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Do College Essays Require Titles

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? 

 

What's Next?

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:

 

Read actual questions from students about the application essay and see answers and advice from college planning and admissions experts

How much of an impact can admissions essays actually make? - Susi

Probably a bigger impact than you imagine. If you are overqualified and applying to a school with a high acceptance rate, then maybe not. However, if you are like most students where you are applying to competitive schools, then your essays will make a significant difference in the number and quality of acceptance offers that you receive.

Especially for students who fall just short of a school’s admissions requirements, the essay can be your way to help the school understand why you belong in their program and how you can make a meaningful contribution. If you show passion and enthusiasm, then you can tip the scales in your favor. However, you’ll need to craft an essay that is stellar in every dimension: content, organization, tone, and writing that is free from errors.

Would it be appropriate to write a quality essay and then send copies of that same one to every college, or should I create unique essays for each college? - Amy

Each essay should be tailored to the prompt. However, schools often have similar prompts that will allow you to use the main body of your essay, or at least a few paragraphs, across multiple applications. The main pitfall we see in this situation is when applicants are trying to apply to too many schools in the hopes that casting a wide net will ensure acceptance from at least one school. Admissions officers know a generic essay when they see one, so be sure that your essays always reflect strong interest in that particular school.

I am pretty much in love with the admissions essay I wrote, but the limit is 500 words and mine is almost 600. Do you think that having an essay that is 80 words or so too long would count against me, even if it's good? - Laura

Look at the prompt again. Many schools will ask you to write an essay of ‘about’ a particular length. In that case, they’re telling you that they want you to generally stay within those bounds, but it’s not a hard rule. If the prompt gives a specific word length, then 10% over is typically okay, but remember that you’re sending a tacit message to the admissions officers that you can’t follow their guidelines. You might want to have another person look at your essay and ask what could be trimmed without losing any meaning from the essay.

For my college essay, I was thinking of writing about how a medical condition I have has affected me. But at the same time, I don't want to sound like I am trying to get sympathy from the college admissions officers. How do college admissions people feel about these types of essays? - Lisa 

That largely depends on your attitude within the essay. From the way you phrased the question, it seems that you aren’t looking to play on the admissions officers heartstrings. Overcoming a challenging medical condition can foster resilience and a more mature outlook on life. These are qualities that, in our experience, all colleges are seeking in their applicants. One potential pitfall in writing about medical conditions is making the admissions officers wonder if your medical condition will interfere with your potential for success. Therefore, be clear that either 1) you are in full recovery or 2) you know how to manage your condition. Let them see how the situation has built character and a strong sense of personal responsibility.

What do the admission office try to learn from the college essay? What kind of person you are or experiences you have gone through that has made you a better person? - Monowara

Both. In your admissions essays, write about pivotal experiences in your life. They want to see the ability to think critically about situations you have encountered and how those situations affected who you are as well as your approach to life. Show the admissions officers that you will grow from the college experience and leave college better prepared not only for a career but also to become a contributing member of society. 

What should the topic be in my essay? Would I describe my past academic achievements, sports, clubs, etc.? Or would I describe what I want to achieve throughout my four years of college and my career aspirations thereafter? - Susan

We encourage applicants to develop a mindset that they are creating a personal statement rather than an essay to the admissions committees. This should set a tone of sharing what you consider to be the most important interests you have, experiences that influence your interests or academic interests and goals for college. You do not want to write what amounts to a summary of your activities and accomplishments which you will list in other parts of the application. The best starting point to the personal statement is to decide what key personal features or characteristics you want a group of strangers to know about you. Then choose an event, a circumstance, or an activity that enables you to develop these features into a coherent story. Be relaxed, be honest, and be energetic in your writing.

What do the admission office try to learn from the college essay? What kind of person you are or experiences you have gone through that has made you a better person? - Monowara

This is a very good question that almost all students ask when it comes time to write their college applications. In a very real sense, the admissions committee wants to gain insight into the individual behind the objective information (grades, courses, test scores, GPA). What does this mean? They want to know what experiences you have had or the circumstances in which you have grown up that have shaped your values, your beliefs, your view of the world, your dreams and ambitions for your future, your commitment to hard work, and a genuine desire to learn and to live with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. So, you should write about any experiences that have influenced the factors listed above. The admissions committees are also going to learn about you from the thoughtfulness and the quality of your writing.

I heard that you can write your application essay as a poem if you're really good at poetry or not even make the essay an essay at all. Is this true? - india

Yes, you can be creative in your approach to the application. A poem is a logical way to go. Doing something very different entails some amount of risk. Some colleges do offer a "my space" section, with which you are encouraged to do anything you want, including photos, artwork, film, writing. However, for the main essay, colleges want an essay, meaning an example of your writing. Could you do it in iambic pentameter? Sure. But, don't just draw a picture.

 

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