How to format, outline, and structure a college essay

There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay, but you should carefully plan and outline to make sure your essay flows smoothly and logically.

Typical structural choices include

  • a series of vignettes with a common theme
  • a single story that demonstrates your positive qualities

Although many structures can work, there’s one that you should try to avoid: the standard five-paragraph essay. You’re probably used to writing an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion for your high school assignments, but colleges generally want to see a more advanced understanding of quality writing.

Formatting your essay

You should keep the formatting as simple as possible. Admissions officers need to work very quickly, so fancy formatting, unnecessary flourishes, and unique fonts will come off as more distracting than individual. Keep in mind that, if you’re pasting your essay into a text box, formatting like italics may not transfer.

Your essay will be easier for admissions officers to read if it is 1.5- or double-spaced. If you choose to attach a file, ensure that it is a PDF.

You don’t need a title for your essay, but you can include one, especially if you think it will add something important.

Most importantly, ensure that you stick to the word count. Most successful essays are 500–600 words. Because you’re limited in length, make sure that you write concisely. Say everything that you need to express to get your point across, but don’t use more words than necessary, and don’t repeat yourself.

Outlining the essay

Before you start writing, think about the trajectory of the essay. Do you want to organize it chronologically? Would you prefer to make a “sandwich” structure by introducing a topic or idea, moving away from it, and then coming back to it at the end? There’s a variety of options (and a pair of strong examples below), but make sure you consider how you’d like to structure the essay before you start writing.

Although you should organize your thoughts in an outline, you don’t have to stick to it strictly. Once you begin writing, you may find that the structure you’d originally chosen doesn’t quite work. In that case, it’s fine to try something else. Multiple drafts of the same essay are key to a good final product.

Whatever structure you choose, it should be clear and easy to follow. Never write in a way that could confuse the reader. Remember, your audience will not be reading your essay closely!

Structures that work: Two example outlines

Vignettes with a common theme

The vignette structure discusses several experiences that may seem unrelated, but the author weaves them together and unites them with a common theme.

For example, a student could write an essay exploring various instances of their ability to make the best of bad situations. A rough outline for that essay might look like this:

Vignette structure
  1. Intro/hook: Last November, I accidentally became a firefighter.
    1. In a rehearsal for a school play when a lighting fixture malfunctioned and the set caught fire, I helped extinguish it.
    2. To help the situation, I improvised fixes for the set and talked with the director about adding lines referencing the “disaster.”
  2. I have always made the best of bad situations.
    1. I didn’t get into my first-choice high school, but I became class president at the school where I ended up.
    2. When I had ACL surgery, I used the downtime to work on my upper body strength and challenged my friends to pull-up contests.
  3. How these qualities will serve me in college and in my career

Single story that demonstrates traits

The narrative structure focuses on a single overarching story that shows many aspects of a student’s character.

Some such essays focus on a relatively short event that the author details moment by moment, while others discuss the story of a longer journey, one that may cover months or years.

For example, a student might discuss trying out for a sports team as a middle schooler, high school freshman, and high school senior, using each of those instances to describe an aspect of their personality. A rough outline for that essay might look like this:

Narrative structure
  1. Intro/hook: Vivid description of me at age 7, trying out for my first gymnastics competition
    1. Confident, there to have fun
    2. Very passionate and in love with the sport
  2.  Trying out for level 8 gymnastics at age 11
    1. Little sister was born that day, so I had to go alone with a friend’s parents
    2. Learned to be independent and less self-centered
    3. Realized that as much as I love gymnastics, there are more important things
  3. Trying out for level 10 when I was 15
    1. I had worked hard (detail number of hours, sacrifices, etc.)
      1. Gave up first homecoming of high school, had to quit other activities, lost countless hours with friends
    2. I was prepared for disappointment
      1. I had to repeat level 9 and didn’t progress quickly
      2. I had a terrible beam routine at one competition the previous year and still had a mental block
      3. I got stuck on some skills, and it took over a year to learn them
  4. Today, I still carry all those traits
    1. Passion from age 7, perspective from age 11, diligence from age 15

Frequently asked questions about college application essays

How do I structure a college application essay?

There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay, but these are two common structures that work:

  • a series of vignettes with a common theme
  • a single story that demonstrates your positive qualities

Avoid a standard five-paragraph essay structure.

How do I format a college essay?

Your college essay’s format should be as simple as possible:

  • Use a standard, readable font
  • Use 1.5 or double spacing
  • If attaching a file, save it as a PDF
  • Stick to the word count
  • Avoid unusual formatting and unnecessary decorative touches
Should I title my college essay?

You don’t need a title for your college admissions essay, but you can include one if you think it adds something important.

Is this article helpful?
Meredith Testa

Meredith has helped high school students gain admission to their dream schools for the past 7 years. She is based in New York and enjoys teaching dance in her spare time.

1 comment

Meredith Testa
Meredith Testa (Scribbr Team)
September 24, 2021 at 7:22 PM

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