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.
Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:
Update: Read the latest tips for the 2017-18 Common App.
Late on July 31st, the 2013-14 Common Application went live, enabling thousands of eager students to get a head start on completing their college applications. And while the newly touted design is supposed to provide a more intuitive user-friendly experience, many students are running into unexpected and understandably frustrating difficulties. Common Application officials assure us that they are hard at work trying to fix a host of glitches and errors, especially those revolving around college specific supplements. In the meantime, however, we’ve put together ten tips and suggestions to help you successfully navigate and make the most of the new Common Application.
Our first five tips are listed below; stay tuned for the remaining five later this week. Have a question about strategies around the new Common Application? Post it below, and one of our College Coach admissions experts will answer it!
1. Test scores: to post or not to post?
Earlier this fall, when the Common Application asked students to list all standardized test scores, we recommended that students leave the self-reporting testing section of the application blank. Now that the Common Application has adjusted their language, we feel it is in the best interest of students to complete this page. For students who answer, “Yes,” to the prompt, “Do you wish to self-report standardized test scores,” the Common Application now asks, “Indicate all tests you wish to report.” This means that students who have taken both the SAT and ACT have a clear conscious when reporting one test over the other. This change in the Common Application actually makes it easier for students to personalize the “Testing” page of their application. When applying to colleges that accept Score Choice, students can list their best score results. Then, when applying to schools that require all SAT and ACT scores be submitted (such as Carnegie Mellon, Georgetown, and Stanford), students can edit the “Testing” page to include this information.
2. Résumé tips
Participated in…led…managed…contributed to. When completing the “Activities” portion of the application, it’s always best to use a variety of “action verbs” to describe your extra-curricular involvement. On the new Common Application, applicants no longer have the benefit of seeing all of their activities on the same page, making it difficult to know if your descriptions sound a bit monotonous. Our suggestion? Draft your activity details in a Word document, and then cut and paste them into the Common Application. This way you can ensure that you’re using a range of colorful verbs. Don’t forget that you have 50 characters to list your position/leadership and 150 characters to describe your details, honors, and accomplishments.
3. Formatting your essay
Gone are days of uploading your personal statement to the body of the Common Application. Now students are simply required to cut and paste their essay into a text box. There are two very important features you should know about this text box. The first is that it will not allow you to enter more than 650 words or fewer than 250 words. This word limit is new for the Common Application. So, too, is the block formatting of paragraphs. New paragraphs will no longer appear indented. Rather, they show up as isolated blocks of text, with one empty line between each paragraph. The new formatting won’t bother colleges, so there’s no need to fret that your once indented paragraphs are now showing up a little differently in the print preview.
If you are having difficulty formatting your essay, and are experiencing odd word counts or no paragraph breaks when viewing the print preview of your application, try cutting and pasting your essay from MS Word (or your word processor of choice) into Notepad (for Windows users) or TextEdit (for Mac users). Then cut and paste your essay again into the “Personal Essay” text box. Notepad and TextEdit will strip your essay of all formatting and make most formatting issues disappear.
Which leads us to:
4. Where is the print preview button?
Alas, it’s gone! I do hope they bring it back, but for now, there’s only one way to see a print preview of your application. And you have to jump through three hoops to get there. First, you need to complete every required field of the Common Application itself. This means you see six green check marks when you’re on the “Common App” tab. Second, any school-specific questions or essays need to be completed. When you’re looking at a school on the “My Colleges” tab, do you see a green check mark next to “Questions” as well as “Writing Supplement”? If not, go back and fill out those sections. Finally, you need to complete the FERPA Release Authorization and assign required recommenders (found on the “Assign Recommenders” link from either the “Dashboard” or “My Colleges” tab). Then, and only then, will you see the “Submit” button from the “Dashboard,” or the “Start Submission” button from the “My Colleges” page. Once you’re looking at the print preview – which, incidentally, looks exactly the way colleges will see it, minus the watermark – you can right click with your mouse to save the PDF to your computer.
5. College requirements grid
Are you looking for an easy way to see college application deadlines and testing requirements all in a simple glance? Enter the Application Requirements Grid! This year, you physically have to log out of your Common Application account in order to find it. From the Common Application homepage, mouse over “Member Colleges” at the top of the screen; then select “Application Requirements”.
UPDATE: It has recently come to our attention that the Common Application had incorrectly reported some of the statistics on their Applications Requirement grid. The University of Colorado–Boulder has an EA deadline of 11/15 (not 12/1), and Colgate’s ED2 deadline is actually 1/15 (not 3/1). As we use this information for AppView, which provides deadlines and essay prompts for the top 200 schools College Coach students apply to, we’ve immediately updated our data. While this chart is still a helpful organization tool, it’s definitely a good idea to double check school-specific information on each college’s website, or on the Common Application’s “My Colleges” tab.
For updated tips for the 2015-16 Common Application, take a look at our latest posts:
For all of our 2013-14 Common App tips, be sure to check out the rest of the posts in this series: