Elite College Essay Formatting: A Step-by-Step Guide

Mark Twain once stated, “I like a good story well told. That’s the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

At Top Elite Writers, we too like excellent stories well told.

The issue is that sometimes pupils have excellent stories… that are poorly told.

They have the germ of an idea and the makings of a great narrative, but the essay’s format and structure are disorganized.

Which can cause an admissions officer to perceive you as disorganized. And your essay does not have the impact that it could.

So, if you’re here, you’re likely curious:

Exists a required format for college-level essays? How should I organize my essay?

Possibly, what is the difference?

This article responds to that question.

Let’s begin by discussing a few common concerns students have when attempting to format their essay.


Should I include a title in my college essay?

You do not require one. The overwhelming majority of students with whom we work do not use titles. In the few instances where they have, it is because the title allows for a discreet play on words or recasting of the entire essay. Therefore, there is no requirement to include one; they are entirely optional.

Should I use paragraph breaks or indents in my college essay?

Either. Simply be constant. Use paragraph breaks if you are pasting into a box that messes up your formatting; for example, if your indentation is eliminated when you copy your essay into the box. (And when you arrive at college, be sure to verify which style manual you should be using: Chicago, APA, MLA, etc., can all adopt different formatting approaches, and different fields have varying requirements.)

How many sentences should a college essay have?

Statements of purpose are not English essays. They do not need to be five paragraphs with a clear, argumentative thesis statement at the outset and a summary paragraph at the end. Therefore, feel free to deviate from that. How many paragraphs should a college essay have? Within reason, the decision is yours. We’ve seen some excellent personal statements with four paragraphs and others with eight or more (especially dialogue—yes, dialogue is acceptable!).

How many words should my undergraduate paper be?

The good news is that colleges and their application systems will typically provide you with a maximal word count. The most popular college application systems, such as the Common Application and the Coalition Application, grant you a maximum of 650 words for your primary personal statement and typically less for school-specific supplemental essays. Other systems typically specify the utmost word count; the UC PIQs have a word limit of 350. If they don’t specify this in their application systems or on their website (and you’ve done your research), you can send them an email to inquire! They will not strike.

So, should you utilize every inch? We typically endorse it. We believe it would be a missed opportunity if you did not utilize the entire space provided to tell your life narrative, as you likely have a great deal to say about yourself. While you are not required to use every single word, aspire to use the majority of the words provided. But avoid merely filling space if what you’re sharing does not contribute to the overall story you’re conveying.

There are also applications and supplementary materials with suggested word counts or lengths. For instance, Georgetown specifies “approximately one page,” whereas the University of Chicago does not specify a maximum length, but suggests aiming for 650 words for the extended essay and 250 to 500 words for the “Why us?”

You can typically apply the recommendations of the University of Chicago to other schools that do not impose a limit: If the supplement is a “Why Major” supplement, 650 words is probably sufficient; for other supplements, 250-500 words is a reasonable range to aim for. If you exceed the word count, it is acceptable as long as you justify it (i.e., you are not rambling or excessively wordy). Your audience consists of humanity. If you send them a book, they may lose interest.

Regarding elements such as italics and bold

Keep in mind that when you paste text into a box, the formatting may be lost. Verify if you’ll be able to utilize italics or bold for emphasis if you were planning to do so. (And in general, rather than relying on bold or italics, use sentence structure and phrasing to create emphasis, as doing so will make you a stronger writer.)

Regarding typeface, size, and hue

Maintain simplicity and conformity. Regarding font type, you cannot go wrong with fonts such as Times New Roman or Georgia (which is used here). Simply avoid Comic Sans and other informal/casual fonts.

11- or 12-point is acceptable.

The color is black.

Choosing an alternative to the above could involve a risk, possibly a substantial one, for relatively little gain. Things such as an unusual font or text color can easily appear contrived to the reader.

To make your writing stand out, take some risks with the topics you choose and the connections and observations you make.

When attaching a document (as opposed to pasting)

All of the aforementioned still holds true if you are attaching a document as opposed to pasting words into a text box. Once more, we advise sticking with conventional fonts and sizes; Times New Roman, 12-point, is a reliable choice. Most likely, 1.5 or double spacing will do. normal margins.

Basically, use the formatting you’d typically use in college to demonstrate to them that you’re prepared to write in that environment.

Is there a sample college essay I may follow?

Depending on what you’re requesting. If formatting is what you mean when you say “template,” then… look above.

But not exactly if you mean a structural template. There isn’t a single model college essay to use. And that’s advantageous.

Having said that, we’ve discovered two fundamental structural methods to creating college essays that may be used for each and every prompt we’ve encountered. (Apart from listings. as they are lists.)

We’ll discuss those two essay forms in more detail below, but you’ll notice how adaptable they are and how they may produce remarkably distinct writings. You can also look at a few sample essays to get a sense of the format and organization. However, before you look at too many samples, we advise doing some brainstorming and outlining to come up with some potential subjects.

Step One; How to Brainstorm an Amazing Essay Topic

Together, we’ll talk about the theme and structure. Why? the two inform one another.

(And just to be clear, by “topic,” we mean the theme or focal point of your essay that you use to demonstrate your character and principles. You are always the “topic” of your college essay.)

There are, in our opinion, two fundamental structural techniques that can be used in any college essay. These aren’t the only two alternatives; rather, they can be used for any writing prompt you may encounter.

Which structural strategy you employ depends on how you respond to the following query (and its addendum): Do you believe that you have overcome big obstacles in your life? or not at all? Do you want to write something about them?

If the answer is yes to both questions, you should adopt the narrative structure.

If the answer is no to either, you should probably attempt Montage Structure.

Thus, what exactly are those structures? And how do they impact your subject?

The narrative structure is a traditional form for stories. If you read, watch movies and TV, share stories with friends and family, and watch movies and TV, you’ve probably seen this a lot. This can be unfamiliar if you don’t do any of these activities. If not, you already are aware of this. Maybe you’re just unaware that you do. In a narrative, a character or characters—in this case, you—work to overcome obstacles while also learning, developing, and gaining understanding.

For a college essay that uses the narrative format, you should divide the word count nearly evenly among the following three sections: a) Challenges You Faced; b) What You Did About Them; and c) What You Learned (with the proviso that a and b may be slightly intertwined with c). Events and paragraphs are causally related.

Montages are another thing you’ve seen. But once more, you could not be aware of what you know. So: A montage is a collection of items with a common theme, usually photographs. You’ve probably seen montages in countless movies, such as the “here’s the couple meeting, dating, and falling in love” montage in romantic comedies and the well-known “training” montage in action flicks. A tale is told more fully by a few photos. By using a thematic thread to write about five distinct pairs of pants that represent various facets of who you are and what you value, you may create a montage in your college essay. Or distinct but related things that you enjoy and are quite knowledgeable about (like games or animals). or notes in your happiness journal.

How does structure affect a compelling topic?

We feel that the following topics or themes are more likely to make an essay stand out as a montage essay (i.e., an essay NOT about challenges):

Elastic (able to be connected to a variety of examples, occasions, or values)

Y. Uncommon (i.e., something that presumably no other students are writing about)

According to us, a narrative essay is more likely to be noticed if it includes:

X. Compelling or difficult challenges

A. Perception

Instead of being binary, each of them exists on a spectrum.

Each individual will define “elastic” differently. Mountaineering and family, history, literature, science, social justice, environmentalism, development, and insight might be related in some way. and another person could not make much of a connection with it. perhaps trees?

“Uncommon” – thousands of students compose essays each year discussing concerts, sports, or missions. It’s not impossible to write on these topics, but it’s far more difficult to stand out.

It’s possible to categorize “difficult or compelling challenges” into two categories: the weaker end includes things like failing a class or not making the sports team, and the stronger end includes things like escaping a war or spending three years without a home. It’s quite difficult to compose an excellent essay about a weaker problem, even though you theoretically could.

“Insight” is the response to the query, “so what?” A fantastic insight will probably surprise the reader a little, whereas a mediocre insight will probably not. It’s important to realize that some themes are definitely simpler to draw insights from than others. However, insight is something you’ll generate in an essay through the writing process rather than something you’ll typically know in advance for a topic.

To be clear, you may still create a fantastic montage with a well-known subject or a tale with mediocre insights. However, the level of difficulty increases. Probably quite high.

How do you come up with possible topics that are on the simpler side of the spectrum to stand out with in light of that?


Spend about 10 minutes (minimum) on each of these exercises.

Values Exercise

Essence Objects Exercise

21 Details Exercise

Everything I Want Colleges To Know About Me Exercise

Feelings and Needs Exercise

If you feel like you already have your topic, and you just want to know how to make it better…

Still do those exercises.

Maybe what you have is the best topic for you. And if you are incredibly super sure, you can skip ahead. But if you’re not sure this topic helps you communicate your deepest stories, spend a little time on the exercises above. As a bonus, even if you end up going with what you already had (though please be wary of the sunk cost fallacy), all that brainstorming will be useful when you write your supplemental essays.

The Feelings and Needs Exercise in particular is great for brainstorming Narrative Structure, connecting story events in a causal way (X led to Y led to Z). The Essence Objects, 21 Details, Everything I Want Colleges to Know exercises can lead to interesting thematic threads for Montage Structure (P, Q, and R are all connected because, for example, they’re all qualities of a great endodontist). But all of them are useful for both structural approaches. Essence objects can help a narrative come to life. One paragraph in a montage could focus on a challenge and how you overcame it.

The Values Exercise is a cornerstone of both—regardless of whether you use narrative or montage, we should get a sense of some of your core values through your essays.

How (and why) to outline your college essay to use a good structure

While not every professional writer knows exactly how a story will end when they start writing, they also have months (or years) to craft it, and they may throw major chunks or whole drafts away. You probably don’t want to throw away major chunks or whole drafts. So, you should outline.

Use the brainstorming exercises from earlier to decide on your most powerful topics and what structure (narrative or montage) will help you best tell your story.

Then, outline.


For a narrative, use the Feelings and Needs Exercise, and build clear bullet points for the Challenges + Effects, What I Did About It, and What I Learned. Those become your outline.

Yeah, that simple.

For a montage, outline 4-7 ways your thread connects to different values through different experiences, and if you can think of them, different lessons and insights (though these you might have to develop later, during the writing process). For example, how auto repair connects to family, literature, curiosity, adventure, and personal growth (through different details and experiences).

Here are some good example outlines:

Narrative outline (developed from the Feelings and Needs Exercise)


  • Domestic abuse (physical and verbal)
  • Controlling father/lack of freedom
  • Harassment
  • Sexism/bias


  • Prevented from pursuing opportunities
  • Cut off from world/family
  • Lack of sense of freedom/independence
  • Faced discrimination

What I Did About It:

  • Pursued my dreams
  • Traveled to Egypt, London, and Paris alone
  • Challenged stereotypes
  • Explored new places and cultures
  • Developed self-confidence, independence, and courage
  • Grew as a leader
  • Planned events

What I Learned:

  • Inspired to help others a lot more
  • Learned about oppression, and how to challenge oppressive norms
  • Became closer with mother, somewhat healed relationship with father
  • Need to feel free

Montage outline:

Thread: Home

  • Bojangles
    • Values: Family, tradition, literature
    • Ex: “Tailgate Special,” discussions w/family, reading Nancy Drew
    • Perception, connection to family

  • Chinese sword dance
    • Values: Culture/heritage, meticulousness, dedication, creativity
    • Ex: Notebook, formations/choreography
    • Nuances of culture, power of connection

  • Lab 304
    • Values: Science/chemistry, curiosity 
    • Synthesizing plat nanoparticles
    • Joy of discovery, redefining expectations

  • Governor’s School
    • Values: Exploration, personal growth
    • Knitting, physics, politics, etc.
    • Importance of exploring beyond what I know/am used to, taking risks

When to throw everything out and start fresh

In the end, you won’t know for sure until you try a draft or two if a topic will work. And perhaps it will be wonderful. But remember the sunk cost fallacy and be willing to give different approaches a shot.

Asking for feedback is the first thing you should do if you’re stuck on a personal statement topic and just aren’t sure about it. Look for a partner who can help you evaluate it without being emotionally attached to any negative feelings (such as anxiety, worry, or dread) that may have grown up around it.

Simply put, the essay’s purpose is to show the college that you’ll be able to contribute both while and after college. We think that an excellent essay must possess these four qualities:

Core principles (exhibiting who you are by what you value)

To make a reader feel more connected to you, show vulnerability.

“So what” moments, or insights

Craft (clear organization, elegant language, deliberate decisions)

Read your essay aloud to a person you know and pose the following questions to gauge how your ideals come across:

Which values do you think the essay demonstrates the most?

Which values are sort of there but might be more pronounced?

Which ideals might be showing through, and were there any missed opportunities?

Identify your essay’s vulnerability by asking the following questions:

Do you feel more connected to me now that you’ve heard my story?

What new information about me have you learned?

Review the assertions you’re making in your essay to look for “so what” moments of insight. Are you considering the lessons these situations and experiences have taught you? In what ways have they altered you? Are you forming (ideally) unusual or common connections? unconventional or surprising insights frequently make up the unconventional relationships.

Craft is the quality of each paragraph, sentence, and word being a choice that has been thoroughly thought through. something the author has taken the time to edit and improve. that the essay is clear and fascinating. How can this be tested? Ask yourself: Do I need this for each sentence, paragraph, and word? (Strong warning: Please stay away from neurotic perfectionism here. All we’re asking is that you use words deliberately.)

Finally, here is an;

An analysis of a sample college essay entitled “Burying Grandma”

Check out the essay below, which was created for the Common App’s “Topic of your choice” requirement, to show how the Narrative Essay framework functions. Before reading the analysis of each paragraph below, you could try reading it here first.

They covered the precious mahogany coffin with a brown amalgam of rocks, decomposed organisms, and weeds. It was my turn to take the shovel, but I felt too ashamed to dutifully send her off when I had not properly said goodbye. I refused to throw dirt on her. I refused to let go of my grandmother, to accept a death I had not seen coming, to believe that an illness could not only interrupt, but steal a beloved life.

The Challenges + Effects (also known as the Inciting Incident in storytelling) are set up by the author in the opening paragraphs. Her needs for development, emotional closure, and the ability to deal with it and let go/move on are also being met at this time. Take note of how elements like the shovel can have symbolic value and add vitality to a writing. Later, that item will also reappear.

When my parents finally revealed to me that my grandmother had been battling liver cancer, I was twelve and I was angry–mostly with myself. They had wanted to protect me–only six years old at the time–from the complex and morose concept of death. However, when the end inevitably arrived, I wasn’t trying to comprehend what dying was; I was trying to understand how I had been able to abandon my sick grandmother in favor of playing with friends and watching TV. Hurt that my parents had deceived me and resentful of my own oblivion, I committed myself to preventing such blindness from resurfacing.

She uses a flashback in the second paragraph to give us some background on the obstacles that came before (i.e., the Status Quo), which clarifies her world for us. This makes it easier for us to comprehend how her grandmother’s passing affected her, and it also begs the question of how she intends to stop this blindness from happening again.

I became desperately devoted to my education because I saw knowledge as the key to freeing myself from the chains of ignorance. While learning about cancer in school I promised myself that I would memorize every fact and absorb every detail in textbooks and online medical journals. And as I began to consider my future, I realized that what I learned in school would allow me to silence that which had silenced my grandmother. However, I was focused not with learning itself, but with good grades and high test scores. I started to believe that academic perfection would be the only way to redeem myself in her eyes–to make up for what I had not done as a granddaughter.  

She transitions into the What I Did About It part in the third paragraph and accelerates to a hundred miles per hour. but still not quite in the correct way. Why does that matter? She chases things that won’t truly assist her in resolving her problem, despite being valuable and significant in and of themselves. While sharing the ways we messed up might be challenging or even frightening, it often results in a stronger story, which is why it’s vital in narrative. Consider this: You aren’t really interested in seeing a movie where a character encounters a problem, knows what to do the entire time, so does it, and then the movie ends. We are interested in how people develop, adapt, and change.

However, a simple walk on a hiking trail behind my house made me open my own eyes to the truth. Over the years, everything–even honoring my grandmother–had become second to school and grades. As my shoes humbly tapped against the Earth, the towering trees blackened by the forest fire a few years ago, the faintly colorful pebbles embedded in the sidewalk, and the wispy white clouds hanging in the sky reminded me of my small though nonetheless significant part in a larger whole that is humankind and this Earth. Before I could resolve my guilt, I had to broaden my perspective of the world as well as my responsibilities to my fellow humans.   

There are some good evocative details in this that help submerge us in her perspective and reality.

What I Did About It and What I Learned have structural components in this essay; they are frequently slightly intertwined. The Moment of Truth/Turning Point is revealed in this paragraph. She starts to see where she went wrong. She is aware that perspective is necessary. Yet how? See the next sentence.

Volunteering at a cancer treatment center has helped me discover my path. When I see patients trapped in not only the hospital but also a moment in time by their diseases, I talk to them. For six hours a day, three times a week, Ivana is surrounded by IV stands, empty walls, and busy nurses that quietly yet constantly remind her of her breast cancer. Her face is pale and tired, yet kind–not unlike my grandmother’s. I need only to smile and say hello to see her brighten up as life returns to her face. Upon our first meeting, she opened up about her two sons, her hometown, and her knitting group–no mention of her disease. Without even standing up, the three of us—Ivana, me, and my grandmother–had taken a walk together.

We hear about her subsequent actions and some of the lessons she learns from them in the second-to-last paragraph: She can better understand her role in the world by volunteering at the neighborhood hospital.

Cancer, as powerful and invincible as it may seem, is a mere fraction of a person’s life. It’s easy to forget when one’s mind and body are so weak and vulnerable. I want to be there as an oncologist to remind them to take a walk once in a while, to remember that there’s so much more to life than a disease. While I physically treat their cancer, I want to lend patients emotional support and mental strength to escape the interruption and continue living. Through my work, I can accept the shovel without burying my grandmother’s memory.

The last paragraph employs a literary device known as the “bookend” by returning us to the beginning but with a change—she is now a different, marginally wiser person than she was. This enables us to frame her development.

… well-told good narrative. Your objective is to achieve that.

Hopefully, you now have a clearer understanding of how to accomplish it.

At Top Elite Writers we understand that sometimes coming up with an outstanding and unique essay especially a college essay can be a daunting task. It requires time, preparation and even proofreading that is why our expert writers who are professional, PhD and Masters graduates are always ready to get your paper done efficiently and on time. We even have a first purchase discount of 50% OFF, just use the promo code TOP50 once you start talking to our agents.

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