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College Essay Formatting: How to Structure Different Kinds of College Essays

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When it comes to writing college application essays, most applicants worry about choosing an excellent topic or crafting a perfectly polished personal statement.

But here’s the thing:

If you forget to pay attention to your essay’s structure, your memorable topic and flawless grammar won’t do you any good.

In this article, we’ll tell you everything you need to know about structuring a college application essay. By following these tips, you’ll impress admissions officers and increase your chances of acceptance!

Why Is Structure Important?

First, let’s talk about why structure is important.

Without structure, your “essay” might come across more like pointless rambling. You might leave your reader feeling lost and confused, and that’s not the type of impression you want to make on an admissions team.

Carefully organizing your essay will:

  • Help your writing make sense and flow well
  • Ensure you clearly convey your point(s) to the admissions team
  • Demonstrate logical thinking and clarity
  • Contribute to a great first impression!

Step One: Create an Outline

No matter what structure you decide to use, it’s essential to start by creating an outline. Your outline can take the shape of a formal outline, a bubble map, a list of ideas, etc. The goal is simply to help you plan your essay in advance.

An outline allows you to:

  • Map out the key points and details you want to cover in your essay
  • Ensure that ideas are logically connected
  • Identify any holes in your essay and fix them before you start writing
  • Plan the order of your paragraphs, the transitions you’ll use, and how to effectively begin and end your essay

As you build your outline, make sure you don’t forget:

A Beginning, Middle, and End

With your college application essays, you’re telling your story to admissions officers. And all good stories have a beginning, middle, and end.

When you’re outlining your essay, ensure that it has a natural intro, body, and conclusion.

Beginning: The Intro

You can open with an anecdote, a thought-provoking question, dialogue, or maybe even some humor. However you decide to start your essay, be sure that you have some sort of thesis in your intro.

A thesis is a single sentence that sums up the main point you hope to convey in your essay. You can also think of the thesis as your answer to the question the prompt is asking.

For instance, if the prompt is asking why you chose this particular college, include a sentence providing an overview of the main reasons you’re interested in this school.

Sometimes, writing the intro is particularly challenging. If you’re having trouble with your intro, you may want to come back and write it at the end. Remember, you don’t have to write the essay in the same order that admissions officers will read it!

Middle: The Body

The body of your essay should discuss events, activities, experiences, or examples that support your thesis.

Each body paragraph should focus on a particular topic or aspect, and all of your points should be clearly connected. As you outline your essay, look for any gaps or confusing transitions between ideas.

Your body paragraphs should not be in random order.

End: Conclusion

You’ll end your essay with a conclusion. Depending on what structure you use for your essay, your conclusion could include:

  • An ending to the action or event being narrated
  • Some reflection, an insightful thought
  • Looking ahead to the future
  • Connecting the rest of your essay to you, the type of student you’ll be, your growth and development, etc

Types of Essay Structures

All essays need a beginning, middle, and end. But exactly how you structure these components may vary. Below, we’ll take a look at several specific essay structures, plus when to use them.

Example Structure

This is your traditional essay structure:

  • An introduction containing your thesis or main point
  • Three examples or pieces of evidence supporting this main point
  • Conclusion stating what the essay has demonstrated/shown

Good for: Making a single, strong point, especially when writing a shorter essay. This also works well for a very straightforward prompt, such as “Why This College” or questions about your interest in/experiences with a particular field.

Drawbacks: This type of structure can come across as formulaic or dull, particularly for a longer personal essay.

Example: For instance, a “Why This College” essay could include:

  • An introduction outlining three main reasons for your interest in the college (a particular program, a professor you want to work with, and something specific about campus culture)
  • Three body paragraphs, each developing one of the reasons mentioned above in vivid detail
  • A conclusion summing up these main points and reiterating your passion for the college in question

Cause and Effect

A cause and effect essay is built around explaining how one significant event or experience caused change or had a major impact on you and your life.

If you write this type of essay, you’ll:

  • Start by describing an experience or influence.
  • Discuss specifically how this experience or influence impacted you and your life.

Good for: Essays about a life-changing experience or an individual who had a major impact on you, your personal growth, your choice of career, etc.

Drawbacks: It’s sometimes easy to “write yourself out of the equation” in this type of essay. While you do need to introduce the experience or influence, spend the bulk of your time on Step #2: discussing the impact on you.

Example: Let’s say you want to write about how your grandfather, an engineer, inspired your interest in science and math. You can:

  • Write an introduction briefly explaining that your grandfather had a major impact on your goals and ambitions.
  • Introduce your grandfather and his background as an engineer, as well as your relationship with him (cause).
  • Explain how your grandfather inspired your interest in science and math (effect). Then focus the rest of your essay on describing your passion and experiences with math and science, as well as how you plan to pursue this interest at the college to which you’re applying.

Compare and Contrast

This essay structure is similar to the cause and effect essay structure described above. There are two different ways to structure a compare and contrast essay:

  • Organize your essay point by point, comparing one aspect of the objects or situations at a time.
  • Use the “block method,” covering all points of one object/situation in the first half, then all points of the other in the second half.

Good for: Questions about your personal growth and development, since this structure allows you to compare how you once were to how you are now. You can also use it for “impact essays,” like a question about your leadership skills. (See the example below.)

Drawbacks: This structure isn’t conducive to all essay topics, so use it wisely.

Example: Maybe you want to write an essay about the impact your stellar leadership skills had on your school’s Spanish Club. Here are two ideas:

  • Start by briefly introducing your role in the Spanish Club and the fact that you helped improve the club using your leadership abilities. Then use the “block method,” first describing what the Spanish Club was like before you worked your magic, then describing exactly what you did, and finally describing the improvements achieved by your leadership.
  • If you don’t want to use the block method, you can alternatively focus each body paragraph on an aspect of the Spanish Club that was altered or improved thanks to your leadership.

Narrative or Chronological

Because it’s filled with action, dialogue, and vivid details, the narrative or chronological structure is one of our favorites for the college application essay.

If you choose to write a narrative or chronological essay, you’ll need to focus on a single event or moment in your life. This essay should create a “snapshot” of a single experience that describes you or showcases a specific aspect of your personality.

With this structure, you’re essentially telling a story. Your introduction should start at the beginning of the story you’re choosing to tell, briefly alluding to the main point of this anecdote.

Then, you’ll tell the story in chronological order, using colorful, specific details. Your conclusion should reveal the end of the story, possibly including a brief reflection on how this experience has impacted you or what this story reveals about you.

If you don’t want your entire essay to be a narrative, you may wish to narrate a brief anecdote in your introduction. The rest of your essay can focus on describing the impact of this anecdote or reflecting on its significance.

Good for: Longer essays, especially when a school has required you to write multiple essays. This structure can be easily adapted to almost any topic, as long as you can think of a meaningful narrative that effectively illustrates your point.

Drawbacks: Some consider this essay structure to be on the risky side, but it’s okay to get creative with your college application essay. In fact, it’s encouraged! Just make sure that you:

  • Focus on a key moment or day instead of detailing a long list of events.
  • Don’t include extra details that aren’t necessary to convey your point.
  • Don’t overdramatize your story. Just use vivid, specific, and true details that are meaningful to you.

If you’re nervous about using this structure, try using a more traditional structure on some of your other essays. That way, there will be a nice balance to the content and format of your essays.

Example: You want to tell the story of your community’s experience with a powerful hurricane—particularly the way that you helped organize relief efforts. Here’s how:

  • Jump right into the action with your introduction. You may describe experiencing the hurricane itself, or perhaps you should take the reader on a tour of your neighborhood, detailing the damage and the emotions people experienced in the hurricane’s aftermath.
  • Next, simply narrate your story in chronological order. How did the idea to do something take root in your mind? How did you put your plan into action? What exact steps did you follow? Did you experience any problems or obstacles along the way? How did you deal with them?
  • In your conclusion, you might want to describe the results of your efforts. Alternatively, you could briefly reflect on what you learned from the experience, how you’ll continue helping others in college and the future, or what this story demonstrates about your character.

What About the Shorter Essays?

In some cases, you’ll be stuck with some pretty restrictive word limits: 250 words, 150 words, and sometimes even less!

How can you write an effective beginning, middle, and end in just a few words?

For these shorter essays, limit your intro and conclusion to just a sentence each. Sometimes, you might not have an introduction or conclusion and all, and that’s okay! Colleges understand that word limits do just that: limit how thoroughly you can write about a topic.

Just ensure that your main points are evident and that you’ve chosen only the clearest, most direct pieces of information to include in your essay. Anything that isn’t absolutely essential will need to be cut.

Read your essay from beginning to end multiple times, ensuring that your ideas flow logically and that the connections between your ideas are clear.

Other Tips for Shorter Essays

  • Consider the impact your series of short essays will have as a whole.
  • Vary structure and content, but be consistent with your voice and style.
  • Ensure that your essays support the impression you’ve established in the rest of your application.
  • If writing a short essay is really difficult, some experts recommend writing a longer essay and cutting it down to the bare essentials.

Conclusion: College Essay Formatting & Structure

As you write your college application essays, choosing a clear and logical structure is essential. You want your essay to be interesting and memorable, but you also want it to make sense.

Consider the purpose of each essay you’re writing, then think about the most logical way to structure it (example, compare and contrast, cause and effect, or narrative/chronological). Build an outline, look for and fix any holes in your logic, then start writing.

Admissions officers will be impressed by the clarity and organization of your writing, helping you write your way to an acceptance letter (or maybe several)!