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:
- In-the-moment narrative
- Narrative told over an extended period of time
- 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:
This essay is an excellent example of in-the-moment narration. The student openly shares their internal state with us—we 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:
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:
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 essay—go for that structure!
Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
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