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A Detailed Guide for Formatting Your College Essays

October 7, 2022
By AdmissionSight
Male student using a laptop on a table and doing research on how to format a college essay.

A Detailed Guide for Formatting Your College Essays

When preparing to apply to the best colleges and universities worldwide, many students worry about how their academic and extracurricular achievements will compare to other applicants in the same cycle. These factors are crucial to their success.

However, the college essay is another vital component of any student’s ability to get into some of the country’s most prestigious and selective schools. For that reason, it is required for every high school student preparing to apply to college to learn how to format a college essay.

In truth, many experts within the college admissions industry believe that a student’s essays are one of the most essential parts of a college application. That boost in importance has only gained momentum since many schools nationwide have decided to make SAT and ACT scores an optional component of a student’s undergraduate application.

At AdmissionSight, we work with intelligent and dedicated students determined to get into some of the top schools in the United States and the world. Typically, our students target schools that end up in the entire ten ranking year in and year out, such as Harvard, Stanford, MIT, and more.

Our admissions consultants and students work together to formulate specific tools and strategies to give the students the best shot at success possible by overcoming any weaknesses in their application profile, accentuating strengths, and ultimately beating the highly restrictive acceptance rates at these top schools.

Young woman using a laptop in a table.

Regarding our measure of success, the proof is in the pudding. Over the years, 75.0 percent of the students we have worked with have gone on to get into an Ivy League school like Yale, Princeton, or Columbia or a top 10 school like UChicago or Caltech. We know what it takes to get into these competitive and prestigious schools, and we utilize our years of experience to give our students the upper hand in achieving their goals.

Thanks to our experience, we know how students can set themselves up for success – or failure – depending on how they approach their application essays and school-specific themes.

So, if you are wondering how many paragraphs a college essay should have or simply asking, “How long should my college essay be?” you have come to the right place. Let’s start breaking down everything you need to know about the formatting of college essays together.

How critical are college essays?

Before we get into the formatting information regarding college essays today and how to format a college essay, we did want to briefly go over some basic information regarding how much importance is put upon your college essays.

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The results are fascinating based on research done at many of the top 250 schools in the country. Based on the findings, essays account for 25 percent of a student’s overall application, and the only thing that accounts for more is not a student’s grades and coursework but their extracurricular activities! The breakdown is as follows:

  • 30 percent for extracurriculars
  • 25 percent for essays
  • 20 percent for degrees and coursework
  • 15 percent for test scores
  • 10 percent for recommendations and interviews

It is essential to remember that now that many of the top schools in the country have adopted a test-optional policy, the 15 percent put upon standardized test scores has likely been spread out amongst the other factors.

The weight has likely been primarily put onto grades and coursework, as admissions officers now depend on rates and the difficulty of high school curriculum even more to determine whether or not a student is a solid academic fit at their school. For that reason, likely, essays are not equal to, slightly above, or slightly below grades and coursework in terms of how important they are in the eyes of admissions officers and committees nationwide!

This information may be somewhat surprising, and possibly even shocking, to you. After all, so much value is put on grades in high school that it only makes sense for grades to be the key deciding factor. And while it is true that grades are crucial to getting into top schools, they are more seen as something of a prerequisite even to be considered.

The vast majority of students who do not make it from the first round to the second round of consideration fail to do so due to insufficient grade point averages and the difficulty of courses. However, once the pool is thinned out, essays are crucial in allowing students to rise above the rest and ultimately get offered a top school admission spot. So, why is knowing how to format a college essay so that you can craft the best piece possible so important? Here are some aspects to consider:

  • Essays allow students to demonstrate their interests: One of the most critical aspects of the personal essay section is that they offer applying students the chance to discuss their interests, passions, and goals in depth. This gives admissions officers an idea of what a student may hope to do during their education and what they hope to do in the following years. Great schools want to accept students they believe will accomplish great things. The essay section is arguably the best place to do just that.
  • They offer insight into who a student is as a person: While schools are – of course – concerned with accepting students who the admissions committee believes will be a great academic fit at the school, they are also looking to offer spots of admissions to students who are excellent and well-rounded people that have talents and experiences that make them unique. As you may have guessed, the personal essay section is the best place for students to cover these essential topics.
  • They offer students the chance to predict their impact on campus. Finally, top schools are incredibly proud of and committed to fostering a strong and dedicated community on the school’s campus amongst undergraduate and graduate students and within their alum community. Schools like Harvard and Yale want to find students who will be active members of the school’s community for years to come. The essay sections allow students to talk about how they have impacted their community at high school or in their hometown, thus articulating what the school can expect of them in the future.

As you can see, it is not all about grades and test scores when it comes to getting accepted by the top schools in the country. Now that you have a better idea of how critical your essays will be and why admissions officers consider them so highly, let’s learn how to format these brief but crucial essays correctly.

How do you format a college essay?

The first thing to know about how to format a college essay is that how you format them will depend heavily on whether you are submitting them in a text box or an attached Word document. Since both options are standard from one school to the next, let’s review the formatting rules for both!

Young man writing in a desk while writing.

First off, though, let’s cover three important formatting points regardless of whether you are writing in a text box or an attached document:

  • There is no need for a title to your essay; they take up space and eat into your, sometimes quite restrictive, word count
  • Stay within the word limit as much as possible. It is not advised that you finish with an essay that is either more or less than 10 percent of the required word count
  • Indent or double space to separate paragraphs clearly throughout your essays

Now that those basic guidelines are out of the way, let’s go over the more specific formatting rules depending on how you plan on submitting your essays:

Submitting via a text box

  • Make sure that your paragraphs are clearly and uniformly separated. Text boxes can sometimes undo indents and double spacing, so review this before you save and submit.
  • It is wise to avoid creating essays in an artistic shape (like a circle), as text boxes will likely reformat and destroy your body upon saving.
  • Avoid italics and bolding in your paragraphs because this formatting often does not translate to text boxes.

Submitting through an attached document

  • Use a standard font and size like Times New Roman, 12-point
  • Make your lines 1.5-spaced or double-spaced
  • Use 1-inch margins
  • Save it as a PDF since it can’t be edited. This also prevents formatting issues with Microsoft Word since older versions are sometimes incompatible with the newer formatting.
  • Number each page with your last name in the header or footer (like “Smith 1”)
  • Pay extra attention to any word limits, as you won’t be cut off automatically, unlike with most text boxes.

Typical college essay formats

Beyond these straightforward rules on how to format a college essay, we also wanted to review the most common ways students decide to format the papers themselves. There are several different formats, and they can work to successful effects. Moreover, if you can write several other essays (often the case), you can consider answering other questions in different formats.

Female student typing using a laptop.

Here are the different formatting types you can consider while crafting your college essays:

  • In-the-moment narration is arguably the most common format when you tell the story one moment at a time. This is a practical writing format as it allows your reader to experience the level as it happens along with you. This is a fantastic structured format for essays that deal with personal emotions, experiences, and reflections.
  • Narration told over an extended period: Another standard format for personal essays allows you to tell a story that takes place over the years and is made up of multiple experiences. This is ideal for an account with many other parts and if you want to discuss personal development over time.
  • Narration said through anecdotes or montages: If you want to discuss an overarching theme of a part of your life told over different experiences and instances, using brief accounts or montages may be an excellent option. If you are interested, this format allows you to be more experimental and creative in using language, prose, and more.
  • Playing with the essay format and technique:  While the previously mentioned formats are pretty typical, you can buck all those common trends and utilize a more unique and personal design. We have seen personal essays written like screenplays or stage plays, using visual formatting, writing your essay out like the dialogue of a debate, writing a song, and many more. You can also write in the iambic pentameter if you like, in the language you grew up speaking, or in a language you acquired (including code or programming). If you write in a language other than English, you must leave room in your total word count to offer a translation in English along with the rest of your essay.

The truth is that any of these formats can be used to significant effect or not-so-great effect, depending on what you decide to write your essay on. The most essential part of your essay will be the topic you choose and how effectively you answer the question provided to you through the prompt. Still, ensuring you know how to format a college essay will allow you to avoid making distracting and costly mistakes that can hurt the overall quality of your hard work.

So, to finish this piece, we thought we would break down some of the most essential tips to remember to succeed at writing your college essays.

Tips to succeed in your college essays

  • Answer the question: This is arguably the most crucial tip any student can learn regarding these essays. Even if you write the most beautiful essay you can, it will not work in your favor if you do not answer the question provided to you in the prompt. Make sure to understand what the prompt asks you, and when you have finished each draft of your essay, confirm that you are fulfilling what is being asked of you.
  • Don’t shy away from detail: The relatively short word count of college essays (typically between 150 and 650 words) sometimes forces students into thinking that going into detail will be hard or impossible. That can lead to really general and dull essays. The truth is that covering a more minor topic in great detail will likely work more in your favor than covering a wide range of issues with a broad stroke. Be as precise and unique as you possibly can be to make sure that your readers are interested and engaged in the essays that you write.
  • Remain humble: One mistake that we see many students make upon their first drafts of essays is that to show off how impressive they are as people, they have to brag. While nothing is wrong with being proud of things you have accomplished, overcome, and experienced, essays should never appear braggadocious. Some of the best pieces we have ever come across have also served as fantastic opportunities for students to acknowledge any flaws, contradictions in their resumes, or uncertainty about the process.
  • Make your message clear: If there is perhaps one of these tips that you have to follow, it is this one. Keeping your message clear and writing it confidently is crucial to conveying your overall idea. It is also the best way to make sure that the admissions officers and committees reading your essays understand who you are as a person as best as possible!

Craft your perfect personal essays.

Every student is going to write different personal essays, and that is arguably the most crucial point to keep in mind when you start the process of writing yours. The fact is that they are specific and unique to the student writing them, so never try to write what you think other applicants are writing, and never try to write what you think the school is expecting out of you. Write what feels honest and essential to you!

Female student using a laptop for research.

If you are interested in learning more about the essay writing process or what you can do to improve your chances of getting into your top schools, contact AdmissionSight today to schedule a free consultation.

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