Guidelines To Format and Structure Your College Essay

January 4, 2022

College essays are a completely new format of writing for high school seniors. So that is why many students are unaware of proper formatting and essay structure.  Many questions arise in the mind of students while writing an essay. Should you double-space or single-space? Should you use the H1 tag or title? What type of narrative style is best suited for your topic?

In this post, we’ll look at the proper college essay format. Also, we’ll be covering the traditional and unconventional essay structures with sample essays! And ultimately, which structure might work best for you. 

Standard Tips For College Essay Formatting 

Your formatting style depends on whether you are submitting in a text box or attaching a document. In detail, we’ll go over the different best practices for both, but regardless of how you’re submitting, here are some common tips for college essay formatting:

  • You don’t need a title because it takes up unnecessary space and eats your word count.
  • Stay within the word count as much as possible (+/- 10% of the upper limit)
  • Cut or double space to separate paragraphs clearly

When submitting in a text box

  • Don’t use bold and italics because they don’t convert into text boxes.
  • Be alert with essays meant to be a specific shape (like a balloon); text boxes will not take that formatting. Also, this technique seems gimmicky, so proceed with care.
  • Remember to keep paragraphs distinctly separated, as text boxes can also undo cuts and double spacing.

When you’re attaching a document:

  • Use a standard font like Times New Roman, 12 point size.
  • Your lines must be 1.5-spaced or double-spaced.
  • Use 1-inch margins
  • Use PDF format because it can’t be edited. Also, you can prevent any formatting issues that happen with Microsoft Word because sometimes older versions are incompatible with the newer formatting.
  • Number each page with your last name in the header or footer (like “John 1”)
  • Pay more attention to any word limits, as you won’t be cut off automatically, unlike with most text boxes.

Conventional College Essay Structures

After understanding the logistical aspects of your essay, let’s dive into how you should structure your writing. There are three traditional college essay structures. Namely

  • In-the-moment narrative
  • The narrative told over an extended period
  • Series of anecdotes, or montage

Let’s check out each one and look at some real essays using these structures.

1. In-the-moment narrative

In such essays, you tell the story one moment at a time, communicating the events as they transpire. This type of essay format is powerful because your reader experiences the circumstances, thoughts, and emotions with you. This type of structure is excellent for a distinctive experience involving many internal dialogue, feelings, and beliefs.

Example:

The morning of the Model United Nation conference, I walked into Committee feeling confident about my research. We were simulating the Nuremberg Trials – a series of post-World War II proceedings for war crimes – and my portfolio was of the Soviet Judge Major General Iona Nikitchenko. Until that day, the infamous Nazi regime had only been a chapter in my history textbook; however, the conference’s unveiling of each defendant’s crimes brought those horrors to life. The previous night, I had organized my research, proofread my position paper and gone over Judge Nikitchenko’s pertinent statements. I aimed to find the perfect balance between his stance and my own.

 As I walked into committee anticipating a battle of wits, my director abruptly called out to me. “I’m afraid we’ve received a late confirmation from another delegate who will be representing Judge Nikitchenko. You, on the other hand, are now the defense attorney, Otto Stahmer.” Everyone around me buzzed around the room in excitement, coordinating with their allies and developing strategies against their enemies, oblivious to the bomb that had just dropped on me. I felt frozen in my tracks, and it seemed that only rage against the careless delegate who had confirmed her presence so late could pull me out of my trance. After having spent a month painstakingly crafting my verdicts and gathering evidence against the Nazis, I now needed to reverse my stance only three hours before the first session.

 Gradually, anger gave way to utter panic. My research was fundamental to my performance, and without it, I knew I could add little to the Trials. But confident in my ability, my director optimistically recommended constructing an impromptu defense. Nervously, I began my research anew. Despite feeling hopeless, as I read through the prosecution’s arguments, I uncovered substantial loopholes. I noticed a lack of conclusive evidence against the defendants and certain inconsistencies in testimonies. My discovery energized me, inspiring me to revisit the historical overview in my conference “Background Guide” and to search the web for other relevant articles. Some Nazi prisoners had been treated as “guilty” before their court dates. While I had brushed this information under the carpet while developing my position as a judge, it now became the focus of my defense. I began scratching out a new argument, centered on the premise that the allied countries had violated the fundamental rule that, a defendant was “not guilty” until proven otherwise.

 At the end of the three hours, I felt better prepared. The first session began, and with bravado, I raised my placard to speak. Microphone in hand, I turned to face my audience. “Greetings delegates. I, Otto Stahmer would like to…….” I suddenly blanked. Utter dread permeated my body as I tried to recall my thoughts in vain. “Defence Attorney, Stahmer we’ll come back to you,” my Committee Director broke the silence as I tottered back to my seat, flushed with embarrassment. Despite my shame, I was undeterred. I needed to vindicate my director’s faith in me. I pulled out my notes, refocused, and began outlining my arguments in a more clear and direct manner. Thereafter, I spoke articulately, confidently putting forth my points. I was overjoyed when Secretariat members congratulated me on my fine performance.

 Going into the conference, I believed that preparation was the key to success. I wouldn’t say I disagree with that statement now, but I believe adaptability is equally important. My ability to problem-solve in the face of an unforeseen challenge proved advantageous in the art of diplomacy. Not only did this experience transform me into a confident and eloquent delegate at that conference, but it also helped me become a more flexible and creative thinker in a variety of other capacities. Now that I know I can adapt under pressure, I look forward to engaging in activities that will push me to be even quicker on my feet.

This essay is a perfect example of in-the-moment narration. The student talks about their internal state, and we feel their anger and terror upon the reversal of roles. We pity their emotions of embarrassment when they are not able to speak.  

This writer provides the right amount of background to help us comprehend the situation and balance out the actual event with a reflection on the importance of this experience. 

One central area of improvement is that the writer sometimes makes direct statements that could be better described through their thoughts, actions, and feelings. Still, this essay is a strong example of in-the-moment narration and gives us a look into the writer’s life. 

2. Narrative told over an extended period

Here, you describe a story that takes place across various experiences. This narrative style is appropriate for any story arc with multiple parts. If you want to emphasize your development over some time, you might consider this structure. 

Example:

When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touched. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.

 And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”

 Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.

 By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.

I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.

The timeline of this essay spans from the writer’s childhood to his sophomore year, but we simply witness crucial moments along this journey. 

First, we learn about the context for why the writer thought he had to choose one identity: his older brothers had very different interests. Then, we discover the student’s 10th-grade creative writing class, writing contest, and finally, the competition results. Eventually, in the essay, we find the writers’ embarrassment of his identity as a poet, to gradual approval and pride in that identity. 

This essay is an ideal example of a narrative told over an extended time. 

3. Montage

In this essay format, you can focus on the most significant experiences of a single storyline or write about multiple stories that might not necessarily be related to highlight your personality. 

A montage is a structure where you combine different scenes to form a whole story. Filmmakers use this technique. Just imagine your favorite movie—most probably, it is a montage of other scenes.  

Night had robbed the academy of its daytime colors, yet there was comfort in the dim lights that cast shadows of our advances against the bare studio walls. Silhouettes of roundhouse kicks, spin crescent kicks, uppercuts and the occasional butterfly kick danced while we sparred. She approached me, eyes narrowed with the trace of a smirk challenging me. “Ready spar!” Her arm began an upward trajectory targeting my shoulder, a common first move. I sidestepped — only to almost collide with another flying fist. Pivoting my right foot, I snapped my left leg, aiming my heel at her midsection. The center judge raised one finger. 

“POINT!”

 There was no time to celebrate, not in the traditional sense at least. Master Pollard gave a brief command greeted with a unanimous “Yes, sir” and the thud of 20 hands dropping-down-and-giving-him-30, while the “winners” celebrated their victory with laps as usual. 

 Three years ago, seven-thirty in the evening meant I was a warrior. It meant standing up straighter, pushing a little harder, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”, celebrating birthdays by breaking boards, never pointing your toes, and familiarity. Three years later, seven-thirty in the morning meant I was nervous. 

 The room is uncomfortably large. The sprung floor soaks up the checkerboard of sunlight piercing through the colonial windows. The mirrored walls further illuminate the studio and I feel the light scrutinizing my sorry attempts at a pas de bourrée, while capturing the organic fluidity of the dancers around me. “Chassé en croix, grand battement, pique, pirouette.” I follow the graceful limbs of the woman in front of me, her legs floating ribbons, as she executes what seems to be a perfect ronds de jambes. Each movement remains a negotiation. With admirable patience, Ms. Tan casts me a sympathetic glance.   

  “Point.”

 There is no time to wallow in the misery that is my right foot. Taekwondo calls for dorsiflexion; pointed toes are synonymous with broken toes. My thoughts drag me into a flashback of the usual response to this painful mistake: “You might as well grab a tutu and head to the ballet studio next door.” Well, here I am Master Pollard, unfortunately still following your orders to never point my toes, but no longer feeling the satisfaction that comes with being a third degree black belt with 5 years of experience quite literally under her belt. It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers. 

 But the appetite for new beginnings that brought me here doesn’t falter. It is only reinforced by the classical rendition of “Dancing Queen” that floods the room and the ghost of familiarity that reassures me that this new beginning does not and will not erase the past. After years spent at the top, it’s hard to start over. But surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become. In Taekwondo, we started each class reciting the tenets: honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet. 

 The thing about change is that it eventually stops making things so different. After nine different schools, four different countries, three different continents, fluency in Tamil, Norwegian, and English, there are more blurred lines than there are clear fragments. My life has not been a tactfully executed, gold medal-worthy Taekwondo form with each movement defined, nor has it been a series of frappés performed by a prima ballerina with each extension identical and precise, but thankfully it has been like the dynamics of a spinning back kick, fluid, and like my chances of landing a pirouette, unpredictable. 

This essay takes anecdotes and knits them into a coherent narrative about the writer’s inclination for novel experiences. We’re sunk into her universe, in the middle of her Taekwondo spar, three years before the present day. She then transitions into a scene in a ballet studio, present day. The author specifies this shift in time by going from past tense to present tense. 

The essay’s parallel use of the spoken phrase “Point” ties these two experiences together. 

The two anecdotes are seamlessly intertwined, and they both clearly illustrate the student’s determination, dedication, reflectiveness, and adaptability. The writer also concludes the essay with a more extensive reflection on her life, many moves, and multiple languages.

Unconventional College Essay Structures

These essay structures don’t fit into the categories above. They have a higher risk, as it’s easier to turn off the admissions officer, but they’re also higher rewards if executed correctly. 

There are endless possibilities for unconventional structures, but most fall under one of two categories:

1. Playing with essay format

Instead of choosing a traditional narrative format, you might take a more creative route to showcase your interests, writing your essay:

  •  As a movie script
  • With a creative visual format (such as creating a visual pattern with the spaces between your sentences forming a picture)
  • As a two-sided Lincoln-Douglas debate
  • As a legal brief
  • Using song lyrics

2. Linguistic techniques

You could also play with the actual language and sentence structure of your essay, writing it:

  • In iambic pentameter
  • Partially in your mother tongue
  • In code or a programming language

These linguistic techniques are often hybrid, where you write some of the essays with the linguistic variation, then write more of an explanation in English.

Under no circumstances should you feel pressured to use an unconventional structure. Trying to force something quirky will only hurt your chances. That being said, if a creative structure comes naturally to you, suits your personality, and works with the content of your essay—go for that structure!

You Might Also Like

Free College Essay Guide

  • Strategies required to write a stellar college essay
  • Exploration Worksheets to help you brainstorm
  • 3 Exemplar Personal Statements
  • Framework to help you Audit your College Essays
Download the College Essay Guide