College Essays

The Perfect College Essay Structure

Please Note: This guide is intended to help you brainstorm and begin writing your college essays. This is a 4 part detailed guide. This is the 2nd article, the other three articles are below:

The Anatomy of the Essay

Before we go into essay structure, it’s worth reiterating that there are no rules for college admissions essays. Students have been known to submit recipes, scripts, lists, stories featuring dialogue, interviews, etc. You are certainly free to get creative with the setup of the essay.

However, by getting familiar with some of the common elements in the college application essay, it will help you, even if you choose a more freestyle form, to make sure you’re still hitting the main points. Remember that you don’t want to get so caught up in a creative theme that you lose focus on the objective, which is to help the readers/admissions officers learn something more about who you are and why you will be a great fit for their institution.

Essays are like people in a way. Even though as humans we have a lot in common, there really are no two of us that are exactly alike. Think of your main idea as the bones of your essay, the skeleton and foundation that will support the rest of the picture you are creating. The details of the story or stories you tell are the meat and heart of your creation. And the conclusions, philosophies, self-insights you share put your personal, one-of-a-kind imprint on the essay. When they are all woven together, they ideally create a portrait that shows a lot about who you are, inside and out.

For the purposes of this course, we are going to point out how a typical essay might be structured, some of the key elements you should have, and a general suggested order. This should help you assemble at least a first draft, which you can later build on, change, improve, and get more creative with if you choose.

Breaking it Down

In the 650-word essay, there are no rules about how many paragraphs you should have. Everyone breaks it up a bit differently and there’s no right or wrong (well, with one exception: please don’t make it all one long paragraph that’s a personal pet peeve, but also just not good writing style). So, I’m going to give you an overall description of what comes at the beginning, middle, and end; you can decide how many paragraphs you need for each. In the following section, I’m going to break down a Sample Essay (shown in full at the end) to help clarify and give you some concrete examples. You can also look at additional sample essays in the 3rd part of the guide to see how their elements fit (or don’t fit) within the typical structure.

The following chapters will offer general guidelines for setting up your essay.

The Beginning

(Usually the first one or two paragraphs)

This is where you grab the reader’s attention with an opening line or setup called “The Hook,” set the scene, create a framework for the story you’re going to tell, and introduce the theme or subject you’ll be tackling. We’ll get into The Hook in detail below, but basically, you want to remember that the people reading your essay could be reading thousands of essays and your opening is your opportunity to get them interested and keep them reading.

One thing I’d like to note is that even though it comes at the opening of the essay, many students don’t find their Hook until they’ve written the entire essay. It’s always something you can come back to and keep tweaking. So if you find yourself staring at a blank document waiting for the “perfect hook,” just start writing and let your beginning be imperfect, knowing you can come back to it later.

Sample Essay:

I sat on the cold ground clutching my mother’s hand. Focusing on the dim light in the center of the windowless room, I attempted to drown out the fear that had encompassed my entire body. The eerie noises that surrounded us advanced. Whistling wind rushed past, heavy rain pattered against the walls, and lightning radiated the ominous sky. Through the scruffy transmission the broadcaster on the radio reported, “Hurricane Wilma has now turned into a category 5!”

Although I was only 4, I clearly remember the extreme weather conditions and the gruesome aftermath of Wilma. Once the storm subsided, I walked outside my front door, tightly held to my dad, and was struck in awe at the amount of damage around me. Trees trunks slammed on top of cars, sections of roofs completely torn off, windows shattered, and yards painted with debris. It was quite the traumatic site for a young girl. To me, it didn’t seem real. I felt like I had just walked into a scene of a horror movie.

Growing up in South Florida, I have now experienced so many hurricanes that
it feels like a routine every summer. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I
realized that there was another kind of hurricane brewing in my life.

Notes:

The student uses the first three paragraphs to set up the essay. They do a great job of grabbing our attention right away with the opening line. Obviously, they are in a scary situation and we want to know more. They also set the scene for us with great imagery and description, using all the senses. We can hear the wind and rain, see the lightning, and imagine the news report. We get the feeling that this is an awful experience to endure. Then paragraph 3 lets us know that the essay is not just about the hurricane, but that the hurricane is a metaphor being used to compare another major experience.

You can do this in one, two, or three paragraphs, but ultimately, the goal is the same: tell a compelling, detailed story or use some other attention- getting device to interest the reader; be descriptive; and let us know by the end of the introduction what the main theme of the essay is. In this case, we know the student is going to discuss the current “hurricane” in their life is.

The Middle

This is the heart of the essay, where you dive deeper into the theme/story you’ve presented. Many times, especially if you are focusing on one particular story, this is where you tell us more of the story, give us what the main challenge was, bring us to the major turning point, and let us know the outcome and what you learned. If you are telling multiple stories that support your overall theme, you’ll want to make sure each one is a mini-version of this, letting us know how it relates to/supports your broader message, or at least tying them together by the end of this section.

Example – Continuing with the Sample Essay

I live a very typical life. My parents are happily married. My two siblings and I never get along. I spend hours at a time doing homework. I am on the cheerleading team. I have a part-time job. Basically, everything you’d expect from a teenager. The one thing that I didn’t get to have that most kids do is a close relationship with my grandpa. My grandpa was diagnosed with my grandpa. My grandpa was diagnosed with Alzheimer Disease when I was 6 years old. Since then, I have witnessed a sharp decline in his health. It has gotten to the point where I can no longer feel life in his presence. It’s as if his mind is endlessly running along an empty path. For years now he has completely forgotten who I am. To him, I am just another face that he will not be able to recognize in a few minutes. As his futile days go on, it gets harder for me to
watch him transform into a lifeless human who once granted me so much love. The early years of my life with my grandpa were the happiest years of my life. He brought so much joy and laughter into my undeveloped world. Just like before a storm approaches, my skies were blue and filled with sunshine which my grandpa illuminated. One day my parents received a dreadful call about his diagnosis. They tried to explain in simple terms what was going on. This news sent panic throughout me and my family and we began to prepare for the days ahead, just as we would for a hurricane. Since his earliest stage of Alzheimer’s, we have been experiencing our own kind of hurricane that has shattered our happiness and sent tears pouring down. It is clear to me that conditions will only get worse. As we all anticipate his passing, I plan to hold onto the last few moments I have with him before they become memories. I believe that my new understanding of this disease has changed me into a different person. I’ve realized that I appreciate the little things in life that usually would go unnoticed. Instead of worrying about the future, I now live in the present. I’ve learned to make the most of each day because at any moment life can change. I will always cherish the times my grandpa and I spent together before this repulsive disease took over his jubilant life.

Notes:

Now the student transitions to the present day and tells us who they are and begins to relate the story of their grandfather having Alzheimer’s. They detail the
challenging situation of watching his decline. Then, in the last two paragraphs of this middle section, they come back to the hurricane metaphor. The last paragraph does a good job of letting us know why they are telling this story – because it has changed them and they let us know in what ways.

The Conclusion

This is an important part of your essay. Too many students let their essays wind down without a strong conclusion. Don’t let your essay die here! This is the place where you get to drive home your point and make a powerful closing statement about you, your philosophy, and how you intend to approach college and life. Finish as strongly as you start, and your essay is likely to be one the admissions officer remembers and enjoys.

Example – Sample Essay's Conclusion

After each hurricane, the time comes to tear down the hurricane shutters and remove all the wreckage. Progressively, the sun begins to come out again and shine down on the community. My grandpa will always be the sun and I know he will be there shining down on me for the rest of my life. I am determined to stay strong and rebuild from what I’d like to call “Hurricane Alz.”

Note:

The student rounds out the hurricane metaphor and in this final statement, shows us that they’ve learned that life goes on even after tragedies. That tells us they are resilient and able to find a positive attitude in challenging times, an important life skill for college students. We also see that they are compassionate and care deeply about their grandfather. Finally, in its entirety, the essay demonstrates that this student has reflected on this difficult situation and how it has shaped them. Start Your Draft Now let’s work on your beginning, middle, and end. Go to Worksheets in the next chapter to begin. Refer back to the sample essays for inspiration as you
work through the process of putting your draft together. Please don’t worry about word count for now. Focus on getting as many details down as possible. It’s always easy to cut back as you continue to perfect your draft later.

Also, as you begin to write the elements of your draft, keep in mind that your tone should be conversational. Write almost as if you were talking to someone.

The Complete Sample Essay

I sat on the cold ground clutching my mother’s hand. Focusing on the dim light in the center of the windowless room, I attempted to drown out the fear that had encompassed my entire body. The eerie noises that surrounded us advanced. Whistling wind rushed past, heavy rain pattered against the walls, and lightning radiated the ominous sky. Through the scruffy transmission the broadcaster on the radio reported, “Hurricane Wilma has now turned into a category 5!”

Although I was only 4, I clearly remember the extreme weather conditions and the gruesome aftermath of Wilma. Once the storm subsided, I walked outside my front door, tightly held to my dad, and was struck in awe at the amount of damage around me. Trees trunks slammed on top of cars, sections of roofs completely torn off, windows shattered, and yards painted with debris. It was quite the traumatic site for a young girl. To me, it didn’t seem real. I felt like I had just walked into a scene of a horror movie. Growing up in South Florida, I have now experienced so many hurricanes that it feels like a routine every summer. It wasn’t until recently, however, that I realized that there was another kind of hurricane brewing in my life. I live a very typical life. My parents are happily married. My two siblings and I never get along. I spend hours at a time doing homework. I am on the cheerleading team. I have a part- time job. Basically, everything you’d expect from a teenager.

The one thing that I didn’t get to have that most kids do is a close relationship with my grandpa. My grandpa was diagnosed with Alzheimer's Disease when I was 6 years old. Since then, I have witnessed a sharp decline in his health. It has gotten to the point where I can no longer feel life in his presence. It’s as if his mind is endlessly running along an empty path. For years now he has completely forgotten who I am. To him, I am just another face that he will not be able to recognize in a few minutes. As his futile days go on, it gets harder for me to watch him transform into a lifeless human who once granted me so much love.

The early years of my life with my grandpa were the happiest years of my life. He brought so much joy and laughter into my undeveloped world. Just like before a storm approaches, my skies were blue and filled with sunshine which my grandpa illuminated. One day my parents received a dreadful call about his diagnosis. They tried to explain in simple terms what was going on. This news sent panic throughout me and my family and we began to prepare for the days ahead, just as we would for a hurricane. Since his earliest stage of Alzheimer’s, we have been experiencing our own kind of hurricane that has shattered our happiness and sent tears pouring down.
It is clear to me that conditions will only get worse. As we all anticipate his passing, I plan to hold onto the last few moments I have with him before they become memories. I believe that my new understanding of this disease has changed me into a different person. I’ve realized that I appreciate the little things in life that usually would go unnoticed. Instead of worrying about the future, I now live in the present. I’ve learned to make the most of each day because at any moment life can change. I will always cherish the times my grandpa and I spent together before this repulsive disease took over his jubilant life.

After each hurricane, the time comes to tear down the hurricane shutters and remove all the wreckage. Progressively, the sun begins to come out again and shine down on the community. My grandpa will always be the sun and I know he will be there shining down on me for the rest of my life. I am determined to stay strong and rebuild from what I’d like to call “Hurricane Alz.”

Lets Start Writing

Creating Your Hook

You’ll need your notes from Worksheet 5 and it helps to have your Personal Purpose Statement nearby to refer to as well.

A few thoughts on The Hook:

  • It should be attention-getting and original. Try to avoid opening with sayings, quotes, or general statements, such as “I’m like all kids my age,” “Life is like a roller coaster,” or “You never know what life will bring.”
  • Think about capturing a moment in time, telling an anecdote related to your story, pulling a piece out of your story that is especially colorful and can be described using most of the senses
  • It doesn’t have to be the beginning of the story just because it’s at the beginning. This trips students up sometimes. The opening can be a scene from any point in your story. You will then go back after the introduction and tell it in a more chronological order if that’s appropriate. Here’s a good example of an essay that starts with a flashback, which very vividly creates an engaging opening, then goes back to the start of the story:

I squeeze my eyes shut for five seconds…no, ten seconds. Open them fast and wide and I’m in a prison cell, curled up on a thin blue mattress that covers an iron bed. A blinding light shines through the small window in the door, making it impossible to sleep. It beams directly into my eyes, blurring my vision green, then purple, then back to green. This isn’t a bad dream. This is the day of my arrest, my wake-up call. Fifteen hours earlier, I stood with my Pakistani friend under a Tube station in London….

To find some possible Hooks for your essay, answer the following questions:

  • What is the most vivid, emotional part of the story I’m telling?
  • What is the highlight of the idea/story/theme and is there a visual or sensory image associated with that that I might use to open the essay?
  • What would be an effective way to introduce my theme that might tie in with my Personal Purpose Statement?
  • Can you zoom in and give a snapshot of a scene with details that helps introduce the essay?
  • Is there a metaphor or visual I can use as a framework for my story?

Example:

Our sample student might review his notes and think that the scene where he is in Jill’s hospital room is a good place to start. He also wants to show that he’s funny and loves to make people laugh. So maybe he could start with a joke from the book he was reading Jill.

“Why did the teddy bear say no to dessert?” I waited a beat like any good comedian would and waited for Jill’s reaction. She shrugged. “Because she was stuffed,” I laughed as I delivered the punchline. Jill softly chuckled, but I could see she was just being polite. More than that, I could see she was in pain, and I desperately wanted to change that.

This is definitely a clever way to introduce the juxtaposition of humor and someone in pain. Maybe our sample student goes on from there to give us a more descriptive picture of where they are, who Jill is, and why they are there. And the student has choices…they can finish the opening scene/introduction with Jill laughing and then introduce their theme about laughter as medicine. Or they could leave Jill’s laughter for the middle/turning point of the story.

Your turn. Jot down a few ideas for your Hook.
1.
2.
3.

Now choose one and write a draft of your introductory paragraph or paragraphs. Be a storyteller. Think about the smallest details and paint a picture for the reader. What would the reader see, hear, feel if they were there? What are you seeing, feeling, hearing, saying in the scene you’re describing? What is the mood or tone? Tense? Calm? Sad? Joyful? Choose words and images that reflect that.

Crafting the Middle Part – the Body of the Essay

Again, refer back to your answers on Worksheet 3. Before writing this part, review the list of main points you could make with this story. Perhaps this even gives you an idea for how to break up your paragraphs, focusing each paragraph on a certain point. Also review the ideas you hope the story will illustrate about you so you have those in the back of your mind. Make sure all the body paragraphs relate to your main idea that you’ve presented at the end of your introduction. So if our sample student’s main theme is about discovering that laughter is healing, each paragraph should further develop and support that idea.

  1. Write one to two paragraphs giving more details about your story. This can include the background leading up to it, a continuation of the story. If you’re using different stories to support a main point, each paragraph can focus on a story. Pull from your notes on Worksheet 3, trying to add as many details and descriptions as possible. Give the reader a sense of being there with you in the story; let them know how you’re feeling and what you’re experiencing. Be specific, not general.
  2. In paragraph 3 or 4, you should be coming to the main turning point or highlight in your story. Then write about what’s transformed for you. What are the positives that came out of this? How were you impacted? Changed? What did you learn?

A Strong Finish – Write your Conclusion

Drawing from your answer number 8 on Worksheet 3 and the added details that have come up in your drafts on Worksheets 4 and 5, elaborate on your conclusion in 3 to 5 sentences.

Some questions to consider while drafting this part:

  • What is the point of the story or stories I’m telling?
  • Do I need to revisit a metaphor I introduced at the opening?
  • Where am I now in comparison or in contrast to what I presented at the beginning of the essay?
  • What philosophy came out of this?
  • How will take what I learned to college, to my career, or to my life?
  • Can you zoom in and give a snapshot of a scene with details that helps introduce the essay?
  • Is there a metaphor or visual I can use as a framework for my story?

Auditing Your Essay

FINALIZING YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT

First, congratulations for completing all the steps so far. You’ve done most of the hard work! Now, you can assemble the pieces from Worksheets 6,7, and 8 to create your first rough draft.

Once you’ve put it all together, read it through. You may need to add some transitions between paragraphs to make sure it flows. You may want to rearrange some of your information. Is there anything you can take out? If it doesn’t really support your overall theme/message, get rid of it. Are there ways you can make the story or stories flow better? Are there better ways you can communicate some of the ideas?

Sometimes the best thing you can do at this point is to take a break and put the draft away for a day or two.

When you’re ready, take it out again and look at it with fresh eyes. Some things you can look for:

  • Are you reusing the same word too many times throughout the essay? That can happen especially when you’re focused on a certain topic. For instance, our sample student might fall into the trap of using “laugh” too much.
  • Consult the thesaurus to find alternatives so your essay doesn’t sound repetitive.
  • Does any part of what you written come off as boasting? Sounding confident is good, but make sure you’re not comparing yourself to others or talking too much about a win.
  • Does the essay make the point you’re wanting to make? Try to read it as if you are a stranger reading about somebody else. From that perspective, do you feel like you’ve learned something about the person in the essay?
  • Overall, does the essay make sense? Are you trying to include too much information and losing track of the story line or continuity of the essay?
  • Keep your focus narrow.
  • Reread your Personal Purpose Statement. Does this get communicated through the essay?
  • Does the essay sound like you?

Honing Your Draft

You’ve come a long way, but this is just the beginning. As mentioned earlier, your essay can and should go through several rounds of editing and rewriting. You may even find yourself at this point crumpling up your first draft and starting again with a new idea. That’s still progress by the way.

Get Feedback!

I can’t stress this enough. Once you are decently satisfied with your draft, ask a few trusted people to review it and give you their honest feedback. By “trusted,” I don’t mean a grandmother who is going to say she loves it whether she does or not. I mean a teacher, parent, sibling, or advisor who can tell you if the essay does reflect your personality and give you some opinions about how you might improve it.

One suggestion is to gather a group of friends and exchange essays, so everyone is giving and receiving feedback. You can keep your names off of the essays if you want it to be anonymous. Not only do you get the other person’s input, but often by helping someone else, you get ideas about how to improve your own essay as well.

Most importantly, remember that this is your essay and you have the final word about what stays in or gets edited out. That’s completely up to you. So take the advice that resonates with you and don’t do anything to your essay that you don’t feel good about. And again, don’t incorporate so many of other people’s suggestions that your essay stops sounding like you.

Proofread, Proofread, Proofread!

Before you push that final “submit” button, make sure you and others have read through the essay several times and double-, triple-checked for errors, including spelling, grammar, punctuation, omitted words, etc.

Give Yourself Plenty of Time!

As you can see from this Essay Course, the process of brainstorming, drafting, and finalizing your essay can and should take several weeks or more. That’s why it’s so important to start early. The summer before your senior year is a great time to start, before you get swept up in the madness of the school year. This essay is only one part of the application process.

You’ll also have to devote time to the supplemental essays, filling out the Common App, getting your letters of recommendation, among other things. To get organized,it’s great to create a spreadsheet with all the colleges you’re applying to, the essays they require, and the deadlines. It also helps to set your own personal deadlines for completing different steps in the essay process and overall college application process. And just think, the earlier you finish everything, the sooner you’ll be free to fully enjoy your last months in high school.

Please Note: This guide is intended to help you brainstorm and begin writing your college essays. This is a 4 part detailed guide. This is the 2nd article, the other three articles are below:

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