When admissions professionals use the college application essay to help determine who gets invited to attend their institution of higher learning, they are looking beyond the facts of good grades, test scores and activities.

They are looking for that one thing that makes you uniquely you: your personality.

This is your chance share how your vision, goals, triumphs and experiences have molded who you are, and why you would be a choice candidate for admissions. Use this definitive guide for your college application essay format.

14 Tips for Formatting Your College Application Essay

Writing Tips for the College Application Essay


Construct Your Essay Like a Feature Story

A good story has a beginning, a middle and an end. On your college application essay, use the first paragraph as an introduction, and the last paragraph as your conclusion that wraps everything up. Put the meat of the essay in between. Let the story build and flow to its natural conclusion.

Stick to One Topic

You will not be able to tell your entire life story in a 650-word essay, so pick one story that exemplifies how you came to be the unique person you are today and use that as your essay theme.

Create an Outline

Craft an outline showing how your story will flow from beginning to end, with each paragraph making an individual point. An outline will help you to flesh in your essay and keep it on point.

Be Creative But True

It may be tempting to use a standard college application essay template because it sounds easy. However, this may lead to a dull read. Write the college application essay so that the story shows your creative side, while being true to who you are.

Use Analogies and Examples

Let your essay tell specific examples or analogies from your life experiences. Point out important events from your life that have made you who you are today. Stories of success, overcoming obstacles, and leadership can help create a college application essay that stands apart. Use these as supporting material or evidence to back up your main point.

Have Someone Else Read Your Application Essay

Once you feel you have done your best work, let someone you trust read your essay and give their feedback. Ask them to read for flow, content and readability, with a lookout for grammar, punctuation or spelling errors. A fresh eye can give perspective and constructive feedback to make your college application essay even better.

Write on Your Computer

Write your college application essay on your own computer in Microsoft Word or Google Docs. Resist the temptation to write it directly into the online application box. Use the spellcheck and word count features. You can upload your document or copy and paste it into the online box when it is completed.

Don’t Include the Essay Prompt

The essay prompt is there to give you ideas of what to write about. Do not enter the prompt as a header on your essay.
Related: How to Write a Great College Application Essay

Submitting an Online Application


Use the Online Application

While some schools still accept your application essay on paper, it is generally the rule that you should use the online college application format instead. This will provide better assurance that your essay is received, and received in a timely manner. Submitting your application online also conforms to most college or university preferences for submittal.

Use a Standard Font

Most online applications are formatted to limit the font options. When creating your college application essay, avoid using fancy fonts. Stick to basic fonts, like Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri in 12-point type. Most important is the content, not the typeface. Online applications may also not accept formatting like bold or italics. Avoid using emojis, hashtags, underlines and ALL CAPS in your writing.

Check Your Formatting

Using the online application form, you may be required to enter your essay into a designated online space or box. Since the box parameters can alter the formatting you so carefully constructed, double check your entry to ensure that the entire piece was included and not cut off, that formatting like words in bold or italic was not eliminated, and that line spacing and paragraphs are still intact.
Related: 10 Tips for Writing the College Application Essay

Submitting a Separate Document Application

Format Your Document

When submitting your application on paper, pay attention to how it looks, taking into consideration margins, line spacing, font styles and paragraph alignment.

  • Margins: Use a 1” margin on all sides.
  • Line Spacing: Use a 1.5 or double line spacing. Although you may be able to submit your work in single line spacing, this makes your essay easier to read.
  • Paragraphs: Indent the first line of each paragraph with a tab.
  • Fonts: Use a standard, easy-to-read font like Times New Roman, Arial or Calibri in 12-pt type.
  • Alignment: Use “left align.” Do not justify the alignment.

Follow Submission Instructions

Each college or university has its own requirements for how to format your college essay application, which you must follow. Some may ask for your application ID number to be displayed on the cover page, others may ask for pages to be numbered, with a heading on each page. Use your Microsoft Word or Google Docs toolbar to check word count. Do not include your name unless you are requested to do so.

Submit in Correct File Format

Essay application instructions will indicate which files types are accepted or supported. Check to make sure you are using the appropriate version of Microsoft Word, for example, and submit the file with the correct file extension. To be safe, you can save your essay in a PDF format that cannot be edited.
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