Elevate Your College Essay: A Definitive Guide to the College Essay Format

August 16, 2023
August 14, 2023
Keith Nickolaus, Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, UC Berkeley

There are lots of clear steps you can take to help improve your chances of getting into your top-choice college, but of all of these, the college admissions essay might be the one you feel least prepared to tackle. 

Instead of feeling exhilarated by the possibilities, you feel anxious because the stakes are so high and the rules so blurry…

But don’t worry, you’re going to find this post loaded with expert information from experienced educators and college advisors who help students get into the world’s most selective colleges and universities.  We’ll walk you through key features of personal essays, give you some practical tips for how to get started if you’re stuck, and you’ll learn about some resources you can use on your own whenever you’re ready for more help!

The Difference Between Essay Format & Essay Formatting

In this post we’ll use “format” to refer to guidelines for content, themes, and structure.

But, what if you’re just looking for quick tips on formatting — as in what font and font size are best? or whether you need a title or not…? 

Well, we’ll call these essay mechanics “formatting” and cover them in the last section of the post — skip ahead if you want — but…before you do, keep in mind that a winning college essay is an important step for getting into college and it needs to have both the right kind of format and proper formatting!

How Important is The Essay for Admissions?

According to the National Association of College Admission Counseling top factors are:

  1. GPA, grades in AP classes, academic breadth and rigor of your courses
  2.  SAT/ACT scores
  3. Personal Essay
  4. Recommendation Letters from Teachers and Counselors and Class Rank
  5. Extracurricular Activities

As you can see, putting in the time and effort to submit your best essay and one that’s genuine and memorable is going to be worth the time and effort…

But, despite the weight these essays carry, many high school students are never taught how to write a personal essay. So, feeling a bit lost? You’re not alone…

In this post we’ll explore how understanding key features of the personal essay can be your secret weapon for acing the college essay…

Understanding the Personal Essay Format

If you want to write a poem, it helps to understand key features of poetry as a genre; or if you want to write a novel, that’s another genre…

Essays come in genres too! And if you want to write a winning admissions essay, knowing the rules of the PERSONAL ESSAY is key.

You probably remember writing persuasive essays and expository essays in grade school and high school.

The personal essay is different…

The two key components of any personal essay are personal experiences, thoughts, and reflections, on the one hand, and more universal themes, ideas, and insights on the other hand. 

TWO Key Components of the Personal Essay

The secret to writing a great personal essay is fusing the personal and the universal together naturally and artfully, so the reader is entertained, connects with the writer emotionally, and gets some interesting ideas and insights to contemplate after reading the essay.

Have You Heard of These Two Great Personal Essays by Famous Authors?
Notes of A Native Son by James Baldwin
A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

In a personal essay, the writer has lots of leeway in terms of the more universal themes and insights they want to explore — be they social, philosophical, or more purely introspective... 

In a college application essay, on the other hand, you’ll focus specifically on individual character traits, experiences, and insights that are most relevant and compelling for college admissions — for what college admissions officers are looking for  and for demonstrating your own college readiness…

So with this in mind, let’s review the key features of the personal essay format.

9 Essential Features of the Personal Essay Format

1. Writing Quality

Because personal essays hold a mirror up to the author and are also compositions, they allow for and demand some elements of originality and creativity.

The key is to craft an essay that is uniquely yours, impactful, succinct, and authentic. You’ll want to make every word count, strive to “show not tell,” and excel at improving word choice during the revision process to give full expression to your experiences and insights.

You, and someone not you (with good written communication skills), should review for final editing and to ensure the essay is carefully proofread.

2. Personal Point of View and Voice

Unlike expository essays or news writing, personal essays are subjective, and use first-person speech and perspective. Everything in the essay projects your unique personality, emotions, imunication style, making your college essay both “personal” and distinctive.

3. Authenticity and Vulnerability

Personal essays often explore sensitive or vulnerable topics, allowing readers to connect with YOU, the speaker. At the same time you’ll want to leave out overly personal or private details that don’t really fit the purpose or goal of the essay! Your essay is personal but it’s also shared publicly. You present an authentic self, without coming across boastful or artificial, and without being overly familiar…

PRO TIP: Respect your boundaries when it comes to what you feel okay sharing or not sharing. Get input from an outside reader who knows you well for more input on what you’re sharing about yourself and your life experiences before you press “submit.”

4. An Individual Value System

A great GPA and great letters of recommendation carry weight, but your personal essay is a way to present consequential character traits admissions officers are unlikely to find elsewhere in your application packet. A strong essay will communicate your values AND anchor them in lived experiences and reflections — making these personal beliefs more vivid, memorable, and also persuasive. Finally, look for opportunities to share how your values inform your passion for learning, your vocational interests, and your potential to contribute positively to campus life.

5. Insight

Personal essays aren’t just lists of experiences or lists of personality traits…Personal essays are a great format for highlighting your own level of self awareness. In an essay this often involves showing pivotal experiences or influences in your life and how you actively learn from them. Don’t feel valuable experiences need to be exceptional or fit any mold, we all learn from big and small experiences in our lives, and both successes and challenges can offer equally valuable insights!

6. Storytelling

Some personal essays are structured as narratives or “stories.” In fact, sometimes personal essay and personal narrative are terms used to describe the same essay format. We’ll talk more about narrative elements under “structure” below.

7. Emotional Connection

Successful personal essays evoke emotions in the reader. They use concrete details, imagery, or emphatic language to help the reader connect on a more personal and intimate level with the writer’s individual circumstances, experiences, joys, hardships, or challenges…

8. Universality

Although subjective, the personal essay is a format that lets the writer share personal insights and reflections that touch on more universal themes about life. These larger themes make the piece more memorable for the reader and allow the reader to compare their own insights and experiences with those of the writer.

9. Brevity

Personal essays, and admissions essays in particular, are usually concise and to the point. Although you’ll likely want to add color and realism with some descriptive details, dialogue, or other vivid elements, you’ll typically want to maintain a strong focus on your formative experiences and most meaningful reflections.

Since the College Admissions essay is part of the Personal Essay family, the principles we’ve just listed go a long way in helping you understand how to format a winning college essay!

PRO TIP: When you’re ready for some additional feedback on your essay try checking with an academic advisor at your school.

You can also use a grammar and spell check software such as “Grammarly” or “Ginger.” 

Get ahead of the pack by using more sophisticated AI tools designed specifically for evaluating college application essays, such as Dr. Ivy . Dr. Ivy is designed specifically for college admissions essays with input from experienced admissions consultants and former admissions officers, offers prompts in an intuitive format, and is keyed to read for high-impact essay components such as writing quality, personal voice, authenticity, values, and insights…

Now that you’ve got some quick insights into the essential features of a powerful personal essay, let’s go on to talk about the kinds of content, themes, and structures that work best in a college essay format.

How To Format a College Admissions Essay: Content, Themes, and Structure

The College Essay — Content

An effective college essay will highlight your individuality and provide glimpses into hidden aspects of your life — by “hidden” we mean important personal qualities that most admissions officers can’t know from reviewing your transcripts, SAT or ACT scores, GPA, or list of extracurriculars…

If you haven’t already figured out your best essay content, you may want to pause your reading now and do a short brainstorming exercise, like the one provided below, so you can get started and home in on the right and best content for a memorable and authentic college admissions essay!

Your Content Brainstorm

Grab your laptop, or an old fashioned pen and notebook, and a timer....Give yourself 10 minutes to list things that you might want an admissions officer to know about you that they can’t find out from your transcripts, test scores, etc…Use the prompts below if helpful…

  1. What qualities do others admire in you that speak to your college readiness?
  1. What personal qualities, character traits, or aptitudes will motivate you or help you to succeed in college?
  1. What’s important about how you learn from your experiences, and how will that help you contribute positively to campus life and then to society after you graduate?
  1. Do you imagine that your high school experiences, grades, or letters of recommendation might fail to present you authentically or fully…? What specific qualities or insights do you want to share to help admissions officers see your genuine strengths and who you really are?

If you already have lots of ideas for content, or you’ve already drafted an essay, or you just finished the brainstorming exercise above…it’s time to go on to the next step…\

CONTENT REVIEW: Use the List of Content Ideas below to compare against your current content ideas — Do you see any new themes or directions for your college essay content?...
Content Ideas for YOUR College Admissions Essay
  • Interesting facts about my background and upbringing that shape the next steps in my life, personally and academically
  • How I contribute positively to my community and my motivation for doing it…
  • The perspectives, beliefs, or values that influence my academic interests or career goals…
  • Personal experiences that help explain who I am today…
  • One or more funny or unusual facts about my life that can add color, humor, or emotion to my essay…
  • Teamwork or leadership skills…
  • My ability to forge meaningful friendships or relationships…
  • Taking risks and what it has taught me about myself…
  • Important life lessons I’ve learned through unique successes, setbacks, hardships, or challenges in my life…
  • Subjects I’m passionate about and why…
  • A personal achievement or accomplishment that has defined me in some way…
  • My unique or unusual life journey and how it shaped my identity or outlook on life

And remember…Your college essay excludes content and speech that

  • are overly informal
  • are not relevant to an admissions application and admissions process
  • don’t really support your essay’s core content and core themes
  • don’t help present an authentic picture of you as a potential college student
  • are overly private or intimate (even if relevant)


Your content choices may be limited by a specific essay question or prescribed essay prompt

The good news is that these prompts can be helpful if you’re struggling to pick a focus for your essay. And, most prompts will help you get started without being overly restrictive!

Check out the list of prompts below for an idea of what to expect. These particular prompts are ones we found posted on the Common App website.

The 2023-24 Essay Prompts for the Common Application.

Below is the full set of essay prompts for the 2023-2024 Common Application.

✏️Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
✏️The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
✏️Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
✏️Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
✏️Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
✏️Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
✏️Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

For more information on Personal Statement Prompts, read this: Personal Statement Prompts 2023-2024

The College Essay — Themes

Just as the content in a college essay needs to be relevant to the admissions process, the principal themes need to be relevant in this way too.

The word theme gets used very loosely these days…A theme in your essay is a more universal topic:

Example 1. 

Living on a wheat farm in Kansas = an autobiographical detail

The experience of growing up on a farm, any farm = a theme 

Example 2. 

Breaking up with your boyfriend in 11th grade =  a personal experience 

That experience might give you an interesting insight into the nature of friendship = a theme

You may find that the experiences or events you talk about in your essay touch on a variety of themes, such as grades, friendship, race, peer pressure, immigration, family life…Just be sure you keep your focus on the PRINCIPAL themes guiding your essay —  the self-knowledge that will matter most to admissions officers.

Examples of Themes in College Admissions Essays

  • Resilience, overcoming hardships or adversity, resourcefulness
  • Persistence and perseverance
  • Leadership, figuring out how to be an effective leader
  • Listening to one’s own inner voice, not conforming to social expectations or family/peer pressures
  • Pursuit of excellence 
  • Community service, altruism, generosity
  • Ability to learn from life experiences and use them for personal growth
  • A commitment or passion to pursue a higher calling or meaningful vocation
  • Teamwork
  • Ethical values and choices
  • Learning from mistakes
  • Ability to turn a hardship or handicap into a catalyst for personal growth or success

As you can see, the college essay has many possible themes, but the themes are connected to personal experiences and are relevant for a college admissions purpose

And remember, your essay won’t be very long, so be sure to focus on just one or two of the themes most relevant for your life story and your application process…

The College Essay — Structure

If content is WHAT you talk about in your essay, and themes are the big topics that other readers can relate to, then structure is HOW you present and organize the content. 

 In the personal essay format, you’ll probably want to use a STRUCTURE that

  • works well with the kind of information you want to share
  • gives your essay a polished and compact organization, such as:
  • a beginning that hooks the reader
  • a logical sequence of related events, themes, insights, or topics
  • an ending that… fits?... ties things up?... is memorable?... is unexpected?...What do you think of when you think of a good ending to a piece of writing?...

Unlike content and themes, when it comes to structure, you won’t have a huge menu of options. In fact, we’re going to limit it to just TWO basic kinds of structure, each with a couple of  variations. 

And, the good news is that even if the personal essay format wasn’t familiar to you, the two structures probably will be more familiar!

Two Basic Structures to Choose From…

We can break this down a little more in terms of effective formats or structures for college essays:

Narrative Structure
  1. ⌚️ In the moment narrative
  2. 📆 Longer time frame narrative or life journey narrative
Analytic Structure
  1. 🔎 Topical Structure
  2. 🎬 Montage Style (more like short “scenes” or vignettes)

⌚️In the Moment Narrative

Key Features

Focuses on a single event or experience

Uses sensory details and/or dialogue to make the reader feel like they are right there with you, in the moment

The vivid description includes what’s going on with your inner emotions, feelings, thoughts, realizations…

You might use the past tense, but you might also use the historical present tense 

When to Use It

You want to focus your personal essay on one pivotal or life-changing experience with a very short time frame — maybe because the event “tested” or challenged you in some way, or the experience reveals some important insights about your personality, identity, values…

📆 Longer Time Frame Narrative

Key Features

Uses a chronological story sequence (I was born in Vietnam and my family immigrated to the US when I was five, and then my grandparents moved to the US when I was in high school, and then…) that includes carefully selected events you use to highlight key experiences, events, people, and influences in your life, across a broad arc of time

When to Use It

Your childhood involved multiple challenges or hardships to overcome

Relevant character traits, values, or goals are connected to your experiences over many years (such as changing schools or immigrating to a new country…)

You want to showcase significant turning points in your life that happened at different stages of your life journey

🔎 Topical Analytic Structure

Key Features

Uses an overarching theme or focus around which you cluster related content (life themes or experiences…)

Will typically include an introduction paragraph that provides essential background information and/or a “hook” to get the reader’s attention or to help reader connect with YOU, the speaker…

 Will use a conclusion paragraph to wrap up or close the essay, such as showing how different character traits you discussed put you on a trajectory for academic success or give you a clear purpose or vocational direction…

When to Use It

A narrative format doesn’t really fit what you want to share in your essay

The key points you want to share don’t have natural connections or are only loosely connected, but are relevant for your admissions application

🎬 Montage Presentation Structure

Key Features

It may be helpful to think of the montage structure as a blend of the narrative AND analytical structures.

The montage structure is sometimes described as being similar to a  “movie trailer” — capturing in writing short snippets from your life that offer insights into you as person

Be sure the reader can see by the end of the essay how the small vignettes add up to a larger whole or clear main idea

When to Use It

You have external events, places, or people that inform or shape interesting personal qualities or life insights and you want to dramatize some of these experiences, but they don’t fit into an orderly “life journey” type narrative

The College Essay — Getting Started (A Few Quick Tips)

Before we jump to the dos and don’ts of essay formatting, let's first take a look at how to approach an essay that uses the personal essay format…

Hopefully the suggestions below will help you get started or get “unstuck” if you’re finding it hard to know where to start…But first, for any specific application, be sure to check if your essay needs to respond to a specific essay question or essay prompt!

  • Always start by reflecting (and brainstorming) on what makes you interesting, and unique — not unique in an eccentric way necessarily, but unique in terms of the mix of influences, experiences, and character traits that shape you individually and are most relevant for your college aspirations and goals
  • Try a two-column brainstorming strategy to think about connections between your life experiences and your individual character traits… In column A list interesting and memorable facts about your life (experiences, formative events or activities, influential adults, books, extracurriculars…); in column B list key personality or character traits, personal values, learning interests, college and career goals…

When you finish, look over both columns and think about which characteristics in column B were shaped or influenced by facts, experiences, or influences you listed in column A.

  • Home in on the experiences (column A) and individual character traits (column B) that are related and that you most want to emphasize and showcase in your admissions essay. 
  •  Now that you’ve got a handle on key content and themes for your essay, decide which essay structure best suits your content and your own writing preferences

PRO TIP: if you plan to look at some sample essays, it’s usually a good idea to develop your own content ideas first! Use sample essays to help you think about ways to improve your own essay, but don’t fall into the trap of imitating others or writing an essay that lacks authenticity!

  • Once you’ve built up a strong initial draft, get some outside input from an academic advisor at your school, consider using a grammar and spell check software such as “Grammerly” or “Ginger,” and get more advanced and targeted qualitative feedback with a tool such as Dr. Ivy.

The College Essay — Formatting

In this section we use formatting to refer to more mechanical features of your essay, like the kinds of font you use and the basic layout of your essay.

Keep in mind that specifics of formatting can vary from one college application to another, and be sure to follow any specific formatting instructions for each specific college application...

Depending on the application and essay platform in question, you may have a text box and won’t have to worry too much about page layout, but use the guidelines below, as needed...

  • Titles — No title is necessary (and it can take up space you need for more important content)
  • Font choice — Using standard fonts such as Times New Roman, Arial, or Calibri is a good practice; stick with black font color.
  • Font size — use either 12-point or 11-point font (if you have the choice and need more space, opt for 11-point font, otherwise 12-point)
  • Text highlights — Use features like bold font or underlines sparingly so they don’t distract from the content; remember that some online application platforms and text boxes may not allow such formatting options and you may lose the features when you paste your essay into the text box…
  • Margins — Use 1-inch margins on all sides.
  • Line spacing and Alignment — Use 1.5 spacing or double space for readability; you may be allowed to use single spacing if you really need to fit more text into a shorter text box; use left justified alignment.
  • Paragraph Structure — Use paragraphs to organize the content, with a solid beginning and ending paragraph. 

Even if you’re using a narrative structure you want to have an effective beginning paragraph and ending paragraph. With a narrative structure you may have some creative options for how you start the essay, such as jumping right into a narrative event or experience as a way of getting the reader’s attention with dramatic elements. 

The opening or introduction paragraph should help get your reader into your essay by posing a question or making a statement that gets their attention and highlights a key theme, inner tension, or emotional focus of the essay. 

Likewise, include a closing or conclusion paragraph that ensures the key theme or insight you want to share about yourself is crystal clear. The last paragraph is also a good place to connect essay content to what you want to accomplish at the college, or why you want to attend the college you’re applying to, and/or your larger academic and career goals…

  •  Paragraph Length — paragraphs are primarily for organizing and segmenting content, so it’s probably best to think about the most natural ways to organize your content rather than think about any prescribed length for each different paragraph. 
  • Dialogue — if you use some dramatic dialogue for effect, limit how much you use so it doesn’t distract from key themes about YOU.

Use quotation marks for direct speech. For inner dialogue (dramatizing what you’re thinking about or saying to yourself when narrating or dramatizing a personal experience) quotation marks are not required but might be used for dramatic effect!

Ready to Rock Your Essay?

Rather than worrying too much about writing a perfect essay, take the writing process one step at a time, and don’t skip steps. You’ll be surprised where the process can lead! 

Brainstorm, plan, outline, and revise, revise, revise…and keep reviewing the format guidelines we’ve been exploring in this post.

If you want even more tips and ideas, be sure to check out these other helpful posts:

Remember to review the points we’ve covered, get input from an academic counselor at your school, or anytime you want you can go online and get helpful feedback prompts for your college application essay from advanced AI tools, like Dr. Ivy — an advanced machine learning app designed solely for college admissions essays. (And, if you’re ready soon enough, you may be able to take advantage of free access to the beta version of the app.)

In no time you’ll be over the finish line and have a fantastic submission-ready admissions essay!