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    Top Tips for Formatting Your College Application Essay

    By Cece Gilmore

    Cece Gilmore is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cece earned her undergraduate degree in Journalism and Mass Communications from Arizona State University. While at ASU, she was the education editor as well as a published staff reporter at Downtown Devil. Cece was also the co-host of her own radio show on Blaze Radio ASU.

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    Reviewed by Bill Jack

    Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

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    Edited by Maria Geiger

    Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

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    Updated: March 1st, 2023
    Top Tips for Formatting Your College Application Essay

    Faced with a blank page and the unnerving flashing of the cursor, it can be difficult to know where to start when writing your college application essay. Lucky for you, we have a guide filled with helpful tips to help you figure out your college essay format! 

    Tips on how to format your college application essay

    Write an outline

    One of the very first steps you should take during the college application process is to create an outline for your essay response. An outline will help you visualize what points need to be included in your essay and at what point they would best flow. It also allows you to play around with what formats work best for your ideas. 

    Also see: How long should my college essay be?

    Hit all the requirements! 

    A college application essay will most likely have a prompt or question you need to answer. Therefore, it is critical that you are in fact answering this question! Make sure you are covering all parts of the question and not excluding any points. Be sure to adjust your college essay format to the most effective way of answering the prompt.

    Don’t write directly in your application

    A good tip for writing your college supplemental essay is to not write it directly into your application portal! Rather, you should make a separate document that you can make edits to throughout the writing process. This will help prevent any technical issues such as losing your writing progress or your application essay being submitted before you are finished writing. 

    However, once you copy and paste your essay into the application text box, always double check that your formatting did not get messed up. Meaning, make sure your paragraphs are clear and that your essay is not cut off at some point. 

    Separate your paragraphs! 

    Indent or create an obvious space between paragraphs. This allows the person reading your essay to clearly understand your thoughts and ideas in a more concise and structured manner.

    Use a common and easy-to-read font

    This is not the time to experiment with crazy fonts. Rather, stick to basic fonts such as Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri in 12-point type. Doing so ensures that your essay is easy to read and that your formatting does not take away from the content of your essay. 

    Related: How to start a scholarship application essay

    Tips on how to structure your college application essay

    There are a lot of ways you could respond to a college application supplemental prompt. However, typically there are two traditional college essay structures that most students follow. They include: 

    • In-the-moment narrative
    • Narrative told over time

    It is important to note that you should write in a structure that makes the most sense for you and your story. To highlight your uniqueness, write in your own writing style with your own voice. This will make your essay authentic. 

    The in-the-moment narrative

    An in-the-moment narrative is a powerful structure to use. In the in-the-moment narrative, you describe a story in chronological order, sharing the events as they occur. For example, “I walked into the Starbucks with my hands shaking. The barista asked me how I was doing, and I knew I could not be honest with this stranger. I replied, “I’m good.”

    This structure of writing allows your thoughts, emotions, feelings, and actions to be experienced by the reader in the same way you experienced this instance. This is the ideal structure for a response about a specific experience that needs internal dialogue. 

    The narrative told over time

    A narrative told over time structure is a good structure to demonstrate your development over time. In this type of narrative structure, you share different stories that take place over different periods of time about the same topic. For example, “When I was five, I loved McDonalds cheeseburgers. (add filler sentences here) By middle school, I was known as the cheeseburger girl. (add filler sentences here) Now, I am proud to be the founder of the cheeseburger club at my high school.” 

    This structure of writing allows you to highlight personal change or lack of change over time. This provides the reader with the opportunity to learn about how you became the person you are. It is a great structure to demonstrate your commitment or provide context and reasoning behind a piece of your identity. 

    Also see: How to respond to the Common App essay prompts

    Tips on how to make your college application essay the best it can be

    Be authentic

    A college, when asking you a question on their application, wants to get to know the real you! They do not want to know the “you” that you think they want to hear from. Therefore, being as authentic and genuine as possible is the key to being successful for writing your college application essay. The best way to stand out from other applicants is to be yourself and respond in the way you want to. 

    Write in your own words

    In addition to being authentic, you should also be writing in the typical way that you prefer to write. Therefore, you should not be using big words you have never used before or formatting it in a way that is foreign to you. Rather, use your own words and preferred writing style to respond. This ensures that you are being authentic to yourself and that it sounds natural to the reader. 

    Answer the question directly

    If you are using a specific question as your prompt for your college application essay, then it is important to address the question directly in your essay. It is recommended that you address the question early on in your essay, preferably in the first paragraph. After you have addressed the question, spend the rest of your essay elaborating on your response. 

    Related: Scholarships360’s supplemental college essay database

    Be creative

    You want to stand out in the crowd, especially when it comes to a college application essay. Therefore, try to think outside the box and pick a creative approach to tackling your essay. Think about ways you can write about things that matter to you in a creative way you feel comfortable with. This will ensure that your essay is the best it can be and that it will stand out from other applicants. 

    Don’t be repetitive 

    It is important that you are not being extremely repetitive throughout your essay. This could mean using certain words over and over or even writing about the same thing over and over. College application essays will typically have a word count, oftentimes as low as 250 or 500 words; therefore, it is important that you are ensuring you are being concise with your space. Getting rid of repetitive words or ideas allows you to have more room to write and to show the college who you are. 

    Don’t miss: 10 tips for a successful college application

    Questions to help edit your college application essay

    Before submitting your college application essays, always double check it to ensure you are submitting the best possible version of your writing. It may be helpful to get a trusted friend to read over it as well. Here are a few questions to help you edit your essay: 

    • Are there any grammar or spelling mistakes? 
    • Did I meet the word count requirement? 
    • Am I too repetitive throughout my essay? 
    • Is it too formal or informal? 
    • Have I answered the question the college asked of me? 
    • Are there any vague or lengthy sentences? 

    Key Takeaways

    Key Takeaways

    • Always be authentic! 
    • Make sure you clearly answer the prompt in your response
    • Write in a structure that is comfortable for you
    • Always proofread multiple times before hitting that “submit” button! Key Takeaways


    Don’t miss: Our free scholarship search tool

    Frequently asked questions about your college essay format

    Should I title my college essay?

    Unless it is specifically required by a college, you typically are not required to title your college essay. Therefore, a title for your college essay is optional and you should not stress out about it! In fact, a title may take up unnecessary space within your essay and leave you with less words to use in your response.

    How long should my college essay be?

    Lucky for you, typically colleges will give a specific word count that they would like you to reach in your college essay. Therefore, follow the word count if you are provided with one and do not go over the maximum word count. If a word count is not provided, you should aim for 650 words for a “Why us?” supplement and 250-500 words for other supplemental essay questions.

    Also see: Can you use the same essay for multiple college apps?

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