When you’re applying to college, even small decisions can feel high-stakes. This is especially true for the college essay, which often feels like the most personal part of the application. You may agonize over your college application essay format: the font, the margins, even the file format. Or maybe you’re agonizing over how to organize your thoughts overall. Should you use a narrative structure? Five paragraphs?
In this comprehensive guide, we’ll go over the ins and outs of how to format a college essay on both the micro and macro levels. We’ll discuss minor formatting issues like headings and fonts, then discuss broad formatting concerns like whether or not to use a five-paragraph essay, and if you should use a college essay template.
How to Format a College Essay: Font, Margins, Etc.
Some of your formatting concerns will depend on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box on an online application form or attaching a formatted document. If you aren’t sure which you’ll need to do, check the application instructions. Note that the Common Application does currently require you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.
Most schools also allow you to send in a paper application, which theoretically gives you increased control over your essay formatting. However, I generally don’t advise sending in a paper application (unless you have no other option) for a couple of reasons:
Most schools state that they prefer to receive online applications. While it typically won’t affect your chances of admission, it is wise to comply with institutional preferences in the college application process where possible. It tends to make the whole process go much more smoothly.
Paper applications can get lost in the mail. Certainly there can also be problems with online applications, but you’ll be aware of the problem much sooner than if your paper application gets diverted somehow and then mailed back to you. By contrast, online applications let you be confident that your materials were received.
Regardless of how you will end up submitting your essay, you should draft it in a word processor. This will help you keep track of word count, let you use spell check, and so on.
Now I’ll go over some of the concerns you might have about the correct college essay application format whether you're copying and pasting into a text box or attaching a document, plus a few tips that apply either way:
Plus, online submission doesn't require any stamps!
If You'll Be Copy-and-Pasting Into a Text Box:The main thing when you copy and paste into a text box is to double- and triple-check that everything transferred over correctly.
First, check that your whole essay transferred over and wasn’t cut off!
Word counts can get messed up by wonky formatting or be counted differently in the text box, so be aware that you may need to make slight adjustments there.
When you copy and paste, you may lose formatting like bold or italics. Sometimes bold and italics also just won’t work in the text box, so you may be better off just not using them.
Your paragraph spacing may get messed up when you copy and paste your essay over. So make sure that all of your paragraphs are clearly delineated, either through tabs or through a skipped line if tabbing doesn’t work.
Font will probably be standardized, but if it’s not, choose a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial (you’ll probably have limited options anyways) and a normal size (12 pt).
If You're Attaching a Document:If you’re attaching a document, you have to be more concerned with the overall college essay format. Things like margins and spacing become more important.
Use one-inch margins all around. This is standard and easy to read.
While single-spaced essays are usually acceptable, your essay will be easier to read if it’s 1.5 or double-spaced.
Clearly delineate your paragraphs. A single tab at the beginning is fine.
Use a font that’s easy to read, like Times, Arial, Calibri, Cambria, etc. Avoid fonts like Papyrus and Curlz. And use 12 pt font.
You may want to include a college essay heading with a page number and your application ID. Don’t include your name unless it’s specifically requested.
Oftentimes, you’ll need to submit your college essay in a specific file format. The application may only accept certain versions of Word files (i.e. only .doc and not .docx), .rtf or .pdf files. So just be sure that you are saving your file in an accepted format before you upload it! I recommend .pdf files whenever possible, because they are uneditable and always look the same.
Formatting Guidelines That Apply No Matter How You End Up Submitting the Essay:
Unless it’s specifically requested, you don’t need a title. It will just eat into your word count.
Avoid cutesy, overly colloquial formatting choices like ALL CAPS or ~unnecessary symbols~ or, heaven forbid, emoji and #hashtags. Your college essay should be professional, and anything too cutesy or casual will come off as immature.
Keep these out of your essay!
How To Structure Your College Essay
Maybe you’re less concerned with the micro-level college essay format, like fonts, and more concerned with the macro-level format, like how to structure your college admissions essay. Is there’s some secret paragraph formula that will make writing easy and clearly express all of your strengths to an awestruck admissions committee?
Sadly, no. However, the good news is that a college essay is actually a good opportunity to play with structure a little bit and break free from the five-paragraph essay. (You’re certainly not disallowed from writing a five-paragraph essay, but it’s by no means guaranteed to be the best college essay structure.)
A good college essay is like a sandwich, where the intro and conclusion are the pieces of bread and whatever comes between them is the sandwich toppings. A sandwich without bread is a bad sandwich, but a good sandwich could have any number of things between the bread pieces.
So you need a clear introduction that gives a pretty clear idea of where you will be going in the essay and a conclusion that wraps everything up and makes your main point clear.
However, how you approach the middle part is up to you. You could structure your essay more like a narrative, relating an important experience from your life. You could use an extended analogy, where each paragraph is a part of the analogy. You want to adhere broadly to the wisdom that each paragraph should have an identifiable main idea, but a college essay is definitely a great chance to break free from the five-paragraph essay.
For more in-depth advice on how to structure your essay, check out our expert step-by-step guide on tackling the essay.
Mmm, delicious essay...I mean sandwich.
Why College Essay Templates Are a Bad Idea
You might see college essay templates online that offer guidelines on how to structure your essay and what to say in each paragraph. I strongly advise against using a template. It will make your essay sound canned and bland—two of the worst things a college essay can be. It’s much better to think about what you want to say, and then talk through how to best structure it with someone else and/or make your own practice outlines before you sit down to write.
You can also find tons of successful sample essays online. Looking at these to get an idea of different styles and topics is fine, but again, I don’t advise closely patterning your essay after a sample essay. You will do the best if your essay really reflects your own original voice and the experiences that are most meaningful to you.
College Application Essay Format: Key Takeaways
There are two levels of formatting you might be worried about: the micro (fonts, headings, margins, etc) and the macro (the overall structure of your essay).
Tips for the micro level of your college application essay format:
- Always draft your essay in a word processing software, even if you’ll be copy-and-pasting it over into a text box.
- If you are copy-and-pasting it into a text box, make sure your formatting transfers properly, your paragraphs are clearly delineated, and your essay isn’t cut off.
- If you are attaching a document, make sure your font is easily readable, your margins are standard 1-inch, your essay is 1.5 or double-spaced, and your file format is compatible with the application specs.
- There’s no need for a title unless otherwise specified—it will just eat into your word count.
Tips for the macro levelof your college application essay format:
- There is no super-secret college essay format that will guarantee success.
- In terms of structure, it’s most important that you have an introduction that makes it clear where you’re going and a conclusion that wraps up with a main point. For the middle of your essay, you have lots of freedom, just so long as it flows logically!
- I advise against using an essay template, as it will make your essay sound stilted and unoriginal.
Plus, if you use a college essay template, how will you get rid of these medieval weirdos?
Still feeling lost? Check out our total guide to the personal statement, or see our step-by-step guide to writing the perfect essay.
If you're not sure where to start, consider these tips for attention-grabbing first sentences to college essays!
And be sure to avoid these 10 college essay mistakes.
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Although writing an essay is daunting for many people, it can be pretty straight-forward. This page is a general recipe for constructing an essay, not just in philosophy, but in most other humanities disciplines (such as English, History, Religious Studies, etc.) and perhaps the social sciences. It should be an appropriate guide for writing at the middle school, high school, and lower college levels. The typical assignment I have in mind will be an argumentative essay, in which you argue for something, even if just an interpretation of someone an author’s work.
Note that what I provide here are only general guidelines. Be sure to check whether your instructor has different ones. If your instructor has not given clear guidelines, then these should suffice, since they are pretty standard.
Note: If you need help figuring out how to write an essay in philosophy specifically and at the college level, see my “Writing in Philosophy.” If you want to know how I evaluate students on a paper assignment, see my “Grading Rubric for Paper Assignments.”
Table of Contents:
- Essay Structure
- General Writing Tips
- Style & Punctuation
- Grammatical Errors
- Humorous Writing Guidelines
- Citations & References
- Relevant Links
- Typed – use a word processor (such as Microsoft Word) on a computer.
- Spacing – the space between lines on the page is typically double-space. However, it may be changing. (I now prefer single-spaced myself.)
- Font size – standard size of the text is usually 12-point.
- Font style – standard font, such as Times New Roman.
2. Essay Structure
The first thing to notice is that the basic form of an essay is quite logical. Let’s look at the standard structure of an essay starting with the most general. You can divide your paper into three main sections:
For the introduction section, you will need to do two things: introduce your topic and provide a thesis statement. Typically, these two tasks should be accomplished using only one paragraph for a short paper, but can be longer for longer papers.
First, introduce your topic. The introductory paragraph(s) should briefly orient the reader to the topic and provide a conceptual map of the rest of the paper.
Second, provide a thesis statement.
Your thesis statement is the main point of your paper and should address the paper topic assigned by your instructor.
Make sure your thesis statement is clear, specific, declarative, and on-topic. You should be able to provide the thesis statement in one or two sentences (most instructors prefer one, concise sentence) for a fairly short paper (about 1-8 pages). It is usually best stated at the end of your introduction section (the end of the first paragraph if your introduction section is only a single paragraph in length).
The body section should consist of at least several paragraphs where you will provide support for your thesis statement in the form of reasons, evidence, arguments, justification, and so on. That is, you have something you want to communicate or argue for (your thesis) and here is your chance to explain it in detail, support it, and defend it.
Each paragraph in the body section should have a topic sentence and, perhaps, a transition sentence. The topic sentence is the particular point you are trying to make in the paragraph. It’s sort of like a mini-thesis statement. It should usually be the first sentence of the paragraph, though in some cases it is appropriate to be the second sentence. A transition sentence is a sentence that helps link the points of each paragraph together by making a smooth transition from the previous paragraph. It can be done in the first sentence of the new paragraph or the last sentence of the previous one. A good way to tie all the points together throughout the body section is to have them all clearly state how they support the thesis statement. That way it is obvious that all of your paragraphs tie together. Note that the first sentence of the paragraph may satisfy both goals. That is, you may have a topic sentence that also serves to transition well. Another option is to have a transition sentence first and then a separate topic sentence following it.
The summary section (often misleadingly called a “conclusion”) is a short recap of what you have said in the essay. You might want to provide a slightly different version of your thesis statement as the first sentence of this paragraph and then provide a few sentences that sum up what the body section said in support of the thesis statement. The summary section should be only one paragraph long for a short paper, but can be longer for longer papers. (Some instructors, like me, even think that summary sections are unnecessary for short papers.)
Note: It’s a good idea to put these sections titles in as headings in your paper to organize and break things up for yourself and your reader. If your instructor doesn’t want headings in your paper, just take them out before you print it to turn it in. It is also helpful for long papers to put in additional headings, perhaps even sub-headings, to break up the body section (such as “First Argument,” “Second Argument,” and so on).
3. General Writing Tips
1. Think & Discuss
Familiarize yourself with the material before you begin writing. You won’t be able to write much if you don’t have anything to put on the page. Think about your paper topic as soon as you get the paper assignment prompt from your instructor. This can be facilitated in a number of ways. A great way is to discuss the issue with your instructor or teaching assistant. You can even try talking about it to a friend or family member.
2. Rough Drafts & Editing
Write rough drafts ahead of time. For most people, writing their rough ideas down as rough drafts helps them see their ideas more clearly than even thinking about them. Then take a break from the essay (this usually requires at least a half, if not full, day). After the lengthy break (for example, the next day), go back and edit more. Repeat this process as necessary until finished. (This is why it is important to start working on your essay far in advance!)
Also, don’t be afraid to just type without thinking too much about whether it’s any good. You can always go back and edit it. Many people find it best to just sit down and write a lot without much reflection. Just make sure you have enough time to go back and edit.
Once you have a final draft ready, have someone read it to look for errors and provide feedback. Many instructors encourage students to turn in early drafts to them for comments. Just be sure to check and see if your instructor allows you to do so.
4. Style & Punctuation
Overall, the paper should demonstrate a command of the writing process and the author’s care in crafting it. Avoid errors of spelling, punctuation, grammar, sentence structure, verb tense, and vocabulary, such as the following:
- Put punctuation inside quotations (for American writing). If you put something in quotations that is immediately followed by punctuation (such as commas or colons), then put the punctuation mark inside the last quotation mark.
Correct: John Doe claims that, “Britney Spears is a tool.”
Incorrect: John Doe claims that, “Britney Spears is a tool”.
Another example: “I’m in love with Space Ghost,” Bjork proclaimed.
(Note: I know this rule doesn’t seem right. The British style of writing has the punctuation outside the quotation marks, which makes more sense. However, the American style requires that you write it the other way.)
- Put parenthetical citations outside of quotations.
Correct: “Blah, blah, blah, this is a quote” (Author 32).
Incorrect: “Blah, blah, blah, this is a quote (Author 32).”
- Introduce quotes. Introduce quotes, preferably by acknowledging who is saying it.
Example: In the article “War Without End,” John Doe says, “…blah, blah, and blah” (36).
Notice the three dots in the quote (…), which is called an elipses. You’re supposed to put those in when you are not quoting the whole sentence. It denotes that something came before (or after) the part of the sentence you are quoting.
- Generally, spell out numbers. For example, write ‘three,’ not ‘3.’ Exceptions can be made for larger numbers, like 1089, especially when you are simply making reference to a numeral.
- Avoid informal abbreviations and notations. For example, don’t write ‘&’ for ‘and’ or ‘b/c’ for ‘because.’ However, there are notations and abbreviations that are conventions in professional writing; for example: ‘e.g.’ is often used for ‘for example’ and ‘etc.’ for ‘et cetera’ and ‘p.’ for ‘page.’ However, for this last one, note that it is only used in citing sources or references, not in other sentences. So, for example, don’t write “The p. had many words of wisdom written on it.”
- Use versus mention. In general, when you mention (or talk about) rather than use a word you should put quotes (single or double) around the word. This is not necessary when you use a word.
Incorrect: John contains the letter h.
Correct: ‘John’ contains the letter ‘h.’
(Note: Some people simply italicize the word to indicate mention. I follow this convention here sometimes so that it is easier to read. However, it can get confused with emphasis, which is what italics are more commonly used for. Also, the standard for use-mention indication is not exactly clear. Most people use quotes and use single quotes for British style and double quotes for American style. I tend to use single quotes just to distinguish them from quoting what someone has said.)
- Write well and consider your reader! Good writing keeps the reader’s perspective in mind. It takes work to read someone’s ideas. You owe it to your readers to explain your ideas clearly and ideally in a pleasing manner. To become a better writer in terms of style, read widely and find good writers to emulate (some excellent non-fiction writers that come to mind: Paul Bloom, Rebecca Goldstein, and Steven Pinker).
- Recognize the Flexibility of Writing Rules. You’ll notice that skilled writers don’t always follow all the “rules” for writing. They know that the rules are somewhat flexible and can even be explicitly broken for good effect at times. You might be able to get away with the same, but it’s good to practice working well within them for graded papers!
5. Common Grammatical Errors to Avoid
- Misusing i.e. and e.g.Do not confuse these two. They do not mean the same thing!
i.e. = that is
e.g. = for example
(Many people think that ‘i.e’ stands for ‘in example.’ That is false. Both are abbreviations for two different latin phrases.)
- Using ‘if’ when you should use ‘whether’.
Incorrect: I do not know if this is true.
Correct: I do not know whether this is true.
Correct: If this is true, then you are wrong.
- Confusing ‘there’ with ‘their.’ ‘Their’ indicates possession, ‘there’ does not.
Incorrect: There problem was a lack of courage.
Correct: Their problem was a lack of courage.
Incorrect: Their are a lot of problems here.
Correct: There are a lot of problems here.
- Misconnecting verbs.
Incorrect: We should try and change the law.
Correct: We should try to change the law.
- Letting your accent get in the way of things.
Incorrect: Mind and brain are one in the same thing.
Correct: Mind and brain are one and the same thing.
Incorrect: Socrates should of fought.
Correct: Socrates should have fought.
- Improper form of the plural possessive of names.
Incorrect: Descarte’s problem was ….
Incorrect: Descartes problem was….
Correct: Descartes’ problem was….
Correct: Descartes’s problem was….
(Note: Either of the last two is acceptable only for names ending in ‘s’ like ‘Descartes’ or ‘Jesus.’ Otherwise, always go with the last example–i.e., add an apostrophe and an ‘s.’ The convention is usaully to not add an extra ‘s’ for old names, such as ‘Descartes’ and ‘Jesus.’ So, to say that this is the book that Rawls owns, people often write: “This is Rawls’s book.”)
- Improper use of semi-colons.
Incorrect: The following will be on the test; Locke, Hume, Parfit.
Incorrect: Although there is no right answer; there are many wrong answers.
Correct: There is no right answer; there are many wrong answers.
(The Rule: Use a semi-colon only where you could use a period instead. In other words, a semi-colon must join two clauses that could stand by themselves as complete sentences. The semi-colin is just used to indicate that the two sentences are connected or intimately related.)
- Confusing ‘then’ and ‘than’.
Incorrect: If this is true, than I’m a fool.
Incorrect: I am more of a fool then you are.
Correct: If this is true, then I’m a fool.
Correct: I am more of a fool than you are.
- Its versus it’s.
Incorrect: Its easy to make this mistake.
Incorrect: It’s pages are crumbling.
Correct: It’s easy to make this mistake.
Correct: Its pages are crumbling.
(Note: partly adapted from Pasnau’s Top 10 Writing Errors)
6. Humorous Writing Guidelines
- Be more or less specific.
- Use not bad grammars.
- Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
- Don’t use no double negatives.
- Avoid tumbling off the cliff of triteness into the dark abyss of overused metaphors.
- Take care that your verb and your subject is in agreement.
- No sentence fragments.
- Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
- Who needs rhetorical questions?
- Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place.
- Avoid colloquial stuff, like totally.
- Avoid those run-on sentences you know the ones they stop and then start again they should be separated with semicolons.
- The passive voice should be used infrequently.
- And avoid starting sentences with a conjunction.
- Excessive use of exclamation points can be disastrous!!!!
- Exaggeration is a million times worse than understatement.
- Stamp out and eliminate redundancy because, if you reread your work, you will find on rereading that a great deal of repetition can be avoided by rereading and editing, so reread your work and improve it by editing out the repetition you noticed during the rereading.
- It’s incumbent on one to employ the vernacular and eschew archaisms.
- It’s not O.K. to use ampersands & informal abbreviations.
- Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are usually (but not always) an obstacle for readers (and make it harder on readers even if you’re being careful).
7. Citations & References
If you are doing an essay that involves researching or you quote anyone in your essay, then you need to cite your sources. There are many different formalized styles for citing sources. For example: MLA (Modern Language Association), Chicago (Turabian), APA (American Psychological Association), and more. The most standard for English papers is MLA. You can buy the official books on how to properly cite sources according to certain styles, but you can also find a lot of that information on the Internet.
Here are a few Internet resources for citation styles: