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College Essay Format -The Best Tips to Format Your College Essay

Having trouble structuring your college essay? Check out these tips to format the best college essay.

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Applying for college was one of the most stressful experiences of my life. It all worked out in the end, but I made it more difficult for myself than I needed to.

I wish I had a bit more guidance during the process. Now, four years later, I’m applying to grad school and writing my essays, and I’ve learned a lot about the college essay format. Here are some steps, tips and other information to help you.

Unfortunately, there is no formula for the perfect college essay. If there were, the application reviewers would get bored very quickly and nobody would stand out.

And, that’s exactly the point, to stand out (in a good way, of course). Watch this video for 7 tips to help you stand out with your essay.

You want the committee to remember you and your essay. They really only want to know about who you are and how you’ll fit into the college you’re applying to.

With this in mind, here are some tips on the college essay format, which can act as some guidelines as you write your own unique essay.

In this post:

Honesty

First, and most importantly, be honest. If your writing is over the top, they’ll recognize that. If you’re overexaggerating or embellishing your accomplishments, they’ll see that, too.

You want to come across as a genuine person. If it’s relevant to your essay topic, it doesn’t hurt to talk about your flaws, too. However, you should be careful when doing so.

You don’t want the committee thinking you’re a reckless, unmotivated person, for example.  But acknowledging your shortcomings and how you’ve overcome these challenges can be a sign of maturity.

Adhering to Length

Your college application essay is sure to have a restricted amount of words or characters. I like to ignore these at first. Let’s say your essay can be no more than 500 words long.

Try not to think about this limitation as you write your first draft. Simply just write whatever comes to your head and get something on the page.

The hardest part is conquering the blank page. If it so happens that you have 1000 words when you’re finished writing, that’s completely fine.

You have time to edit, cut, and condense. Unless, of course, you’ve waited until the last minute to start your essays, which I don’t recommend.

Once you have your first rough draft, read it over. Is it compelling? Is it an accurate representation of you? It doesn’t have to be perfect, but is your gut telling you that you’ve gone down the right path?

If you’ve written everything that comes to mind about your chosen topic, and you’ve come up short, try some more brainstorming. Did you go into enough detail? Is there an idea you could explain better?

Or, maybe you’re actually not passionate about this essay topic, so go in a different direction. It should feel like you don’t have enough room to say all of the things you want to say.

Related: How To Create the Best Essay Outline – The Student Guide

Choosing your topic

First and foremost, read the prompt. I cannot stress this enough. Even if you write an incredible essay, the application readers may not accept you if you didn’t answer their main questions.

Even so, the prompt is merely a guideline. It’s only there to get you thinking, so you do have a bit of creative freedom. Here are some common college essay prompts from the Common App if you’re unfamiliar with them:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?

3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?

4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?

5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.

6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7.  Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Pick the prompt that stands out to you the most. Maybe it’s because you already have an idea, or maybe it’s because you enjoy pondering the question itself. Either way, it’s best to go with your gut on this one.

Structure

Again, there is no magical college essay format to ensure you’ll be accepted into your school of choice. However, neatness and organization are always appreciated.

Although a college essay is more creative and personal than an academic, argumentative essay that you’d submit for English class, you should still implement some features of an academic essay.

For example, intro and conclusion paragraphs are a must. You need something to grab the reader’s attention in the introduction. You should also summarize your main point of theme in a “thesis” of sorts.

Then, in the conclusion, reiterate your thesis and main ideas just as you would with an academic essay.

Writing an outline

For some, writing an outline before your first draft is a very important step. It can help organize your thoughts and keep writer’s block at bay.

Others feel that an outline can restrict creativity, so they’d rather just write the draft beginning to end and see what happens. I’ve tried both options– each has merit for the college essay format.

It just depends on what I’m writing and feeling at the time. But, regardless of what you go with (outline or no outline before the draft), I’d still suggest writing a reverse outline.

If you don’t know, a reverse outline is essentially a condensed version of the essay you’ve already written. Read through your essay, write down the “subheadings” and main points.

It’s a way of viewing your essay with a fresher, more organized eye. It’s a way of answering the question, so what did I really write? Then, if you identify any problem areas, you know where to start.

Related: 140 Amazing Compare and Contrast Essay Topics – The Complete Guide

Your voice

When considering voice, the most important thing is that you sound like yourself. That is, a presentable version of yourself.

Avoid talking as casually as you would with a friend (my English is barely coherent when I’m speaking with my friends).

However, sounding entirely professional and formal can come across as stiff.

Again, you want to be respectful and presentable, but the readers want to get the complete picture of you. Sometimes, a conversational tone can work in your favor for the college essay format. For example:

Formal Example: I believe that I would excel at Great University, considering how I am a hardworking and passionate student. I will prioritize my studies as a biology major.

Conversational Example: Look, I’ve had my fair share of embarrassing moments, but the one I’m about to tell you takes the cake. It’s actually what led me to major in biology, but I’m getting ahead of myself…

The first example is a bit cold and run of the mill. If you gave that to a friend, it’s likely they wouldn’t be able to tell that you wrote it. Now, the second example is much more compelling.

The tone matches the content– the writer is going to tell you a funny story, so the tone is more relaxed. And, the voice is much more distinct. Even from these few sentences, you get a real picture of what this writer is like.

Overall, just write like you speak. Reading your essay drafts aloud will help you find a good balance between conversational and professional.

Edit! Edit! Edit!

Now, first we should talk about what editing actually means. It does not mean simply fixing typos and spelling mistakes and adding some commas.

The editing process requires far more effort than that. Do the paragraphs flow correctly? Do you need to add a new paragraph to finish explaining things?

Do you need to remove a paragraph? A sentence? A word? Do you have topic sentences? Is your introduction actually appealing?

As you can see, a big part of the editing process is asking yourself questions. You, being the person who wrote the essay, know exactly what you’re trying to say.

However, from an outside perspective, a reader may feel that they are missing bits and pieces when going over the essay. Try to reread what you’ve written with an objective mind.

Ask, “if the reader has never met me before, would they know what I’m saying? Would they feel like they knew me better after reading this essay?”

Double-check your grammar

After you have edited your essay multiple times, the next step is to polish it. I cannot stress how important this is.

If you’re applying to a competitive school, they’re receiving thousands and thousands of applications, and it’s not so easy for them to narrow down candidates.

I was once told by someone who worked for Stanford University’s admissions committee that sometimes the decision between who to accept and who to deny is a coin toss.

My point is, don’t give the readers any opportunity to count you out. An easy reason for them to dismiss your application is if you have grammar mistakes in your essay, so proofread, proofread, proofread. Here are some tips:

  • Read sentence by sentence.
  • Read your essay bottom to top (this forces you to slow down, making it more likely for you to catch mistakes)
  • Use a grammar-checker. But beware. Although they can be helpful, they’re not always correct.
  • Have someone other than yourself proofread. Ask someone who you trust and knows English grammar well, such as your English teacher.
  • Read your essay aloud.
  • Have Microsoft Word (or an equivalent) read your essay aloud.

Related: 20 Sites That Pay You To Actually Do Homework – The Ultimate Guide

Know when you’re done

Besides conquering the blank page, knowing when to actually submit the essay is one of the hardest parts. I remember obsessing up until the very last minute, and I mean this literally. I honestly didn’t benefit from it.

The essay was probably the same quality as it was days and days before, but I just couldn’t let it go. What if I found a last-minute spelling error? What if there was a better word I could use?

A better sentence I could write? All of the stress was not worth it. Like I said, there’s no perfect college essay format. Here are a couple of strategies to keep yourself sane during the essay writing process.

1. Come up with a timeline: Over the span of a number of months, give yourself checkpoints to keep on track.

When it’s time to start drafting, when to finish your first draft, when to have proofreaders check it, etc. This will help ensure that you don’t procrastinate.

2. Come up with a goal for a number of drafts: Think about yourself as a writer. What does your process look like? Come up with a number of drafts– five, ten, fifteen– whatever will work best for you, and keep that in mind.

You can only edit so much before you have to call it finished. As you near your goal number, start thinking about how satisfied you are with it.

If you’ve stuck to your goals, chances are that you have a lot to be proud of and have come a long way.

And there you have it– you’re finished! It’s been a long and difficult process figuring out the college essay format, but now that it’s over, you should celebrate.

You’ve done all the work you need to do, so set some time to relax and see some friends.

It might be a few months before you hear if you’ve been accepted, so the best thing you can do is focus on having a memorable senior year.

Watch this video for more tips on how to write your college essay! Best of luck!

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