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How to structure and format your college admissions essay

Published April 11, 2024| minute read
Hadiya Iqbal

Senior Associate, JPMorgan Chase

    One of the more important aspects of applying to college is your college essay. Sometimes, colleges will offer you a topic. Other times, you’ll be able to pick the topic yourself.

    Whatever you end up writing about, correctly structuring your essay will make a huge difference to admissions officers. Beyond grammar and punctuation, a well-structured essay will be easy to read and best showcase your topic, writing talents, and unique point of view.

    Here’s what you need to know about preparing and structuring your college essay to stand out from the crowd of applicants.

    Structuring a college admissions essay

    As a high school student getting ready to go to college, you’ve probably written your fair share of essays. The tips and tools you’ve learned from your high school teachers could end up being critical to your college essay’s success.

    Just like with any essay you’ve turned in during high school, some basic formatting rules include:

    • One-inch margins all around
    • 1.5 or double-spaced text is preferred as it’s easier to read
    • Single tab spacing for each new paragraph
    • Use of standard fonts
    • Fonts should be in 12-point type
    • Include page numbers to make it more organized
    • Use left alignment for the entire document

    Some schools will provide formatting guidelines, and you should follow them closely. However, if they don’t have guidelines around formatting, following these basic rules will usually suffice.

    A step-by-step guide to writing a college admissions essay

    Understand the college admissions essay requirements

    Colleges generally have individual requirements for each essay you write. If you’re applying to several schools that require essays, you must pay attention to what these requirements are. Many colleges provide topics and require certain formatting. Some might ask for a specific word count. Others might require a more straightforward tone, while others are looking for more creativity. Reviewing the requirements for each essay will ensure you show off your talents and that you turn in something the college is looking for.

    Identify your essay topic

    Deciding what essay topic you’re going to go with is one of the more important decisions you’ll make during the college admissions process. If you have the option to come up with your own topic, you’ll want to make sure it fits the requirements and answers important questions about who you are and what your goals are for college. Sometimes, the college will provide a topic or topics for you, or you’ll use the Common App (the single application that can be used to apply to over 1,000 colleges and universities in the U.S.) essay prompts.

    College essays are a way for schools to get to know you outside of your transcript and resume of accomplishments. Whatever topic you choose, it could be a good idea to highlight your strengths, share information about your path to college, and include information about your future goals.

    Admissions officers sometimes look for students who work hard and have overcome obstacles with grace. If you can highlight an anecdote that shows this off, you might put yourself in a good position.

    Outline your essay

    Outlining your essay will help create a flow with a beginning, middle, and end. It’ll also ensure that you stay on topic, and make it much easier to sit down and write the full version. Each paragraph should have an individual point that supports your overall thesis or prompt.

    Consider your outline as a guideline for your final product. It’ll keep you on track and help you finish the essay faster, too. 

    Formatting guidelines for your essay

    Many of the formatting requirements for your college admissions essays will likely be supplied by the colleges you’re applying to. As you go through the applications, follow the instructions and guidelines they provide carefully. In many cases, colleges will outline the required word count, header requirements, fonts, and even margins.

    If a college or university doesn’t provide some of these guidelines, that’s okay! Use the generic formatting guidelines above to compose your essay.

    Once your essay is complete, it’s a good idea to have a friend, relative, or teacher review it. They can provide valuable feedback to help you put your best foot forward.

    Final thoughts

    While the college essay process might seem overwhelming, by following these simple guidelines, you’ll likely be in a better position to have a winning essay that puts your experience and hard work in the spotlight.