When you’re applying to college, even small decisions can feel high-stakes. This is especially true for the college essay, which often feels like the most personal part of the application. You may agonize over your college application essay format: the font, the margins, even the file format. Or maybe you’re agonizing over how to organize your thoughts overall. Should you use a narrative structure? Five paragraphs?
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll go over the ins and outs of how to format a college essay on both the micro and macro levels. We’ll discuss minor formatting issues like headings and fonts, then discuss broad formatting concerns like whether or not to use a five-paragraph essay, and if you should use a college essay template.
How to Format a College Essay: Font, Margins, Etc.
Some of your formatting concerns will depend on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box on an online application form or attaching a formatted document. If you aren’t sure which you’ll need to do, check the application instructions. Note that the Common Application does currently require you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.
Most schools also allow you to send in a paper application, which theoretically gives you increased control over your essay formatting. However, I generally don’t advise sending in a paper application (unless you have no other option) for a couple of reasons:
Most schools state that they prefer to receive online applications. While it typically won’t affect your chances of admission, it is wise to comply with institutional preferences in the college application process where possible. It tends to make the whole process go much more smoothly.
Paper applications can get lost in the mail. Certainly there can also be problems with online applications, but you’ll be aware of the problem much sooner than if your paper application gets diverted somehow and then mailed back to you. By contrast, online applications let you be confident that your materials were received.
Regardless of how you will end up submitting your essay, you should draft it in a word processor. This will help you keep track of word count, let you use spell check, and so on.
Now I’ll go over some of the concerns you might have about the correct college essay application format whether you're copying and pasting into a text box or attaching a document, plus a few tips that apply either way:
Plus, online submission doesn't require any stamps!
If You'll Be Copy-and-Pasting Into a Text Box:The main thing when you copy and paste into a text box is to double- and triple-check that everything transferred over correctly.
First, check that your whole essay transferred over and wasn’t cut off!
Word counts can get messed up by wonky formatting or be counted differently in the text box, so be aware that you may need to make slight adjustments there.
When you copy and paste, you may lose formatting like bold or italics. Sometimes bold and italics also just won’t work in the text box, so you may be better off just not using them.
Your paragraph spacing may get messed up when you copy and paste your essay over. So make sure that all of your paragraphs are clearly delineated, either through tabs or through a skipped line if tabbing doesn’t work.
Font will probably be standardized, but if it’s not, choose a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial (you’ll probably have limited options anyways) and a normal size (12 pt).
If You're Attaching a Document:If you’re attaching a document, you have to be more concerned with the overall college essay format. Things like margins and spacing become more important.
Use one-inch margins all around. This is standard and easy to read.
While single-spaced essays are usually acceptable, your essay will be easier to read if it’s 1.5 or double-spaced.
Clearly delineate your paragraphs. A single tab at the beginning is fine.
Use a font that’s easy to read, like Times, Arial, Calibri, Cambria, etc. Avoid fonts like Papyrus and Curlz. And use 12 pt font.
You may want to include a college essay heading with a page number and your application ID. Don’t include your name unless it’s specifically requested.
Oftentimes, you’ll need to submit your college essay in a specific file format. The application may only accept certain versions of Word files (i.e. only .doc and not .docx), .rtf or .pdf files. So just be sure that you are saving your file in an accepted format before you upload it! I recommend .pdf files whenever possible, because they are uneditable and always look the same.
Formatting Guidelines That Apply No Matter How You End Up Submitting the Essay:
Unless it’s specifically requested, you don’t need a title. It will just eat into your word count.
Avoid cutesy, overly colloquial formatting choices like ALL CAPS or ~unnecessary symbols~ or, heaven forbid, emoji and #hashtags. Your college essay should be professional, and anything too cutesy or casual will come off as immature.
Keep these out of your essay!
How To Structure Your College Essay
Maybe you’re less concerned with the micro-level college essay format, like fonts, and more concerned with the macro-level format, like how to structure your college admissions essay. Is there’s some secret paragraph formula that will make writing easy and clearly express all of your strengths to an awestruck admissions committee?
Sadly, no. However, the good news is that a college essay is actually a good opportunity to play with structure a little bit and break free from the five-paragraph essay. (You’re certainly not disallowed from writing a five-paragraph essay, but it’s by no means guaranteed to be the best college essay structure.)
A good college essay is like a sandwich, where the intro and conclusion are the pieces of bread and whatever comes between them is the sandwich toppings. A sandwich without bread is a bad sandwich, but a good sandwich could have any number of things between the bread pieces.
So you need a clear introduction that gives a pretty clear idea of where you will be going in the essay and a conclusion that wraps everything up and makes your main point clear.
However, how you approach the middle part is up to you. You could structure your essay more like a narrative, relating an important experience from your life. You could use an extended analogy, where each paragraph is a part of the analogy. You want to adhere broadly to the wisdom that each paragraph should have an identifiable main idea, but a college essay is definitely a great chance to break free from the five-paragraph essay.
For more in-depth advice on how to structure your essay, check out our expert step-by-step guide on tackling the essay.
Mmm, delicious essay...I mean sandwich.
Why College Essay Templates Are a Bad Idea
You might see college essay templates online that offer guidelines on how to structure your essay and what to say in each paragraph. I strongly advise against using a template. It will make your essay sound canned and bland—two of the worst things a college essay can be. It’s much better to think about what you want to say, and then talk through how to best structure it with someone else and/or make your own practice outlines before you sit down to write.
You can also find tons of successful sample essays online. Looking at these to get an idea of different styles and topics is fine, but again, I don’t advise closely patterning your essay after a sample essay. You will do the best if your essay really reflects your own original voice and the experiences that are most meaningful to you.
College Application Essay Format: Key Takeaways
There are two levels of formatting you might be worried about: the micro (fonts, headings, margins, etc) and the macro (the overall structure of your essay).
Tips for the micro level of your college application essay format:
- Always draft your essay in a word processing software, even if you’ll be copy-and-pasting it over into a text box.
- If you are copy-and-pasting it into a text box, make sure your formatting transfers properly, your paragraphs are clearly delineated, and your essay isn’t cut off.
- If you are attaching a document, make sure your font is easily readable, your margins are standard 1-inch, your essay is 1.5 or double-spaced, and your file format is compatible with the application specs.
- There’s no need for a title unless otherwise specified—it will just eat into your word count.
Tips for the macro levelof your college application essay format:
- There is no super-secret college essay format that will guarantee success.
- In terms of structure, it’s most important that you have an introduction that makes it clear where you’re going and a conclusion that wraps up with a main point. For the middle of your essay, you have lots of freedom, just so long as it flows logically!
- I advise against using an essay template, as it will make your essay sound stilted and unoriginal.
Plus, if you use a college essay template, how will you get rid of these medieval weirdos?
Still feeling lost? Check out our total guide to the personal statement, or see our step-by-step guide to writing the perfect essay.
If you're not sure where to start, consider these tips for attention-grabbing first sentences to college essays!
And be sure to avoid these 10 college essay mistakes.
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Many students trip over common obstacles in their college application essays. For example, many students can’t see beyond the superficial prompt to construct an essay that positively communicates their personality and passion. Some students rehash their activities and achievements without adding the personal flavor, perspective and substance that admissions officers look for. Learn how to avoid these and other damaging traps.
As an independent college admissions consultant, I read many application essays and see many common application essay mistakes. Here’s some helpful advice:
- Select the Best Topic and Subject. The Common Application, as well as many individual college applications and supplements, give students a choice of essay topics. Resist the temptation to quickly make a selection. Instead make an inventory of your key experiences and achievements, adjectives that describe you, anything significant in your background, as well as what you can potentially “offer” (e.g. athletics, music, dance) a college. Then read the options carefully and decide which topic(s) provides the best opportunity to portray your self in a desirable manner. If the application requires more than one essay, select distinct topics and subject areas so the admissions people get a broader, and more complete, picture of you. If you are an athlete, for example, try not to write more than one essay about sports.
- Answer the Question. Read the prompt carefully and pay particular attention to two part questions. For example, if you choose to “evaluate a significant experience, achievement or risk you have taken and its impact on you”, make sure you thoughtfully and critically analyze both the situation and its impact. If you choose to “discuss an issue and its importance to you” make sure you focus on its importance to you. The admissions people are looking for a window into your character, passion and reasoning.
- Be Personable and Specific. Colleges don’t learn much from a generic essay. If you are asked to describe your reasons for your interest in a particular school that you are applying to, make sure your essay addresses the particular features of that school that appeal to you and explain why. Brainstorm with others. Don’t be afraid to think creatively. Don’t be afraid to reject ideas! Most strong essays have more “show” than “tell”.
- Make Your Essay The Right Length. Many prompts specify a desired number of words or a range. If it’s 200 to 250 words, don’t insert your 500 word essay. In fact, many on-line applications will not even accept more than the stated limit. If there is only an upper limit, don’t stress if your essay appears too short. Lincoln got his points across succinctly in the Gettysburg address — in less than 275 words. Be concise. Omit irrelevant details, clichés, and poorly developed ideas. Do not distract the reader with unnecessary words and repetition.
- Watch Your Tone. If you come across as a spoiled child, a stuck-up rich kid, lazy, sarcastic or a cynic, the admissions team might decide that you are not the right fit for their school. A bit of well placed humor is fine, but don’t try to be a comedian.
- Don’t Appear Self-Interested or Materialistic. While few applicants are genuinely altruistic, most colleges are turned off by students who appear more focused on what the school can do for them, rather than how they can benefit from the education and at the same time be a contributing member of the campus community. If you are applying to a business program, the average starting salary of recent graduates should not be your stated motivation for seeking admission!
- Don’t Rely on Your Computer’s Spell Checker. Applicants who rely solely on their computer’s spell check program may find themselves submitting applications with poor grammar and word choice. Just because everything is spelled properly doesn’t mean it is correct. A good way to catch mistakes is to read your essay very slowly and out loud.
- Don’t Overlook the Mundane. Some of the best and most memorable essays are based on a simple conversation between people. The impressions and takeaways from such a conversation can be extremely engaging and provide a valuable window into the personality and values of the writer. Some essays of this type center on a moment of enlightenment or illumination when the writer views life from a new perspective and/or gains new confidence.
- Skip the Volunteer Trip. Dedicated community service over a period of time can be a strong topic for an application essay. Volunteer day at the local park, or two weeks of school building in Africa, will probably not impress the admissions committee. They see many essays of this type. Not only is it difficult to stand out from the pack, but these experiences are often more about the experience than about you, or convey that money buys opportunity.
- Don’t Rehash the Resume. The admissions committee relies on essays to learn additional things about you such as your initiative, curiosity about the world, personal growth, willingness to take risks, ability to be self directed, motivation and ability to make the most of a situation. They are interested in your personal qualities such as leadership, confidence, ability to work in a team, strength of character, resilience, sense of humor, ability to get along with others and what you might add to the campus community. In short, use your essays to showcase a side of you not visible from other parts of the application.
- Peruse the Entire Application. Many applications, especially for some of the more competitive schools, are complex and require multiple essays and short answers. Don’t look at each question in a vacuum, but rather view the application holistically when deciding how to best portray yourself through responding to the various prompts. For example, if you have five key areas you wish to cover, and there are five essays, try to strategically focus on one area in each essay.
- Don’t Fall in Love with the Thesaurus. Resist the temptation to be a sesquipedalian or come across as a pedantic fop! There’s no need to use a big word in every sentence. Use caution when showing off your extensive vocabulary. You risk using language improperly and may appear insecure or overly eager to impress. Admissions people aren’t keen about picking up a dictionary to understand your essay. Worse yet, if your essay vocabulary is at a much higher level than what would be expected from your English grades and SAT/ACT scores, it may appear that your essay is not your own work. Most teenagers don’t use myriad and plethora in their daily vernacular.
- Check Your Ego at the Door. Even if you are impressed with yourself, most admissions officers don’t respond favorably to students who brag, put down classmates, or wax eloquent about their amazing achievements. While self doubt is generally undesirable, a bit of humility can be well received, especially in an essay about overcoming adversity.
- Accentuate the Positive. Few students have a perfect resume, which is apparent in the application. Drawing attention to weakness in an essay is generally not a good idea, unless you were able to overcome a weakness, and make it a strong suit.
- Proofread Carefully. Don’t let your eagerness to submit an application cause you to overlook careless mistakes. Errors can doom your otherwise excellent application. Make sure you schedule sufficient time for a thorough review. When possible, have at least one other person proofread your essay. They may catch something important that you missed. For example, you don’t want to tell Ohio State that you really want to be a Wolverine! Again, read your essay out loud.
- Organize Your Essay. An impressive essay generally contains a strong opening, well organized content, and a powerful closing. If your essay lacks structure and seems to ramble, chances are it won’t impress the reader. Start with an outline and design your essay paragraph by paragraph. Make sure you include enough background information about whatever topic you are writing about so that the reader can put it into context. For example, one student wrote an excellent essay about a horrible first day of school, but forgot to include that he had just moved to town, from halfway around the world, and was struggling with English. Resist the temptation to run off and start writing. Experts will tell you that up-front planning of your essays is well worth the time invested. Not only will the quality of your essays be much higher, you’ll probably end up saving time in the long run!
- Research the College Before Writing the Essay. Almost every school has its own identity and mission. Some universities even have a slogan. Others have niche areas of study that they like to promote. Pay attention to what is important to the particular school and, when appropriate, consider including it in some manner in your essay.
- Invest in a Strong Introduction. Admissions people read a lot of essays and may not be energetic and fresh when yours reaches the top of their pile. That’s why it’s essential to attract their attention up front. It is critical that the first few sentences capture their interest. A boring opening may cause the reader to not pay close attention to the remainder of the essay. Design the introduction to draw them into your essay. A well-planned essay may omit some key details in the opening forcing the reader to pay close attention to the rest of the story.
- Start Early and Take Your Time. Don’t wait until the last minute. Application essays almost always take longer than you anticipate. Invest the time necessary to do it right. It should be your best work. Ask others to review your drafts and offer comments and suggestions. Take comments and suggestions seriously – behind every good writer is usually at least one good editor!
Author: Lynn Radlauer Lubell is the Publisher of InLikeMe.com, and the Founder of Admission By Design, a College Consultancy, based in Boca Raton, Florida.
Categories: Admission Tips, Coach's Corner, Essay Tips | Tags: Mistakes to Avoid