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How to Structure College Essays That Succeed

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Using an outline saves students at least one draft and leads to more compelling essays.

Prompt, a college essay coaching and feedback company, finds that students using outlines typically need two drafts, versus three or four drafts for those who don't.


And if that's not enough, how about the fact that outlines help students avoid one of the most common (and most harmful) college application mistakes: leaving part of the prompt unanswered.

Don't worry if the word "outline" sounds vague and scary to you. We are going to walk you through this process step-by-step, focusing on the Common Application Essay.

Prompt's Foolproof Guide to Outlining Personal Essays

When it comes to most personal essays — including for the Common App and Coalition App — there are two basic structures that work wonders:

  • The Journey — for essays that show a clear progression of personal growth (ie: There was a Before You, now there's an After You).
  • The Theme — for essays that show either (a) how you developed one important trait over many distinct experiences, or (b) one meaningful passion over time.

You'll know which structure to choose after you've brainstormed the best essay topic to show off your strengths. We walk you through how to do that in our posts on brainstorming and on the traits colleges look for in essays.

Let's start with the structure most students should write — since most students will focus their essays on a particular experience and how it changed them. That's the Journey structure.

The Journey Structure

The key to the Journey Structure is a focus on the new person you became after a particular experience. You're telling a story of personal growth with a focus on where that growth has led you. (It's surprisingly common for people to leave the critical post-experience part out.)

Note: A time of personal growth can cover days, weeks, months or years. Just make sure the most important parts occurred within your high school years. Childhood or middle school experiences aren't going to land well with admissions folks.

The Journey Essay Has Four Components

1. Intro: Choose an active moment from the middle of your story to create a brief, vivid opening scene that grabs an overworked admission reader's attention. At the end of the intro, you might give a brief guiding sentence to help show where the essay is going. For example, "If you'd asked me a year ago, I never would have guessed I'd be ____"

2. Before: The aim here is to draw a contrast before the Old You and the New You, post-experience. Briefly describe who you were before you experienced personal growth.

Length note: The Intro + Before sections should take up about one third of the essay (at most). The most important parts are still to come.

3. During: This is often the easiest and most fun section to write: Describe what happened and the actions you took during your time of personal growth. Illustrate the process of overcoming an obstacle, learning and growing.

Length note: Most personal essays make the mistake of focusing on the During section, letting it eat up about 90 percent of the space. But it should only take about one third of the essay. The most important part of this essay — the part that'll get the admissions team reaching for their "We need them on our campus!" stamp — is yet to come.

4. After (aka The New You): We got there! To the part that matters most. It's a spotlight on the wiser, kinder New You who has learned from experience, and become a more dynamic, thoughtful, interested, interesting, savvier, or — who knows? — maybe funnier person. A different person, anyway, and one likely to contribute enormously on campus and in their career to follow.

Consider these questions to help you get to the crux of your growth:

  • What did the experience teach you about yourself? What values did you develop or strengthen as a result of it?
  • What impact has the experience had on other parts of your life? (Your academic life; your friendships; your family relationships; your place in the community.)
  • What new actions did you take as a result of this growth? How do you behave differently? This is often the most important part of the essay as it proves to your reader that you are a changed and better person.

Length note: The After section should take up — you guessed it — about one third of the essay.

5. Conclusion: Don't stress on this. Find a quick way to sum up or underscore the most important points you made. If you have a clear sense of your future goals, you could add a sentence or two about how your experiences will help you in the future (optional).

Length note: No more than three to four sentences here.

The Theme Structure

In a Theme essay, you'll focus on one big theme — either a positive trait or a meaningful passion — by describing a number of distinct experiences over which you developed or showcased that trait or passion.

The Theme essay has 3 components:

1. Intro: Create a brief opening scene as in the "Journey" structure, and allude to your main theme directly or indirectly. A good strategy is to mention your theme as the last sentence of your introduction, guiding your reader to understand what is to come in the essay.

2. Middle: Develop a number of experiences or examples here. Devote one paragraph to each experience. The focus of each paragraph should be on New You — your new, improved values and the new, improved ways you go about the world.

Length note: Begin each paragraph with a short two to four sentences describing the situation, and the actions you took. Then, take the rest of the paragraph to reflect on how you grew or improved as a result.

Make sure each paragraph clearly relates to at least one of the five traits colleges look for in their essays. Using concrete, specific examples of actions New You takes now, show how the experience has made you into the type of student who will succeed in college and beyond.

3. End: Wrap up by explaining why the theme is meaningful to you and (optionally) provide a look to your future ambitions.

Length note: No more than three to five sentences here.

And that's it! Follow these structures, and enjoy the time you save while writing stronger personal essays. (And don't stop there: We hope we've converted you to outlining for years to come.)

Finally, if you'd like Prompt to guide you through our free brainstorming and outlining process to develop the best topic for you, create a free Prompt account and go to the Content tab.

Next: The Most Common Essay-Writing Myths

Attribution: This article was provided by Prompt.com, the world leader in admissions essay coaching and feedback.