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Master the Five-Paragraph Essay
The five-paragraph essay is one of the most common composition assignments out there, whether for high school or college students. It is a classic assignment because it presents an arena in which writers can demonstrate their command of language and punctuation, as well as their logic and rhetorical skills. These skills are useful not only for classroom assignments and college application essays, but even in the business world, as employees have to write memorandums and reports, which draw on the same skills.
Mastering the five-paragraph essay is doable, and here are some tips.
Components of a Good Essay
The five-paragraph essay lives up to its name, because is has five paragraphs, as follows: an introductory paragraph that includes a thesis, three body paragraphs, each which includes support and development, and one concluding paragraph.
Its structure sometimes generates other names for the same essay, including three-tier essay, one-three-one, or a hamburger essay. Whether you are writing a cause-and-effect essay, a persuasive essay, an argumentative essay or a compare-and-contrast essay, you should use this same structure and the following specifics.
Keys to Introductory Paragraphs
Any introductory paragraph contains from three to five sentences and sets up the tone and structure for the whole essay. The first sentence should be a so-called hook sentence and grabs the reader. Examples of hook sentences include a quote, a joke, a rhetorical question or a shocking fact. This is the sentence that will keep your readers reading. Draw them in.
What Makes a Thesis Statement
The last sentence should be your thesis statement, which is the argument you are going to make in the essay. It is the sentence that contains the main point of the essay, or what you are trying to prove. It should be your strongest claim in the whole essay, telling the reader what the paper is about. You should be able to look back at it to keep your argument focused. The other sentences in this paragraph should be general information that links the first sentence and the thesis.
Content of Supporting Paragraphs
Each of the next three paragraphs follows the same general structure of the introductory paragraph. That is, they have one introduction sentence, evidence and arguments in three to five sentences, and a conclusion. Each one of them should define and defend your thesis sentence in the introduction.
The first body paragraph should be dedicated to proving your most powerful point. The second body paragraph can contain your weakest point, because the third body paragraph can, and should, support another strong argument.
Concluding Paragraph Tips
Your concluding paragraph is important, and can be difficult. Ideally, you can begin by restating your thesis. Then you can recall or restate all three to five of your supporting arguments. You should summarize each main point. If you have made similar arguments multiple times, join those together in one sentence.
Essentially, in the concluding or fifth paragraph, you should restate what your preceding paragraphs were about and draw a conclusion. It should answer the question: So what? Even if the answer seems obvious to you, write it down so that your reader can continue to easily follow your thinking process, and hopefully, agree with you.
A Note on Compare and Contrast
Let’s look a little more closely at the compare-and-contrast essay, which is a very common assignment. It can be a confusing one due to the terms used. Comparing two items is to show how they are alike. Contrasting two items is to show how they are different. One way to approach this essay is to make a grid for yourself that compares or contrasts two items before you start writing. Then, write about those characteristics. Do not try to write about both. The name of the essay is actually misleading.
Keep these pointers in mind when you need to write a five-paragraph essay, and your end result will be clear in its argument, leading your reader to the right conclusion. Often, that conclusion is to agree with you, and who doesn’t like to be right?
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10 Great Essay Writing Tips
Knowing how to write a college essay is a useful skill for anyone who plans to go to college. Most colleges and universities ask you to submit a writing sample with your application. As a student, you’ll also write essays in your courses. Impress your professors with your knowledge and skill by using these great essay writing tips.
Prepare to Answer the Question
Most college essays ask you to answer a question or synthesize information you learned in class. Review notes you have from lectures, read the recommended texts and make sure you understand the topic. You should refer to these sources in your essay.
Plan Your Essay
Many students see planning as a waste of time, but it actually saves you time. Take a few minutes to think about the topic and what you want to say about it. You can write an outline, draw a chart or use a graphic organizer to arrange your ideas. This gives you a chance to spot problems in your ideas before you spend time writing out the paragraphs.
Choose a Writing Method That Feels Comfortable
You might have to type your essay before turning it in, but that doesn’t mean you have to write it that way. Some people find it easy to write out their ideas by hand. Others prefer typing in a word processor where they can erase and rewrite as needed. Find the one that works best for you and stick with it.
View It as a Conversation
Writing is a form of communication, so think of your essay as a conversation between you and the reader. Think about your response to the source material and the topic. Decide what you want to tell the reader about the topic. Then, stay focused on your response as you write.
Provide the Context in the Introduction
If you look at an example of an essay introduction, you’ll see that the best essays give the reader a context. Think of how you introduce two people to each other. You share the details you think they will find most interesting. Do this in your essay by stating what it’s about and then telling readers what the issue is.
Explain What Needs to be Explained
Sometimes you have to explain concepts or define words to help the reader understand your viewpoint. You also have to explain the reasoning behind your ideas. For example, it’s not enough to write that your greatest achievement is running an ultra marathon. You might need to define ultra marathon and explain why finishing the race is such an accomplishment.
Answer All the Questions
After you finish writing the first draft of your essay, make sure you’ve answered all the questions you were supposed to answer. For example, essays in compare and contrast format should show the similarities and differences between ideas, objects or events. If you’re writing about a significant achievement, describe what you did and how it affected you.
Stay Focused as You Write
Writing requires concentration. Find a place where you have few distractions and give yourself time to write without interruptions. Don’t wait until the night before the essay is due to start working on it.
Read the Essay Aloud to Proofread
When you finish writing your essay, read it aloud. You can do this by yourself or ask someone to listen to you read it. You’ll notice places where the ideas don’t make sense, and your listener can give you feedback about your ideas.
Avoid Filling the Page with Words
A great essay does more than follow an essay layout. It has something to say. Sometimes students panic and write everything they know about a topic or summarize everything in the source material. Your job as a writer is to show why this information is important.
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- College Essay Examples | What Works and What Doesn’t
College Essay Examples | What Works and What Doesn't
Published on November 8, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on August 14, 2023.
One effective method for improving your college essay is to read example essays . Here are three sample essays, each with a bad and good version to help you improve your own essay.
Table of contents
Essay 1: sharing an identity or background through a montage, essay 2: overcoming a challenge, a sports injury narrative, essay 3: showing the influence of an important person or thing, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
This essay uses a montage structure to show snapshots of a student’s identity and background. The writer builds her essay around the theme of the five senses, sharing memories she associates with sight, sound, smell, touch, and taste.
In the weak rough draft, there is little connection between the individual anecdotes, and they do not robustly demonstrate the student’s qualities.
In the final version, the student uses an extended metaphor of a museum to create a strong connection among her stories, each showcasing a different part of her identity. She draws a specific personal insight from each memory and uses the stories to demonstrate her qualities and values.
How My Five Senses Record My Life
Throughout my life, I have kept a record of my life’s journey with my five senses. This collection of memories matters a great deal because I experience life every day through the lens of my identity.
My classmate pulls one eye up and the other down.
“Look what my parents did to me!”
No matter how many times he repeats it, the other kids keep laughing. I focus my almond-shaped eyes on the ground, careful not to attract attention to my discomfort, anger, and shame. How could he say such a mean thing about me? What did I do to him? Joseph’s words would engrave themselves into my memory, making me question my appearance every time I saw my eyes in the mirror.
Soaking in overflowing bubble baths with Andrew Lloyd Webber belting from the boombox.
Listening to “Cell Block Tango” with my grandparents while eating filet mignon at a dine-in show in Ashland.
Singing “The Worst Pies in London” at a Korean karaoke club while laughing hysterically with my brother, who can do an eerily spot-on rendition of Sweeney Todd.
Taking car rides with Mom in the Toyota Sequoia as we compete to hit the high note in “Think of Me” from The Phantom of the Opera . Neither of us stands a chance!
The sweet scent of vegetables, Chinese noodles, and sushi wafts through the room as we sit around the table. My grandma presents a good-smelling mixture of international cuisine for our Thanksgiving feast. My favorite is the Chinese food that she cooks. Only the family prayer stands between me and the chance to indulge in these delicious morsels, comforting me with their familiar savory scents.
I rinse a faded plastic plate decorated by my younger sister at the Waterworks Art Center. I wear yellow rubber gloves to protect my hands at Mom’s insistence, but I can still feel the warm water that offers a bit of comfort as I finish the task at hand. The crusted casserole dish with stubborn remnants from my dad’s five-layer lasagna requires extra effort, so I fill it with Dawn and scalding water, setting it aside to soak. I actually don’t mind this daily chore.
I taste sweat on my upper lip as I fight to continue pedaling on a stationary bike. Ava’s next to me and tells me to go up a level. We’re biking buddies, dieting buddies, and Saturday morning carbo-load buddies. After the bike display hits 30 minutes, we do a five-minute cool down, drink Gatorade, and put our legs up to rest.
My five senses are always gathering new memories of my identity. I’m excited to expand my collection.
Word count: 455
College essay checklist
Topic and structure
- I’ve selected a topic that’s meaningful to me.
- My essay reveals something different from the rest of my application.
- I have a clear and well-structured narrative.
- I’ve concluded with an insight or a creative ending.
Writing style and tone
- I’ve crafted an introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.
- I’ve written my essay in a way that shows instead of tells.
- I’ve used appropriate style and tone for a college essay.
- I’ve used specific, vivid personal stories that would be hard to replicate.
- I’ve demonstrated my positive traits and values in my essay.
- My essay is focused on me, not another person or thing.
- I’ve included self-reflection and insight in my essay.
- I’ve respected the word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.
Making Sense of My Identity
Welcome to The Rose Arimoto Museum. You are about to enter the “Making Sense of My Identity” collection. Allow me to guide you through select exhibits, carefully curated memories from Rose’s sensory experiences.
First, the Sight Exhibit.
“Look what my parents did to me!”
No matter how many times he repeats it, the other kids keep laughing. I focus my almond-shaped eyes on the ground, careful not to attract attention as my lip trembles and palms sweat. Joseph couldn’t have known how his words would engrave themselves into my memory, making me question my appearance every time I saw my eyes in the mirror.
Ten years later, these same eyes now fixate on an InDesign layout sheet, searching for grammar errors while my friend Selena proofreads our feature piece on racial discrimination in our hometown. As we’re the school newspaper editors, our journalism teacher Ms. Riley allows us to stay until midnight to meet tomorrow’s deadline. She commends our work ethic, which for me is fueled by writing一my new weapon of choice.
Next, you’ll encounter the Sound Exhibit.
Still, the world is my Broadway as I find my voice on stage.
Just below, enter the Smell Exhibit.
While I help my Pau Pau prepare dinner, she divulges her recipe for cha siu bau, with its soft, pillowy white exterior hiding the fragrant filling of braised barbecue pork inside. The sweet scent of candied yams, fun see , and Spam musubi wafts through the room as we gather around our Thankgsiving feast. After our family prayer, we indulge in these delicious morsels until our bellies say stop. These savory scents of my family’s cultural heritage linger long after I’ve finished the last bite.
Next up, the Touch Exhibit.
I rinse a handmade mug that I had painstakingly molded and painted in ceramics class. I wear yellow rubber gloves to protect my hands at Mom’s insistence, but I can still feel the warm water that offers a bit of comfort as I finish the task at hand. The crusted casserole dish with stubborn remnants from my dad’s five-layer lasagna requires extra effort, so I fill it with Dawn and scalding water, setting it aside to soak. For a few fleeting moments, as I continue my nightly chore, the pressure of my weekend job, tomorrow’s calculus exam, and next week’s track meet are washed away.
Finally, we end with the Taste Exhibit.
My legs fight to keep pace with the stationary bike as the salty taste of sweat seeps into corners of my mouth. Ava challenges me to take it up a level. We always train together一even keeping each other accountable on our strict protein diet of chicken breasts, broccoli, and Muscle Milk. We occasionally splurge on Saturday mornings after interval training, relishing the decadence of everything bagels smeared with raspberry walnut cream cheese. But this is Wednesday, so I push myself. I know that once the digital display hits 30:00, we’ll allow our legs to relax into a five-minute cool down, followed by the fiery tang of Fruit Punch Gatorade to rehydrate.
Thank you for your attention. This completes our tour. I invite you to rejoin us for next fall’s College Experience collection, which will exhibit Rose’s continual search for identity and learning.
Word count: 649
- I’ve crafted an essay introduction containing vivid imagery or an intriguing hook that grabs the reader’s attention.
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This essay uses a narrative structure to recount how a student overcame a challenge, specifically a sports injury. Since this topic is often overused, the essay requires vivid description, a memorable introduction and conclusion , and interesting insight.
The weak rough draft contains an interesting narrative, insight, and vivid imagery, but it has an overly formal tone that distracts the reader from the story. The student’s use of elaborate vocabulary in every sentence makes the essay sound inauthentic and stilted.
The final essay uses a more natural, conversational tone and chooses words that are vivid and specific without being pretentious. This allows the reader to focus on the narrative and appreciate the student’s unique insight.
One fateful evening some months ago, a defensive linebacker mauled me, his 212 pounds indisputably alighting upon my ankle. Ergo, an abhorrent cracking of calcified tissue. At first light the next day, I awoke cognizant of a new paradigm—one sans football—promulgated by a stabbing sensation that would continue to haunt me every morning of this semester.
It’s been an exceedingly taxing semester not being able to engage in football, but I am nonetheless excelling in school. That twist of fate never would have come to pass if I hadn’t broken my ankle. I still limp down the halls at school, but I’m feeling less maudlin these days. My friends don’t steer clear anymore, and I have a lot more of them. My teachers, emboldened by my newfound interest in learning, continually invite me to learn more and do my best. Football is still on hold, but I feel like I’m finally playing a game that matters.
Five months ago, right after my ill-fated injury, my friends’ demeanor became icy and remote, although I couldn’t fathom why. My teachers, in contrast, beckoned me close and invited me on a new learning journey. But despite their indubitably kind advances, even they recoiled when I drew near.
A few weeks later, I started to change my attitude vis-à-vis my newfound situation and determined to put my energy toward productive ends (i.e., homework). I wasn’t enamored with school. I never had been. Nevertheless, I didn’t abhor it either. I just preferred football.
My true turn of fate came when I started studying more and participating in class. I started to enjoy history class, and I grew interested in reading more. I discovered a volume of poems written by a fellow adventurer on the road of life, and I loved it. I ravenously devoured everything in the writer’s oeuvre .
As the weeks flitted past, I found myself spending my time with a group of people who were quite different from me. They participated in theater and played instruments in marching band. They raised their hands in class when the teacher posed a question. Because of their auspicious influence, I started raising my hand too. I am no longer vapid, and I now have something to say.
I am certain that your school would benefit from my miraculous academic transformation, and I entreat you to consider my application to your fine institution. Accepting me to your university would be an unequivocally righteous decision.
Word count: 408
- I’ve chosen a college essay topic that’s meaningful to me.
- I’ve respected the essay word count , remaining within 10% of the upper word limit.
As I step out of bed, the pain shoots through my foot and up my leg like it has every morning since “the game.” That night, a defensive linebacker tackled me, his 212 pounds landing decidedly on my ankle. I heard the sound before I felt it. The next morning, I awoke to a new reality—one without football—announced by a stabbing sensation that would continue to haunt me every morning of this semester.
My broken ankle broke my spirit.
My friends steered clear of me as I hobbled down the halls at school. My teachers tried to find the delicate balance between giving me space and offering me help. I was as unsure how to deal with myself as they were.
In time, I figured out how to redirect some of my frustration, anger, and pent-up energy toward my studies. I had never not liked school, but I had never really liked it either. In my mind, football practice was my real-life classroom, where I could learn all I ever needed to know.
Then there was that day in Mrs. Brady’s history class. We sang a ridiculous-sounding mnemonic song to memorize all the Chinese dynasties from Shang to Qing. I mumbled the words at first, but I got caught up in the middle of the laughter and began singing along. Starting that day, I began browsing YouTube videos about history, curious to learn more. I had started learning something new, and, to my surprise, I liked it.
With my afternoons free from burpees and scrimmages, I dared to crack open a few more of my books to see what was in them. That’s when my English poetry book, Paint Me Like I Am , caught my attention. It was full of poems written by students my age from WritersCorps. I couldn’t get enough.
I wasn’t the only one who was taken with the poems. Previously, I’d only been vaguely aware of Christina as one of the weird kids I avoided. Crammed in the margins of her high-top Chuck Taylors were scribbled lines of her own poetry and infinite doodles. Beyond her punk rock persona was a sensitive artist, puppy-lover, and environmental activist that a wide receiver like me would have never noticed before.
With Christina, I started making friends with people who once would have been invisible to me: drama geeks, teachers’ pets, band nerds. Most were college bound but not to play a sport. They were smart and talented, and they cared about people and politics and all sorts of issues that I hadn’t considered before. Strangely, they also seemed to care about me.
I still limp down the halls at school, but I don’t seem to mind as much these days. My friends don’t steer clear anymore, and I have a lot more of them. My teachers, excited by my newfound interest in learning, continually invite me to learn more and do my best. Football is still on hold, but I feel like I’m finally playing a game that matters.
My broken ankle broke my spirit. Then, it broke my ignorance.
Word count: 512
This essay uses a narrative structure to show how a pet positively influenced the student’s values and character.
In the weak draft, the student doesn’t focus on himself, instead delving into too much detail about his dog’s positive traits and his grandma’s illness. The essay’s structure is meandering, with tangents and details that don’t communicate any specific insight.
In the improved version, the student keeps the focus on himself, not his pet. He chooses the most relevant stories to demonstrate specific qualities, and the structure more clearly builds up to an insightful conclusion.
Man’s Best Friend
I desperately wanted a cat. I begged my parents for one, but once again, my sisters overruled me, so we drove up the Thompson Valley Canyon from Loveland to Estes Park to meet our newest family member. My sisters had already hatched their master plan, complete with a Finding Nemo blanket to entice the pups. The blanket was a hit with all of them, except for one—the one who walked over and sat in my lap. That was the day that Francisco became a Villanova.
Maybe I should say he was mine because I got stuck with all the chores. As expected, my dog-loving sisters were nowhere to be found! My mom was “extra” with all the doggy gear. Cisco even had to wear these silly little puppy shoes outside so that when he came back in, he wouldn’t get the carpets dirty. If it was raining, my mother insisted I dress Cisco in a ridiculous yellow raincoat, but, in my opinion, it was an unnecessary source of humiliation for poor Cisco. It didn’t take long for Cisco to decide that his outerwear could be used as toys in a game of Keep Away. As soon as I took off one of his shoes, he would run away with it, hiding under the bed where I couldn’t reach him. But, he seemed to appreciate his ensemble more when we had to walk through snowdrifts to get his job done.
When my abuela was dying from cancer, we went in the middle of the night to see her before she passed. I was sad and scared. But, my dad let me take Cisco in the car, so Cisco cuddled with me and made me feel much better. It’s like he could read my mind. Once we arrived at the hospital, the fluorescent lighting made the entire scene seem unreal, as if I was watching the scene unfold through someone else’s eyes. My grandma lay calmly on her bed, smiling at us even through her last moments of pain. I disliked seeing the tubes and machines hooked up to her. It was unnatural to see her like this一it was so unlike the way I usually saw her beautiful in her flowery dress, whistling a Billie Holiday tune and baking snickerdoodle cookies in the kitchen. The hospital didn’t usually allow dogs, but they made a special exception to respect my grandma’s last wishes that the whole family be together. Cisco remained at the foot of the bed, intently watching abuela with a silence that seemed more effective at communicating comfort and compassion than the rest of us who attempted to offer up words of comfort that just seemed hollow and insincere. It was then that I truly appreciated Cisco’s empathy for others.
As I accompanied my dad to pick up our dry cleaner’s from Ms. Chapman, a family friend asked, “How’s Cisco?” before even asking about my sisters or me. Cisco is the Villanova family mascot, a Goldendoodle better recognized by strangers throughout Loveland than the individual members of my family.
On our summer trip to Boyd Lake State Park, we stayed at the Cottonwood campground for a breathtaking view of the lake. Cisco was allowed to come, but we had to keep him on a leash at all times. After a satisfying meal of fish, our entire family walked along the beach. Cisco and I led the way while my mom and sisters shuffled behind. Cisco always stopped and refused to move, looking back to make sure the others were still following. Once satisfied that everyone was together, he would turn back around and continue prancing with his golden boy curly locks waving in the chilly wind.
On the beach, Cisco “accidentally” got let off his leash and went running maniacally around the sand, unfettered and free. His pure joy as he raced through the sand made me forget about my AP Chem exam or my student council responsibilities. He brings a smile not only to my family members but everyone around him.
Cisco won’t live forever, but without words, he has impressed upon me life lessons of responsibility, compassion, loyalty, and joy. I can’t imagine life without him.
Word count: 701
I quickly figured out that as “the chosen one,” I had been enlisted by Cisco to oversee all aspects of his “business.” I learned to put on Cisco’s doggie shoes to keep the carpet clean before taking him out一no matter the weather. Soon after, Cisco decided that his shoes could be used as toys in a game of Keep Away. As soon as I removed one of his shoes, he would run away with it, hiding under the bed where I couldn’t reach him. But, he seemed to appreciate his footwear more after I’d gear him up and we’d tread through the snow for his daily walks.
One morning, it was 7:15 a.m., and Alejandro was late again to pick me up. “Cisco, you don’t think he overslept again, do you?” Cisco barked, as if saying, “Of course he did!” A text message would never do, so I called his dad, even if it was going to get him in trouble. There was no use in both of us getting another tardy during our first-period class, especially since I was ready on time after taking Cisco for his morning outing. Alejandro was mad at me but not too much. He knew I had helped him out, even if he had to endure his dad’s lecture on punctuality.
Another early morning, I heard my sister yell, “Mom! Where are my good ballet flats? I can’t find them anywhere!” I hesitated and then confessed, “I moved them.” She shrieked at me in disbelief, but I continued, “I put them in your closet, so Cisco wouldn’t chew them up.” More disbelief. However, this time, there was silence instead of shrieking.
Last spring, Cisco and I were fast asleep when the phone rang at midnight. Abuela would not make it through the night after a long year of chemo, but she was in Pueblo, almost three hours away. Sitting next to me for that long car ride on I-25 in pitch-black darkness, Cisco knew exactly what I needed and snuggled right next to me as I petted his coat in a rhythm while tears streamed down my face. The hospital didn’t usually allow dogs, but they made a special exception to respect my grandma’s last wishes that the whole family be together. Cisco remained sitting at the foot of the hospital bed, intently watching abuela with a silence that communicated more comfort than our hollow words. Since then, whenever I sense someone is upset, I sit in silence with them or listen to their words, just like Cisco did.
The other day, one of my friends told me, “You’re a strange one, Josue. You’re not like everybody else but in a good way.” I didn’t know what he meant at first. “You know, you’re super responsible and grown-up. You look out for us instead of yourself. Nobody else does that.” I was a bit surprised because I wasn’t trying to do anything different. I was just being me. But then I realized who had taught me: a fluffy little puppy who I had wished was a cat! I didn’t choose Cisco, but he certainly chose me and, unexpectedly, became my teacher, mentor, and friend.
Word count: 617
If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Writing process
- Transition words
- Passive voice
- How to end an email
- Ms, mrs, miss
- How to start an email
- I hope this email finds you well
- Hope you are doing well
Parts of speech
- Personal pronouns
A standout college essay has several key ingredients:
- A unique, personally meaningful topic
- A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
- Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
- Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
- Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
- A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending
There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:
- A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
- A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.
Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.
Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.
You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.
Most importantly, your essay should be about you , not another person or thing. An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability.
Your essay shouldn’t be a résumé of your experiences but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.
When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style , and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.
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Other students also liked, choosing your college essay topic | ideas & examples, how to make your college essay stand out | tips & examples, how to revise your college admissions essay | examples.
I can't decide whether the montage essay or the narrative essay is a suitable one for my application.
I can't decide whether the montage essay or the narrative essay is a suitable one for my application. Can you give me some advices which schools prefer reading montage structure essay to narrative structure one. Or are there some specific traits to decide on that? Since for me, the montage one is kind of creativity and novel, but for the narrative one, I can share my own anecdote and everything appear more familiar with everyone. Thank you for your suggestion!
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Hey there @jenn_nguyen !
I think that for college applications, a narrative essay is more suitable since it can more easily demonstrate character growth through a specific experience or memory. Montage essays are super cool and can be more interesting to read, but college essays usually rely on having a clear story line and concise remarks about your personal experiences that will be easier to share through a more traditional narrative essay. In short, I wouldn't recommend using a montage essay for your college applications.
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How to format and structure a college essay: A definitive guide
Bonus Material: Download 30 essays that worked for Princeton
Are you a rising high school senior preparing for the admissions process and aiming for one of those coveted spots at selective universities? Are you looking for help figuring out how to structure your college admissions essay to maximize your chances of acceptance?
We’ve guided countless students through the application process to acceptances at the country’s most selective colleges. In this blog post, we’ll share some of our proven advice on how to structure and format your college admissions essay to make the best impression on admissions officers.
We’ve also included a set of 30 successful college application essays that helped students get into Princeton. There are few better resources to help your brainstorming than essays that you know worked!
Download Thirty Essays that Worked for Princeton
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What makes a successful college essay Types of College Essay Formats The Narrative Essay Format and Example The Montage Essay Format and Example The “I am…” Essay Format and Example The Creative/Artistic Format and Example Next Steps
What makes a successful college essay?
You can think of a college essay’s effectiveness as being made up of two things: the content, and the narrative structure. In other words, you need to have a strong topic, but you also need to structure and format the way you write about that topic in a specific way. Without the right format, even the most unique and moving topic won’t wow the admission committee.
We’ve written extensively about our step-by-step process for ensuring that you have the right topic in our post on the Diamond Strategy here . It’s a proven method for topic selection, and we encourage everyone to read it and use it.
Your choice of topic is going to heavily influence what format will work best for your college essay. Below, we’ll go into several specific college essay formats (with successful college admissions essay examples!), and we’ll discuss when to use each one.
Types of College Essay Formats
In this post, we’ll talk about four kinds of structures or formats that have been proven to work again and again for successful college admission essays.
- The Narrative – best if you want to describe one key moment in your life.
- The Montage – best if you have an eclectic mix of interests/experiences.
- The “I am…” – best if you have an identity or belief that’s important to you.
- The Creative/Artistic – Best if you have an unusual topic and like taking risks.
Remember: although each of these formats can be broken down into something like a template, it will always get its power from the specifics of your story and your experiences. Take a look at any of these successful college essays that worked and you’ll see that, no matter the format, the key to each is tons and tons of specific detail.
Also remember that these formats are not always interchangeable : if you want to write about what you learned from a pivotal moment in your life, you’ll probably want The Narrative and not, say, The Montage.
The Narrative Essay Format and Example (best if you want to describe one key moment in your life).
The Narrative Essay format is one of the most popular and one of the most commonly seen on “Essays that Worked” blogs–and with good reason! This essay structure lets you tell a detailed story, keeping admissions counselors engaged while also conveying key insights about you as an applicant.
Here are the typical components of a Narrative Essay:
- Start in the middle of the story
- Show personal growth
- Reflect on what’s changed
So what does it look like? Let’s take a look at an actual sample essay from our Thirty College Essays that Worked for Princeton and break it down.
1 – Start in the middle of the story (media res)
Drop the reader right into the middle of a crucial moment, describing it like a scene in a film or movie.
To him, I was a stranger. He could not recall that I had fervently cared for him every day for the past five weeks. As I laughed at his trademark joke for the third time that day, he felt a familiar, but unidentifiable gratitude. When I mentioned a detail about his past, he blushed, realizing that I, a perceived stranger, knew him better than himself. The only recollection he had of me was of a girl with an unmatched dedication to his happiness. This man was one of the patients I encountered during my volunteer internship at Expressions, a hospital program for adults with Alzheimer’s disease and dementia.
Notice how this begins the story with no preamble. If your essay topic is about a major event in your life, one of the strongest ways to begin your college essay is by jumping right into it.
2 – Zoom out
Once you’ve hooked the reader with your story, zoom out and provide more context and background information. How did you get there? What brought you to that moment?
On the second day of the internship, I strode through the door, eager to delve into my new daily responsibilities. As I approached the patients, I anticipated, somewhat naively, a chorus of welcomes and friendly receptions. But instead, I was met with puzzled glances and polite, but reserved greetings. I realized that no one remembered who I was. For the next several minutes, I questioned my purpose in a program where I could not permanently impact the participants. What motivation did I have to go beyond mediocrity when, no matter the quality of my service, I would be forgotten? But it was that morning, as I poured each patient a cup of coffee, smiled, and reintroduced myself, that I constructed my personal motto: “Initiative requires no incentive.” Throughout the rest of the day, I found motivation through mundane, yet meaningful moments, like helping a patient complete a crossword or color a picture. It was in those moments that I learned that dedication is not derived from a desire to make memorable change, but from a will to contribute to your community no matter the reward.
You want to maintain a high level of detail and specificity, but you also want to zoom out enough to make sure your reader understands the background and context of your story. This essay does that perfectly by explaining the internship and the student’s initial involvement. More importantly, it shows us what the student was thinking at the beginning, which provides an opportunity for growth and learning.
3 – Show personal growth/development/change
The narrative works because it’s about how you, as a student, college applicant, and human, have changed and grown through the experience you describe. So the next part of your essay should describe some element of change as it develops through this story. Take a look below:
Over the next few weeks, I discovered that because the patients had no recollection of the past, they cherished the present moment. It was this principle of mindful existence that taught me to love the moments of doing, rather than linger in the memories of “I have done.” To fulfill this principle, I sought to paint each moment with cheer and consideration. Through all their bursts of frustration, shivers of discomfort, and tears of untraceable nostalgia, I strove to offer warmth and support. On several occasions, I brought in my tutu and pointe shoes and performed a ballet variation. As I taught the participants ballet steps, the room rang with laughter and amusement. Hoping to inspire the creativity I find so empowering, I also orchestrated events from poetry slams to watercolor classes to recipe exchanges. By incorporating my individuality into the program, I reinvented my role as a volunteer, a community member, and an individual.
This process of “discovery” is one of the keys to the Narrative Structure. This college essay format is designed to let you bring out the personal growth that accompanied this event. In the body paragraphs, the author shows how she developed and “reinvented” her role through this experience.
4 – Reflect on what’s changed
As you bring your essay to a close, you should actively reflect on what has changed throughout this narrative. The closing can be short and sweet, and often refers back to the original story you told in the first paragraph.
On my last day at the program, I was leading a jewelry-making activity, when I noticed one of the participants becoming agitated. She was, among all the group members, the patient in the most advanced stage of memory loss and the patient I accompanied most often. I drew up a chair next to her and offered my help. Her head, previously hunched over scattered bracelet pieces, slowly lifted and her eyes turned to meet mine. As her eyes flickered across my face, I saw in her expression that she was searching for a thought, creeping to the forefront of her mind. Then, carefully she said, “Your name is Dana, right?” It had been nearly a year since she had remembered the last five minutes, yet she had remembered my name. As I smiled and nodded, she began to tear up, and we both silently rejoiced in the realization that she had momentarily overcome her disease. In that instant, my continuous acts of compassion, whether previously forgotten or anonymous, came to fruition. Service became more than the completion of routine tasks or the collection of volunteer hours; it became the responsibility to foster hope and prosperity within my community, the nation, and humanity.
This final paragraph beautifully brings the entire essay to a close: it recalls the opening paragraph, but now gives it a new and more positive spin. It also tells the admissions committee what this student has learned through this narrative. This student comes away from the experience with a new understanding of service.
This is one of the best examples of a successfully executed college essay in the Narrative style. It hooks the reader in from the beginning, making us want to figure out what’s going on. Then, it gives us the context we need to understand how the writer got to this point and who they are. Most importantly, it concludes the narrative by showing real, impressive personal growth in the student’s perspective on the world, ending with a reflection on what this writer values and brings to a college.
Yours will look different, of course. But if you want to understand why the narrative essay structure works, this impactful essay is a great place to start.
You can find more successful narrative essay examples in our Thirty College Essays that Worked for Princeton .
The Montage Essay Format and Example (best if you have an eclectic mix of interests/experiences)
The Narrative Structure is great if your essay topic can be conveyed through a single crucial moment or experience. But what if you want to show the admissions committee at your dream university some aspect(s) of your personality that can only be conveyed through multiple moments?
Here are the key elements of a Montage Essay:
- Introduce your theme
- Present a series of snapshots related to the theme
- Tie the snapshots to the theme
That’s the kind of topic the Montage Essay Format is designed for. You won’t go into as much detail as you would in the Narrative Essay. Instead, you will present the admissions committee with a series of snapshots from your life, all connected by a common theme.
These snapshots can be actual events, or they can be creatively selected items from your life that tell universities something about you–you might create a montage of what’s on your bookshelf or what kind of bumper stickers are on your car, for example.
1 – Start with the unifying thread or theme
Give us a bit of context for whatever unites the montage by setting it up. Alternatively, you can just jump right into one of the montage moments (like in the Narrative Format). The best option here will depend on your specific essay.
We can see an example from our collection of thirty actual sample essays below:
“You know nothing, Jon Snow” Being an avid Game of Thrones fanatic, I fancy every character, scene, and line. However,Ygritte’s famous line proves to be just slightly more relatable than the incest, corruption, and sorcery that characterizes Westeros. Numerous theories explore the true meaning of these five words, but I prefer to think they criticize seventeen-year-old Jon’s lack of life experience. Growing up in a lord’s castle, he has seen little about the real world; thus, he struggles to see the bigger picture until he evaluates all angles. Being in a relatively privileged community myself, I can affirm the lack of diverse perspectives —and even more, the scarcity of real-world problems. Instead, my life has been horrifically plagued by first world problems.
This introductory paragraph opens with something creative and catchy, then explains the purpose. It also sets up the montage that will follow: “the first world problems.”
2 – Present the montage!
Naturally, this is the biggest part of the Montage Format. The pieces of your montage can be short (as in the below example) or fairly long. The most important thing is that they are detailed, unique, and come together to tell the university admissions officers something about you.
I’ve written a eulogy and held a funeral for my phone charger. I’ve thrown tantrums when my knitted sweaters shrunk in the dryer. And yes, I actually have cried over spilled (organic) milk. Well, shouldn’t I be happy with the trivial “problems” I’ve faced? Shouldn’t I appreciate the opportunities and the people around me? Past the “feminism v. menimism” and “memes” of the internet, are heartbreaking stories and photos of life outside my metaphorical “Bethpage Bubble.” How can I be content when I am utterly oblivious to the perspectives of others? Like Jon Snow, I’ve never lived a day in another person’s shoes. Fewer than three meals a day. No extra blanket during record-breaking winter cold. No clean water. I may be parched after an intense practice, but I know nothing of poverty. Losing a loved one overseas. Being forced to leave your home. Coups d’état and dictatorial governments. I battle with my peers during class discussions, but I know nothing of war. Denial of education. Denial of religion. Denial of speech. I have an endless list of freedoms, and I know nothing of oppression. Malaria. Cholera. Cancer. I watch how Alzheimer’s progresses in my grandmother, but I know nothing of disease. Living under a strict caste system. Being stereotyped because of one’s race. Unwarranted prejudice. I may be in a minority group, yet I know nothing of discrimination. Flappers, speakeasies, and jazz. Two world wars. Pagers, hippies, and disco. I’m barely a 90’s kid who relishes SpongeBob episodes, and I know nothing of prior generations. Royal weddings, tribal ceremonies, and Chinese New Years. I fast during Ramadan, but I know nothing of other cultures. Hostile political parties. Progressive versus retrospective. Right and wrong. I am seventeen, and I know nothing of politics.
This montage is really a list of the first-world problems of the writer and the things the writer “knows nothing” about. In writing this list, however, the student is making clear that they’re aware of the limits of their own experience, and that kind of self-reflection is crucial for a winning college essay.
3 – Tie the moments of the montage together
Each montage essay must end by clearly drawing a lesson. The question every admissions officer will be asking is: what do all of these moments tell us about you?
Is ignorance really bliss? Beyond my community and lifetime exists myriad events I’ll never witness, people I’ll never meet, and beliefs I’ll never understand. Being unexposed to the culture and perspectives that comprise this world, I know I can never fully understand anyone or anything. Yet, irony is beautiful. Embarking on any career requires making decisions on behalf of a community, whether that be a group of students, or a patient, or the solar system. I am pleased to admit like Jon Snow, I know nothing, but that will change in college.
This reflection really doesn’t have to take up a lot of space. In just a few sentences, this author shows us why the montage matters: this student understands the limits of their experiences and knowledge, and, most importantly, is eager and willing to work to overcome them.
For more successful college application essays like this, check out our collection of actual sample essays below:
The “I am…” Essay Format (best if you have an identity or belief that’s important to you)
This format is the most direct way to approach a personal essay. By using this structure, you will directly present the admissions officers with some crucial aspect of your personality, background, or interests.
This essay format is best for students who want to highlight a particular quirk, lifelong challenge, or important aspects of their demographic background.
This kind of essay generally follows this structure:
- A surprising “I am…” statement
- Explanation of the statement with specific examples
- Reflection on how this has shaped you
Like all college admissions essays, this will require you to be specific and detailed. But, it might not involve much of an actual story or narrative (though it can!). Take a look at the breakdown of the example below to see how it’s done.
1 – Start with a surprising “I am…” statement
This essay structure depends on hooking your reader’s attention from the first line, so you want to start with something memorable, unexpected, and maybe even a bit confusing. Though often this means saying “I am…” it could just as easily be “I believe…” or “I have…”
I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier. Ever since I was a child, I have been in search for all that is spicy. I began by dabbling in peppers of the jarred variety. Pepperoncini, giardiniera, sports peppers, and jalapeños became not only toppings, but appetizers, complete entrées, and desserts. As my palate matured, I delved into a more aggressive assortment of spicy fare. I’m not referring to Flamin’ Hot Cheetos, the crunchy snack devoured by dilettantes. No, it was bottles of infernal magma that came next in my tasting curriculum.
Here’s a classic example of how to start. “Hot sauce sommelier” is unusual and quirky enough that it holds the reader’s attention. Admissions officers will want to keep reading to see why this matters.
2 – Expand on the “I am…”
This can take different forms: you can explain how you came to be, say, a hot sauce sommelier. Or you can tell us what that looks like in your everyday life. It’ll depend in large part on what your individual story is, but the key is specifics, specifics, specifics.
Despite the current lack of certification offered for the profession which I am seeking, I am unquestionably qualified. I can tell you that a cayenne pepper sauce infused with hints of lime and passion fruit is the perfect pairing to bring out the subtle earthy undertones of your microwave ramen. I can also tell you that a drizzle of full-bodied Louisiana habanero on my homemade vanilla bean ice cream serves as an appetizing complement. For the truly brave connoisseur, I suggest sprinkling a few generous drops of Bhut Jolokia sauce atop a bowl of chili. Be warned, though; one drop too many and you might find yourself like I did, crying over a heaping bowl of kidney beans at the dining room table. Although I consistently attempt to cultivate the rarest and most expertly crafted bottles of molten spice, like an oenophile who occasionally sips on five dollar bottles of wine, I am neither fussy nor finicky. I have no qualms about dousing my omelets with Cholula, dipping my tofu in pools of Sriracha, or soaking my vegetarian chicken nuggets in the Frank’s Red Hot that my mom bought from the dollar store. No matter the quality or cost, when gently swirled, wafted, and swished; the sauces excite my senses. Each initial taste, both surprising yet subtly familiar, has taught me the joy of the unknown and the possibility contained within the unexpected.
Check out all specific details the writer uses in this portion of the essay! These moments both show the student’s skill as a writer and, more importantly, convey their very real passion for hot sauce. It doesn’t matter that it’s a little bit silly: what matters is showing the university that this student is dedicated to something .
3 – End by reflecting on how this aspect of your identity shapes who you are as a person and student
As always, these essays have to end with a bit of introspection: you’ve told us the story, now explain why it matters, as this student does.
My ceaseless quest for piquancy has inspired many journeys, both gustatory and otherwise. It has dragged me into the depths of the souks of Marrakech, where I purchased tin cans filled with Harissa. Although the chili sauce certainly augmented the robust aroma of my tagine, my food was not the only thing enriched by this excursion. My conquest has also brought me south, to the valleys of Chile, where I dined among the Mapuche and flavored my empanadas with a smoky seasoning of Merkén. Perhaps the ultimate test of my sensory strength occurred in Kolkata, India. After making the fatal mistake of revealing my penchant for spicy food to my friend’s grandmother, I spent the night with a raw tongue and cold sweats. I have learned that spice isn’t always easy to digest. It is the distilled essence of a culture, burning with rich history. It is a universal language that communicates passion, pain, and renewal. Like an artfully concocted hot sauce, my being contains alternating layers of sweetness and daring which surround a core that is constantly being molded by my experiences and adventures. I’m not sure what it is about spiciness that intrigues me. Maybe my fungiform papillae are mapped out in a geography uniquely designed to appreciate bold seasonings. Maybe these taste buds are especially receptive to the intricacies of the savors and zests that they observe. Or maybe it’s simply my burning sense of curiosity. My desire to challenge myself, to stimulate my mind, to experience the fullness of life in all of its varieties and flavors.
This student makes clear to colleges why this aspect of their personality matters. It has helped them learn and travel; it shows the student’s desire to “challenge” themselves and to “stimulate their mind,” which is exactly what a top-tier university is looking for.
The Creative/Artistic Format (Best if you have an unusual topic and like taking risks)
I’m cheating a little bit here: by definition, there’s no real format to these Creative/Artistic Essays. These are the most unique, the toughest to pull off, and the riskiest essays. But for certain students, they’re undoubtedly the right choice.
Although these essays aren’t as easy to bulletpoint out as the above, creative personal essays will always contain the following elements:
- A unique gimmick
- Meaningful information about the writer’s life or identity
- A mature reflection
The Creative/Artistic Essays make your essay stand out to colleges, but require careful planning and editing to pull off. If you’re an artist type, or, alternatively, if you feel your application needs something to separate you from the pack, these can be the right choice.
Consulting with one of our expert college essay coaches can be the best way to ensure that your Creative/Artistic Essay helps and not hurts your application.
Below is a successful example, and some analysis of why this essay works:
“Is it bigger than a breadbox?” “Yes.” I have always been tall, decidedly tall. Yet, my curiosity has always surpassed my height. Starting at a young age, I would ask countless questions, from “How heavy is the Earth?” to “Where does rain come from?” My curiosity, displayed in questions like these, has truly defined me as a person and as a student. Therefore, it is not surprising that I became transfixed the first time I played 20Q (the electronic version of Twenty Questions). Somehow, a little spherical device guessed what I was thinking. The piece of technology sparked my curiosity and instilled in me a unique interest in 20Q. This interest would later reveal valuable character traits of mine while also paralleling various facets of my life. “Does it strive to learn?” “Yes.” I became determined to discover how 20Q guessed correctly. After some research, I discovered artificial intelligence, more specifically, artificial neural networks—systems which learn and improve themselves. This idea fascinated me. I wanted to learn more. I read avidly, seeking and absorbing as much information as I could. When given the opportunity years later, I signed up for the first computer programming class available to me. I found myself in an environment I loved. I would stay after class, go in during free periods, make my own apps, and work over Cloud-based IDEs. I prized the freedom and the possibilities. “Is it driven?” “Yes.” After my introduction to 20Q, I began to play Twenty Questions (the traditional parlor game) and became determined to rival the guessing accuracy of the artificial intelligence. At first I was mediocre. However, through long car rides with family, good-natured yet heated competitions with friends, logical strategy, and time, I became more effective. I discovered the “secrets” to success: practice and perseverance. “Does it apply what it learns?” “Yes.” As 20Q implements what it learns, so do I. Throughout high school, I applied the “secret” of practice to my basketball career. I spent countless hours sharpening my skills in 90° summer heat to 20° late-winter cold, countless afternoons playing pickup games with my friends, and countless weekends traveling to AAU basketball tournaments. As a result, I became a starter for my school’s varsity team. I applied another “secret,” this time the “secret” of perseverance, by dedicating myself to physical therapy after knee surgery in order to quickly return to football. Later that year, I became the first player in my grade to score a varsity touchdown. “Does it attempt to better itself?” “Yes.” Once I became proficient at Twenty Questions, I strengthened my resolve to become masterful. To do so, I needed to become a skillful inquisitor and to combine that with my analytical nature and interpersonal skills, all of which are vital for success in Twenty Questions. Because I had been debating politics with my friends since the 8th grade, I recognized that debate could sharpen these skills. I began to debate more frequently (and later more effectively) in English and government class, at the lunch table and family gatherings, and whenever the opportunity presented itself. This spurred in me an interest for how public policy and government work, leading me to attend Boys State and receive a nomination for The United States Senate Youth Program. “Does it think deeply?” “Yes.” So far, I have realized that thriving at Twenty Questions, just like life, is all about tenacity, rationality and interpersonal skills. I have found that, as in Twenty Questions, always succeeding is impossible; however, by persevering through difficulties and obstacles, favorable outcomes are often attainable. As I have become better at Twenty Questions, so too have I improved in many other aspects of my life. Nonetheless, I realize that I still have unbounded room to grow. And much like 20Q, I will continue to learn throughout my life and apply my knowledge to everything I do. “Are you thinking of me?” “Yes.” Source: Johns Hopkins Essays that Worked
Framing this essay as a round of 20 questions is the kind of risky creative move that, in this case, can really pay off.
It works here because it isn’t just being creative or artsy for the sake of it: this format really allows the student to express multiple important aspects of their personality as it relates to their application.
You’ll notice that, like most creative essays, it combines elements of the other essay formats. But it does so in a unique way that can’t be replicated: nobody else can write a 20 Questions style essay without ripping off this author.
If you can find a creative idea like this one that lets you express unique elements of your story or personality in a fun, attention-grabbing structure, then this option might be the best one for you.
You should think of the steps outlined in this blogpost as the middle of the essay writing process. First, you need to brainstorm and select your topic (see our guide on that here) . Then, based on that topic, you can use this post to identify what structure and format will work best for crafting your essay.
If you’ve settled on an essay format, it’s time to move on to actually writing the essay itself. We recommend starting by reviewing some of the past successful essays linked below and by first reading our post on the Diamond Strategy for topic selection.
Of course, there’s no substitute for professional help: our expert essay coaches have helped countless students with brainstorming, topic choice, organization, crafting, and final touches on essays that have helped these students gain admission to Ivies and other elite colleges. If you’re interested in working with one of our college essay coaches, reach out to us here !
Related College Essay Posts
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- How to Get into Harvard 2023-2024
- Hot to Get into Princeton 2023-2024
- How to Get into Yale 2023-2024
- How to Answer the UC Personal Insight Questions
- 11 College Essays That Worked
- How to Start a College Essay
- The Diamond Strategy: How We Help Students Write College Essays that Get Them Into Princeton (And Other Ivy League Schools)
- What is the College Essay? Your Complete Guide for 2023
- College Essay Brainstorming: Where to Start
- How to Write a ‘Why This College’ Essay + Examples that Worked for the Ivy League
- 9 Ways to (Quickly) Improve Your College Essay
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Tips for getting started on your Common App essay
Gearing up to begin your common app essay here are some tips for getting started., 1. read prompts from previous years.
Here is a link to the '23-'24 Common App college essay prompts. These are very similar to the prompts from the last few years.
Notice that these questions prioritize reflection. In fact, the Common App essay is an exercise in talking about your character, rather than your accomplishments.
Think about the qualities of your character that stand out—what do you love about yourself? Think about adjectives: loyal, fair, kind, determined, etc. Make a list!
As you consider everything else about your future application, think about what qualities of your character will come through from other aspects. What might your teacher recommendations share? What about your activities list? (For example: if you are proud of your ability to respond with fairness, I might learn this by seeing your participation in your school’s Honor Council).
Now, what is left? You want to make sure your essay highlights these features!
2. Start brainstorming
Here are some of my favorite exercises for brainstorming your college essay:
The College Essay Guy "Essence Objects" Exercise
The College Essay Guy "Values" Exercise
The College Essay Guy "Everything I want colleges to know about me" exercise
Take the 16 Personalities Test (based on the Myers-Briggs Indicator) and use the results to develop your list of character traits or to inspire you toward a particular question.
3. As you get to writing, consider the two main types of essays
There are really two types of Common App essays: montage and narrative.
In montage essays , the writer focuses on one big idea about who they are and what defines their character. From there, they tell stories.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when writing montage essays:
Are you a great teammate/intellectually curious human/big idea generator?
Have you learned to be more comfortable with failure/more flexible with your thinking/more comfortable being independent in the world?
Are you taking some “life lessons” from an impactful summer job/extracurricular activity into different aspects of your life?
In narrative essays , the writer pens a story with an arc, lessons, learnings, and effects.
Here are some questions to ask yourself when writing a narrative essay:
What is the story you have to share?
What will I learn about you because you tell this story?
What did you learn because this happened? How have you changed as a person?
4. Keep this draft open
Revisit your draft often. Share it with one or two people who have offered their support. Remember, only give these people “comment” privileges (not “edit”). It is so important that your essay is your own voice.
Elise holds a BA in Political Philosophy from Williams College and an MEd in Administration & Social Policy from Harvard. She has spent the past twenty years working in top-tier independent schools.
How to Write a Personal Statement (A Crash Course)
By Ethan Sawyer, College Essay Guy
First, what even is the personal statement? It’s the ~650-word essay required by the Common Application (and other platforms), and its purpose is to demonstrate the skills, values, qualities, and interests you’ll bring to college.
But it’s not a classic five-paragraph essay you write for English class. Here are some other ways a personal statement differs from an English class essay:
What Makes a Personal Statement Great? 📋
Colleges are looking for a lot of things when they read through your application, but the personal statement brings a few special things to the table. I believe college admission officers are looking for these four things in personal statements:
- Core Values: What do you care most about?
- Insight (aka “so what” moments): Can you think critically?
- Vulnerability: Is your essay personal?
- Craft: Has the essay gone through several revision drafts?
Want to learn more about what makes a personal statement great? Head here.
Okay, but how do you actually do this in your personal statement?
First, Brainstorm Some Quality Content 🧠
When a student begins the process, I ask them to complete the following exercises. So open a blank Google doc (or download a copy of my template here ).
Don’t skip these! You’re about to generate a bunch of great content (i.e., super cool details about you) for your personal statement.
- Essence Objects Exercise : 12 min.
- Values Exercise : 4 min.
- 21 Details Exercise : 20 min.
- Everything I Want Colleges to Know About Me Exercise : 20 min.
- The Feelings and Needs Exercise : 15-20 min.
Choosing an Essay Topic & Structure 🏗️
I teach two different ways to structure your essay: Montage and Narrative.
Montage Structure 📸
Montage essays present a series of qualities, experiences, or moments that are thematically linked, allowing students to show multiple sides of themselves that may not otherwise fit into a single narrative arc.
How do you find a common theme for your essay?
There are so many ways. But as you look back through your brainstorming sheet, look for:
- “I love/I know”: It could be something you love or know a lot about, as in the “ Food ” essay.
- Academic/career interests: Your essay could explain why you’re interested in a particular career, as in the “ Behavioral Economics ” and “ Flying ” essays.
- Identity/ies: Or you could choose a particular identity and focus on that, as in the “ Punk Rock Philosopher ” essay.
If you prefer brainstorming co-working videos, here’s how to find 7 ideas in 20 minutes .
Once you have a topic in mind, brainstorm 4-7 values that connect back to your theme, then for each value, list a specific way it manifests in your life.
Example: If you write about repairing cars (something you love), maybe that connects to your family values, literature, curiosity, adventure, and personal growth. Once you have those values, brainstorm a specific example of each value in your life.
Narrative Structure 📖
A Narrative Structure personal statement focuses on a challenge that fundamentally changed your life.
Heads up: Most students *don’t* have such a challenge, and by the way, you totally don’t have to write about a challenge to have a great personal statement.
To brainstorm a challenge-based essay (or decide if a challenge you’ve faced is essay-worthy), I recommend the Feelings and Needs exercise . In about 20 minutes you should have a basic outline for your essay.
Once you’ve done that, create a basic outline:
- Challenges + Effects (~⅓ of your essay)
- What I Did About It (~⅓ of your essay)
- What I Learned (~⅓ of your essay)
Writing & Revising 😮💨
Once you have a basic outline, it’s time to write. Don’t worry too much about word count and grammar on your first draft. Set a timer and go.
Then you’ll revise (and revise, and revise ...)
This process is all about revisions, in fact, and in my experience, it’s common for an essay to go through at least five drafts.
Here are a few questions you (or a trusted friend/mentor) can use when revising:
Does my narrative outline/essay ...
- Make clear what the challenges I faced were?
- Make clear how these challenges affected me?
- Make clear In what ways I was able to overcome these challenges?
- Make clear what these experiences taught me.
Does my montage outline/essay ...
- Have a precise topic or thematic thread?
- Provide specific examples in each paragraph that are linked to my clear topic/thematic thread?
- Provide solid examples of my values?
- Give a solid answer to the readers “so what” concerning my experiences and values?
This guide to Revising Your Essay in 5 Steps will help you navigate some of the revision process. When you’re ready, put your essay through the Great College Essay Test .
Looking for more in-depth, step-by-step instructions on writing the personal statement? Check out my free guide here .
For more advice on the rest of your college application , check out these amazing Pinterest Boards!
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