically recommended constructing an impromptu defense. Nervously, I began my research anew. Despite feeling hopeless, as I read through the prosecution’s arguments, I uncovered substantial loopholes. I noticed a lack of conclusive evidence against the defendants and certain inconsistencies in testimonies. My discovery energized me, inspiring me to revisit the historical overview in my conference “Background Guide” and to search the web for other relevant articles. Some Nazi prisoners had been treated as “guilty” before their court dates. While I had brushed this information under the carpet while developing my position as a judge, it now became the focus of my defense. I began scratching out a new argument, centered on the premise that the allied countries had violated the fundamental rule that, a defendant was “not guilty” until proven otherwise.

 

At the end of the three hours, I felt better prepared. The first session began, and with bravado, I raised my placard to speak. Microphone in hand, I turned to face my audience. “Greetings delegates. I, Otto Stahmer would like to…….” I suddenly blanked. Utter dread permeated my body as I tried to recall my thoughts in vain. “Defence Attorney, Stahmer we’ll come back to you,” my Committee Director broke the silence as I tottered back to my seat, flushed with embarrassment. Despite my shame, I was undeterred. I needed to vindicate my director’s faith in me. I pulled out my notes, refocused, and began outlining my arguments in a more clear and direct manner. Thereafter, I spoke articulately, confidently putting forth my points. I was overjoyed when Secretariat members congratulated me on my fine performance.

 

Going into the conference, I believed that preparation was the key to success. I wouldn’t say I disagree with that statement now, but I believe adaptability is equally important. My ability to problem-solve in the face of an unforeseen challenge proved advantageous in the art of diplomacy. Not only did this experience transform me into a confident and eloquent delegate at that conference, but it also helped me become a more flexible and creative thinker in a variety of other capacities. Now that I know I can adapt under pressure, I look forward to engaging in activities that will push me to be even quicker on my feet.

 

This essay is an excellent example of in-the-moment narration. The student openly shares their internal state with uswe feel their anger and panic upon the reversal of roles. We empathize with their emotions of “utter dread” and embarrassment when they’re unable to speak. 

 

For in-the-moment essays, overloading on descriptions is a common mistake students make. This writer provides just the right amount of background and details to help us understand the situation, however, and balances out the actual event with reflection on the significance of this experience. 

 

One main area of improvement is that the writer sometimes makes explicit statements that could be better illustrated through their thoughts, actions, and feelings. For instance, they say they “spoke articulately” after recovering from their initial inability to speak, and they also claim that adaptability has helped them in other situations. This is not as engaging as actual examples that convey the same meaning. Still, this essay overall is a strong example of in-the-moment narration, and gives us a relatable look into the writer’s life and personality.

2. Narrative told over an extended period of time

 

In this essay structure, you share a story that takes place across several different experiences. This narrative style is well-suited for any story arc with multiple parts. If you want to highlight your development over time, you might consider this structure. 

 

Here’s an example:

 

When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.

 

And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”

 

Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.

 

By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.

 

I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.

 

The timeline of this essay spans from the writer’s childhood all the way to sophomore year, but we only see key moments along this journey. First, we get context for why the writer thought he had to choose one identity: his older brothers had very distinct interests. Then, we learn about the student’s 10th grade creative writing class, writing contest, and results of the contest. Finally, the essay covers the writers’ embarrassment of his identity as a poet, to gradual acceptance and pride in that identity. 

 

This essay is a great example of a narrative told over an extended period of time. It’s highly personal and reflective, as the piece shares the writer’s conflicting feelings, and takes care to get to the root of those feelings. Furthermore, the overarching story is that of a personal transformation and development, so it’s well-suited to this essay structure.

 

3. Series of anecdotes, or montage

 

This essay structure allows you to focus on the most important experiences of a single storyline, or it lets you feature multiple (not necessarily related) stories that highlight your personality. Montage is a structure where you piece together separate scenes to form a whole story. This technique is most commonly associated with film. Just envision your favorite movie—it likely is a montage of various scenes that may not even be chronological. 

 

Here’s an example:

 

Night had robbed the academy of its daytime colors, yet there was comfort in the dim lights that cast shadows of our advances against the bare studio walls. Silhouettes of roundhouse kicks, spin crescent kicks, uppercuts and the occasional butterfly kick danced while we sparred. She approached me, eyes narrowed with the trace of a smirk challenging me. “Ready spar!” Her arm began an upward trajectory targeting my shoulder, a common first move. I sidestepped — only to almost collide with another flying fist. Pivoting my right foot, I snapped my left leg, aiming my heel at her midsection. The center judge raised one finger. 

 

“POINT!”

 

There was no time to celebrate, not in the traditional sense at least. Master Pollard gave a brief command greeted with a unanimous “Yes, sir” and the thud of 20 hands dropping-down-and-giving-him-30, while the “winners” celebrated their victory with laps as usual. 

 

Three years ago, seven-thirty in the evening meant I was a warrior. It meant standing up straighter, pushing a little harder, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”, celebrating birthdays by breaking boards, never pointing your toes, and familiarity. Three years later, seven-thirty in the morning meant I was nervous. 

 

The room is uncomfortably large. The sprung floor soaks up the checkerboard of sunlight piercing through the colonial windows. The mirrored walls further illuminate the studio and I feel the light scrutinizing my sorry attempts at a pas de bourrée, while capturing the organic fluidity of the dancers around me. “Chassé en croix, grand battement, pique, pirouette.” I follow the graceful limbs of the woman in front of me, her legs floating ribbons, as she executes what seems to be a perfect ronds de jambes. Each movement remains a negotiation. With admirable patience, Ms. Tan casts me a sympathetic glance.   

  

“Point.”

 

There is no time to wallow in the misery that is my right foot. Taekwondo calls for dorsiflexion; pointed toes are synonymous with broken toes. My thoughts drag me into a flashback of the usual response to this painful mistake: “You might as well grab a tutu and head to the ballet studio next door.” Well, here I am Master Pollard, unfortunately still following your orders to never point my toes, but no longer feeling the satisfaction that comes with being a third degree black belt with 5 years of experience quite literally under her belt. It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers. 

 

But the appetite for new beginnings that brought me here doesn’t falter. It is only reinforced by the classical rendition of “Dancing Queen” that floods the room and the ghost of familiarity that reassures me that this new beginning does not and will not erase the past. After years spent at the top, it’s hard to start over. But surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become. In Taekwondo, we started each class reciting the tenets: honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet. 

 

The thing about change is that it eventually stops making things so different. After nine different schools, four different countries, three different continents, fluency in Tamil, Norwegian, and English, there are more blurred lines than there are clear fragments. My life has not been a tactfully executed, gold medal-worthy Taekwondo form with each movement defined, nor has it been a series of frappés performed by a prima ballerina with each extension identical and precise, but thankfully it has been like the dynamics of a spinning back kick, fluid, and like my chances of landing a pirouette, unpredictable. 

 

This essay takes a few different anecdotes and weaves them into a coherent narrative about the writer’s penchant for novel experiences. We’re plunged into her universe, in the middle of her Taekwondo spar, three years before the present day. She then transitions into a scene in a ballet studio, present day. By switching from past tense to present tense, the writer clearly demarcates this shift in time. 

 

The parallel use of the spoken phrase “Point” in the essay ties these two experiences together. The writer also employs a flashback to Master Pollard’s remark about “grabbing a tutu” and her habit of dorsiflexing her toes, which further cements the connection between these anecdotes. 

 

While some of the descriptions are a little wordy, the piece is well-executed overall, and is a stellar example of the montage structure. The two anecdotes are seamlessly intertwined, and they both clearly illustrate the student’s determination, dedication, reflectiveness, and adaptability. The writer also concludes the essay with a larger reflection on her life, many moves, and multiple languages. 

 

Unconventional College Essay Structures

 

Unconventional essay structures are any that don’t fit into the categories above. These tend to be higher risk, as it’s easier to turn off the admissions officer, but they’re also higher reward if executed correctly. 

 

There are endless possibilities for unconventional structures, but most fall under one of two categories:

 

1. Playing with essay format

 

Instead of choosing a traditional narrative format, you might take a more creative route to showcase your interests, writing your essay:

 

  • As a movie script
  • With a creative visual format (such as creating a visual pattern with the spaces between your sentences forming a picture)
  • As a two-sided Lincoln-Douglas debate
  • As a legal brief
  • Using song lyrics

 

2. Linguistic techniques

 

You could also play with the actual language and sentence structure of your essay, writing it:

 

  • In iambic pentameter
  • Partially in your mother tongue
  • In code or a programming language

 

These linguistic techniques are often hybrid, where you write some of the essay with the linguistic variation, then write more of an explanation in English.

 

Under no circumstances should you feel pressured to use an unconventional structure. Trying to force something unconventional will only hurt your chances. That being said, if a creative structure comes naturally to you, suits your personality, and works with the content of your essaygo for that structure!

 

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Lily Fang
Blog Editor at CollegeVine
Short bio
Lily Fang is 2018 grad of Amherst College with a degree in math and French. She has called three countries “home”: the U.S., France, and England. In her spare time, she trains for marathons and writes for her travel and running blog.