How To Format An Essay For College Application

Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.

In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.

1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly

Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new? 

With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch. 

2. Organize your writing

Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.

Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion. 

3. Show instead of telling

When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.

In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you. 

4. Know your vocab

Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?

Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader. 

5. Write succinctly

Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time. 

6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures

The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.

7. Seek qualified second opinions

You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.

 

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Should you type your essay directly into the online common application or should you use a word processing tool? Answering this question is your first step in formatting your essay.

Either option is possible, but at Studential we recommend using the word processing tool as it allows you to easily plan, check and correct your essay while offline.

In any word processing tool you will be able to format your essay. For example headings using bold, UPPERCASE, italics or underline whichever is your preference (ours is Bold).

You will be able to create paragraphs and check not only spellings and grammar, but also word counts. If you’re struggling for a word, most word processing tools such as Microsoft Word (for Windows Users) or Pages (for Macs) provide thesauruses, synonyms etc. These are really useful and can spark ideas.

A very important fact is being able to check your word count (remember it is 250 to 650 words for your essay) and continue to recheck and refine it, until it is within this very strict word count.

If you’re asking family and friends to proof read and check your essay before you submit it, you’ll also be able to set ‘track changes’ on the document so you can accept or reject their suggestions.

Once you’ve formatted it as you want it, the next stage is to cut and paste your essay into the correct field in the online Common Application. Italics, bold and underline formatting from your word processing version should still be saved when you cut and paste.

However occasionally when you cut and paste there may be formatting issues after you’ve pasted it. Don’t assume it’s all pasted correctly. Recheck it and reformat where you have to.

For example, has the last line pasted in ok?  Do you have any line breaks or spaces that weren’t meant to be there? Are there capitals or lowercases which are incorrect? Is all the punctuation the same as the original?

The online application essay field will also create block formatting of paragraphs and new paragraphs will not be indented. Instead there will be one line of space between each paragraph. This is normal for all online common applications and cannot be changed.

Different browsers e.g. Internet Explorer, Firefox and Chrome may paste slightly differently, so if you struggle first time, try re-loading the online application using a different browser and then cut and paste again.

Alternatively if this still doesn’t work, it’s about trying a different word processing tool.

If you think you’re within the word count but it’s saying you’re not or your paragraphs are formatting incorrectly after you’ve cut and pasted them; the best idea is to cut and paste into Notepad (for windows users) or TextEdit (for Macs).

Then from here cut and paste into the essay text box. This is because Notepad and TextEdit strip out all the formatting and just paste plain text. This may mean you need to create your paragraphs again but all the weird and wonderful formatting issues will most likely disappear.

Once your essay is uploaded you can preview the page, once you’ve saved your changes and pressed continue.

To double check the Common Application across all sections including your essay, you’ll need to fully complete every field and requirement and start the submission process. At this time you’ll have the option to save a pdf version to your computer.

Don’t worry if you suddenly realize you’ve missed something. Since 2015/16 applications, the online system lets you make unlimited edits after you’ve submitted your first application.

Find out more about formatting your Common App essay in our Common App Essay Structure section.

 

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