How To Format & Structure Your College Application Essay

17/08/20228 minute read
How To Format & Structure Your College Application Essay

College essays are a key component of your college application to top universities. Your essays are a chance for admissions officers to get to know you beyond your grades, test scores, and ECLs. But how do you craft essays that reflect who you are AND impress the admissions officers?

First, it's important to understand that the essays you write in high school differ from what you have to write in your college application essays. Whether you’re writing the Common App Essay, Supplemental Essays, or UCAS Personal Statement, it's crucial that you prepare ahead of time to do your absolute best. Read ahead for guidelines on how to format and structure a college application essay and what mistakes to avoid.

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General College Essay Formatting Guidelines

The main focus of your college essay is the content. The format and structure should make the essay easy to read to maintain this focus.


A title to your college essay is generally not required and takes from your word count. It can also confine your essay to a single meaning, so if you decide to use titles, use them with care. Keep your font double-spaced with a line space between the paragraphs to keep the essay easy on the eyes.


When the word count is not given, staying around 600 words is a safe bet. While it’s important to share about yourself in your essay, oversharing could make you stand out from your competition — in the worst way possible!

Uploading Your Essay

If you are copying and pasting your essay into a text box, here are some necessary actions to take to ensure your essay will be received as intended.

  • Make sure that your essay is transferred over completely. Formatting on a different program initially than using the copy/paste function could cut your essay off, change your word count, alter the paragraph structure, and overall change the initial way you meant your essay to be read.
  • The smaller details, such as bold and italics, may not be possible depending on the platform. As the point of the essay is the text, not including bold/italics only makes for a more straightforward read — it might just be a blessing in disguise!

When attaching a document, you’ll need to be  more precise with your formatting, but here are a few rules of thumb to follow:

  • 1” margin is the standard, and difficult to go wrong with.
  • An easy-to-read font, such as Times New Roman and Arial, is the way to go. The last thing you want is for the admissions officers to have difficulty reading your essay due to a complicated font.
  • Download your college essay in an accepted format according to the submissions site.

3 Tips on How to Structure Your College Application Essay

Common App Essay Guide Part 2: Structure

The actual writing process may be scarier than the format- this is where you tell your story. A standard way of structuring your essay is in this story format, separated into the following 3 acts:

Act 1: The Hook

You want to get your reader excited. Introduce yourself, set the scene, grab their interest, and prepare them for Act 2.

Act 2: The Transformation

This is the event that occurs that drives a change in you. It can be something small, or something life-changing — what matters is it mattered to you, and caused a change to some degree.

Act 3: The Change

Now, in the aftermath of Act 2, you share how you are a different person because of it — more resilient, caring, patient, hardworking, etc.

While this is a general, relatively easy structure to use, it is not the only one! Students have used all kinds of creative structures to help themt stand out amongst other essays. While the story structure is not the be all, end all, it certainly allows for an effective way to share a transformative change within the word count.

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Red Flags To Avoid On Your College Essay

Top 5 Common App Personal Essay Red Flags

High-achieving students often have a tendency to underestimate how much work it takes to craft a good, strong college essay. It is not enough to do really well in all areas of your life if you are not able to reflect that in your essay!

Here are some easy-to-make mistakes to avoid in writing your college application essay:

Using your college essay as a resume

While you may want to share all of your accolades, there are other parts of the application dedicated to this. The essay allows for a more flexible way to share who you are as a person, how you have changed, and how you see yourself growing in the future.

Starting with generic quotes

Generic quotes do not tell the reader about who you are. Usually, these quotes are popular, and if many relate to it then it is not sharing your unique personality and changes you have undergone.

Trying to sound too academic

The college essay is different from your typical academic essays from English class. No need to have a thesaurus on hand — share your experiences as one individual to another.

Sounding different on your essay than the rest of your application

When admissions officers are reading your application, they are considering it holistically. You want to be consistent in your application, showing the same person through your activities as in your personal essay.

Focusing on achievement over growth

Writing about the time you won a volleyball game does not give much insight into who you are as a person the same way that sharing a transformative experience might.

Final Thoughts

By following the college application essay guidelines listed above, you will be able to focus all the attention on the content and give universities invaluable information about who YOU are — and who you could be on their campus. 

For more individualized, exclusive information from admissions experts, book a consultation now to start your journey to your dream university.

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