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Last updated May 24, 2023

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College Essay Format (with Examples)

Key Takeaway

You've got two kinds of format to think about when writing your college essay. First, you have the logistics: word count, document type, or paragraph length. But you also have to think about how your essay narrative is structured. We'll go over both and take a look at some example essays.

Knowing how to format your college essay can be tricky.

Some questions, like the length or font of your essay, are fairly easy to address.

Other questions about format, like number of paragraphs or narrative structure, require more thought and planning.

In this post, we talk about both kinds of questions. We also show you some examples of how to format your college essays.

Here we go!

Should my college essay have a title?

Most college essays do not have titles. Writing a title isn’t off-limits, but adding one can unnecessarily eat up your word count.

If adding a title is essential to the meaning of your essay, then go ahead and add one. If you do add one, it should be short and sweet.

Otherwise, you can skip it.

What font should I use for my college essay?

In most cases, you’ll be uploading your college essay into an application system. These systems usually have you copy and paste your essay into a text box.

If that’s the case, then you don’t need to worry about what font you write your essay in. The text box will take care of that for you.

If you’re uploading a Word document or PDF to an application portal, then choose a standard font like Calibri, Times New Roman, or Arial. The font should be clear and easy for an admissions officer to read.

Feel free to use other formatting features like bold and italics. But, as with any writing device, use them sparingly or they’ll lose their punch.

College Essay Document Format

If you do apply to a school that requires you to upload documents to a portal, it’s usually a good idea to save the documents as a PDF and upload them in that format.

No matter the kind of document (college essay, transcript, standardized test scores), saving and uploading your document as a PDF ensures that all the formatting and fonts will remain the same, no matter the reader’s computer.

In Word, you can save your document as a PDF simply by going to “file” > “save as” > “save as PDF.”

In Google Docs, you go to “file” > “download” > “PDF.”

When you save it as a PDF, be sure to change the naming convention to something you’d be okay with an admissions officer seeing. There are few things worse than sending a PDF of your SAT scores to an admissions officer and realizing after the fact that you named them “UGH SAT SCORES UGH.” A good naming system is usually something along the lines of “Last Name_First Name_Document Type.”

You should then be able to upload your PDF to the application portal or send it via email without any issues.

College Essay Length

We cover college essay word count at length in our post about college essay requirements, but you should be within the given word count range. The Common Application personal statement allows a maximum of 650 words.

You don’t need to be exactly at the maximum. You should try to get to about 80% of the maximum word count (as long as that percentage is still above the minimum word count). Using that logic for the Common App college essay, your essay should be 520 to 650 words.

College Essay Organization

No admissions officer likes to see a one-paragraph essay, so your college essay should be formatted into multiple paragraphs.

No matter your format, your essay needs three main parts:

  • An Introduction: Your introduction introduces the reader to your essay. The very first sentence is a “hook”—a single sentence that captures the reader’s attention and compels them to keep reading. College essay introductions are typically 1-2 paragraphs, depending on their length.
  • A Middle (or “body”): The middle of your essay should contain the bulk of your story. It’s where a lot of description and exposition happens. Body paragraphs typically take up 2-5 paragraphs in a college essay.
  • A Conclusion: The conclusion wraps up your essay, resolves any standing conflicts, and reflects on the meaning of what you’ve just written. Conclusions are typically only 1 paragraph and can range in length from a single sentence to several sentences.

In general, these basic paragraph requirements mean that your college essay personal statement should have at least three paragraphs.

Besides that, there is no set number of paragraphs your essay should have, but they should be clearly and thoughtfully organized.

3 Example College Essay Structures

If you’re wondering how you should format the story you want to tell in your college essay, then you’ve come to the right place.

Formatting a story is all about plot and narrative arc.

You’ve probably heard of concepts like the “hero’s journey” (call to action, challenges, abyss, return, etc.) or the seven types of literary conflict (self vs. self, self vs. nature, self vs. society, etc.).

While you don’t need to worry about writing a novel, your college essay should have a similar type of plot-driven format.

That means that your personal statement should take on a narrative arc, complete with an introduction, central conflict, rising action, climax, and conclusion.

These elements are all critical to capturing and maintaining your readers’ attention. When your readers are admissions officers, you want them to be as engaged as possible.

You can approach your college essay format using what we like to call “story shapes.” Story shapes help you conceptualize which standardized story arc your college essay best aligns with. By following the major points along the story shape, you can keep your personal statement plot interesting and on track.

Here are three of the most common story shapes (you can find more story shapes, descriptions, and examples in the Essay Academy).

1. Upward Trending Growth

“Upward trending growth” essays are one of the most popular because they clearly demonstrate a student’s history of and potential for growth. By showing how you have grown in the past, you can communicate to admissions officers your ability to reflect, learn, and create positive change.

“Upward trending growth” essays can be about improving at something you weren’t previously good at, about your process of gaining new knowledge and changing your beliefs, or about a moment of revelation that led you to be a better person or student. Overall, they show maturity and thoughtfulness.

Here’s what the story shape looks like:

  • Beginning: The writer begins with a description of the “before” state.
  • Beginning-Middle: Tension, conflict, or difficulty deepens. The reader is introduced to the event that kicks off the process of growth.
  • Middle: The growth continues.
  • Conclusion: The writer makes it to their growth destination and reflects on the journey.

Check out this example personal statement, Rosie's, which uses the Upward Trending Growth structure.

2. At War With the World

In “at war with the world” essays, writers describe a major conflict they’ve faced. The conflict can be something internal or external to the writer. It could be a conflict of opinion with family members, a struggle with self-beliefs, or a larger-scale fight for justice or change.

By showing a reader one of your most dearly-held conflicts, you also introduce them to the values that are most important to you. “At war with the world” essays can show great resilience and passion.

Here’s what the story shape looks like:

  • Beginning: The writer introduces the challenge. The challenge can be internal or external.
  • Beginning-Middle: The writer starts to deal with the challenge and shows that the challenge has real effects on their life. The writer begins to identify a response or solution.
  • Middle: The writer works towards the solution, and the reader more clearly understands the writer’s actions.
  • Conclusion: The essay ends with the writer connecting back to the problem and reflecting on the personal change that has occurred. The writer looks towards the future.

Check out this example personal statement, Laughter and Acceptance, which uses the At War with the World structure.

3. The Thinker

“The thinker” essays are characterized by their unbridled passion for a subject. If you want to go all-in on a topic you could talk about for days, then this is the structure for you. Students frequently choose this structure to talk about one of their intellectual passions (engineering, a historical event), a relevant hobby (Rubik’s cube, sewing or crafting), or any topic that helps define them.

These essays are most effective when they cover a topic that you can clearly and specifically relate to who you are as a person. Writing about a topic you’re passionate about helps convey that passion to your reader—an admissions officer. Admissions officers who understand your passions and background can easily envision you on their campuses.

Here’s what the story shape looks like:

  • Beginning: The writer introduces the idea to the reader.
  • Beginning-Middle: Delving into the idea, the writer describes how they’ve explored it. The reader begins to get a sense of what’s at stake to the writer in deepening their understanding of the idea.
  • Middle: The writer explores the idea more deeply and explains what’s at stake in more detail.
  • Conclusion: The writer reflects on their values related to their interest. They clearly show how their intellectual interest relates to who they are as a person.

Check out this example personal statement, Poetry Slam, which uses The Thinker structure.

Being able to guide your reader seamlessly through each part of your story is an essential part of good college essay format. It's also crucial for creating your cohesive application narrative. Meeting formatting requirements like length and number of paragraphs will help you set a good impression with admissions officers from the get-go.

Now that you have these three story shapes in mind, see which best fits your chosen college essay topic. And if you need more ideas, look to the Essay Academy for additional story shapes. Happy writing!

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