College Essay Format: Step-by-Step Guide on How to Structure Your College Essay

Becca Cornell
May 4, 2021

Applying to college is stressful. From wondering if your grades are good enough, to making sure you have enough extracurriculars, and finally, to crafting the perfect college essay, there’s a lot on your plate as you start applying to colleges.    While your grades and extracurriculars have probably been set in stone for a while, there’s still time to make sure you write a great college application essay. If you’re not quite sure where to start, or how to perfect your personal statement, read through our comprehensive guide below.   

What is a college essay, anyway?

Usually a part of the college application process, the admissions essay is a kind of personal statement written by the student applying for admission to a college. It’s an opportunity to introduce yourself to the admission committee, revealing your top qualities and hopefully making a memorable first impression.   Although this statement of purpose isn’t as crucial to acceptance as your grades, admission test scores, and strength of curriculum, research by the National Association for College Admission Counseling has found that the college essay is of “considerable or moderate importance.”  

The one golden rule of a good college essay

The basic rule to keep in mind when starting to write your college essay is to be honest. Too many students try to embellish their essays, thinking it’s necessary to impress college admissions officers, but staying honest is usually the best option. Not only will it come off as more genuine, it’ll make your job of writing the essay a lot easier.   Photo by Gracini Studios

College essay prompts

Many college application essays have prompts. For some students, this is easier because they don’t have to come up with their own idea of what to write about. Others find it restricts their creativity and makes them feel like they can’t write about what they’d really like to.   If you haven’t been given a prompt on your essay and are struggling with what to write, here are some common prompts to get you started: 
  • Write about a time you failed, and how that failure affected you.
  • Tell us about a time your view of the world was challenged.
  • Write about a problem you dream of solving.
  • What’s the best book you’ve ever read? Why?
  • Our college values a diverse student body. What contributions might you make to our campus community?
  • Write about someone who has changed your life for the better.
  • How did you become interested in attending this college?
  • Pick a law that has changed and describe how it has had an effect on your life.
  • What subject would you want to teach if you could?
  • If you were to give a TED talk, what would it be on?
  • Write about a time you faced adversity and how it changed you.

So, what are they looking for in college essays?

While all of these prompts are great, there really isn’t one that’s superior to another. There is no secret question that, should you answer it, you’ll automatically be accepted.    What’s most important is picking a topic or prompt that will show who you are as a student and as a person. Be it something you’re passionate about, a lesson you’ve learned, or a dream you have, choosing a prompt that will allow the admission committee to get to know you a little better will be your best complement to good grades and great extracurriculars.   That said, college admission officers do look for well-structured essays that contain logically supported ideas. They want evidence that you can write well.   Photo by Steve Johnson

How to structure a college essay

Once you've chosen your topic, focusing on the structure of your essay is important. Other than learning a bit more about you as a student and as a person, admissions counselors will be looking at the organization, structure, and flow of your essay.   Much like the essays you learned to write in high school, your main focus will be an introduction, body, and conclusion. Usually, your introduction will be one paragraph; your body should consist of a minimum of two paragraphs but could range up to five, and your conclusion is also one paragraph.   The number of paragraphs in your essay body will of course depend on the word count. Regardless of the number of paragraphs, having an essay that flows logically and contains the required information is your top priority. Sticking to the basics is best: Tell your story in chronological order, clearly and concisely. Your college admissions essay is not the time to be daring in terms of creative writing. Attempting to use flashbacks, for instance, could confuse the reader.  

How to start off a college essay

Your introduction, like your essay overall, should hold three important facets of information: a hook or topic sentence, your thesis sentence, and your outlining sentence. Your hook grabs the reader's attention and establishes what you'll be writing about. A thesis is a statement. It could be an opinion or declaration of a position you've taken, and which you'll be discussing. Lastly, your outlining sentence will set up the structure of the body of your essay and define your main points.  

How to end a college essay

Ending your essay is not unlike beginning it. A conclusion also consists of three important sentences: your topic sentence (again), your supporting and summarizing sentence(s), and your concluding sentence.   Your topic sentence should be a reworded variation on the one you used in your introduction. Your supporting and summarizing sentences should retouch on your main points and round out why they support your thesis. Finally, your concluding sentence should look to leave a lasting impression regarding your topic upon your reader. Try to make a concluding sentence that will make what you've said in your essay really stick in your reader's mind.

College essay writing tips

Before you actually start writing, take a moment to look through these writing tips. A college essay has a very specific reason and reader. These tips will help address your goal.  

Write about something that has meaning to you

As mentioned, what you write about will have one of the biggest effects on the quality of your essay. Most admissions committee members will be able to tell if you don’t really care or are being disingenuous.   That means if you’re answering a prompt about a time you failed and how that failure affected you, your essay should be based on a real event and what you learned from it. It doesn’t have to be something spectacular, but it should be meaningful to you.  

Don’t just hit the highlights

Regardless of whether you’re writing about your childhood best friend or a mission trip, don’t just skim the surface of the topic. Be sure to focus on what the experience taught you. Reflect back on that time in your life and how it shaped you into the person you are today.   The same idea applies if your essay answers the prompt about how you came to choose this particular college. Don’t just rattle off your interests and say the school offers that program. Do some research; see if some of the professors have written books or given talks about the subjects you’re interested in.   

Make your point

Stay on point. Most college essays have word limits or ranges, which can help you stay focused. Keep the question you’re answering top of mind, and provide evidence of how you came to that answer. If you’re coming up very short or way too long, try another prompt if possible.   Remember too that the structure of the essay, and how well-written it is, matters. If you’re rambling along in a stream-of-consciousness mode, you won’t have the logical structure the college admission officers tend to look for.   Photo by Karolina Grabowska

Stick to the word count

The majority of college essays have a range or maximum word count that they don’t want you to go over. This means if they want a 500-word essay, you shouldn’t write 700. While 50 words in either direction won’t be a cause for much notice, admission committees don’t want to read an essay that’s triple the allotted word count.   If nothing else, writing within the prescribed word count proves you can follow instructions. More importantly, it proves you can present a properly formatted essay, with argument and supporting ideas, in about two pages.   

Your teacher was right: introduction, body, conclusion

As discussed above, it’s best to stick to the basic essay format with your college essays. Focus on an intriguing introduction, a body that tells a story, and a conclusion.   So, if you’ve chosen to write about what your TED talk would be on, your first paragraph would explain exactly what your presentation topic would be. The body of your essay would go into how you chose that topic, why it interests you, and possibly some personal experience that made the topic especially relevant.    You could conclude with what you’d like to do after that talk: the direction your career would take, for example, or changes you’d like to see in the world, based on your presentation.  

Tell a story

Regardless of what you’re writing about, the body of your essay should tell a story. Whether you’re writing about an experience, a belief, or a passion, there is a story about what happened, who affected your beliefs, or why you’re passionate. Tell that story. It creates interest and comes across as honest and genuine.  

Use the active voice

Academic essays tend to use the passive voice; personal statements, however, should use the active.    To use active voice means to frame your sentences in a way where the subject acts upon the verb. It is more compelling than the passive voice.   Here's an example:   Active: Sam attended class.   Passive: The class was attended by Sam.   The active voice is usually clearer, easier to read, and will help keep the admission committee more interested in your essay than if you wrote it in the passive voice.  

Edit once, edit twice, and edit again

While it’s important to pick a good topic and write a good story, avoidable mistakes, such as grammatical or spelling errors can be just as detrimental as an ill-written story.   This is mostly because it shows carelessness. Not only should you edit your own work, but you should also have a parent, teacher, or friend edit your work as well. Sometimes even having two people to look over your essay can be beneficial as some mistakes are easily missed.   Photo by Lorenzo Cafaro

How to actually start your personal statement

“Today I will write about…”, “For my college essay, I’m going to tell you about…”, “ For my essay…”   No. All of these phrases are poor choices to use to start your essay.   That's because the reader already knows why you’re writing a college application essay. A strong opening sentence will invite them to read further.   For example, if you’ve decided to write about your time as a high school athlete, using a motivational quote that stuck with you through the years can be a good opening. It will catch your reader's attention, who might recognize and even identify with it.   After your opening sentence, you can dive right into explaining what you’re writing about. Remember, you probably won’t need more than 2-4 sentences for your introductory paragraph.  

The Common App essay

The common application essay is very much the same as any college application essay. You’d follow the format we’ve outlined above, but just make sure not to specify one college within your essay.   Other than that, following these tips for the common application essay will leave you more than prepared to handle the essay portion of the application.