College Essay Format: Learning to Structure and Outline Your College Essay (Step-by-Step Guide + Examples)

Learn how to format and/or structure your college essay using my step-by-step guide + essay examples.  Amazing college essay examples from my own students. How was your college application journey? Let us know over at

Written by Kate Stone, College Essay Guy Team

Mark Twain once said, “I like a good story well told. That’s the reason I am sometimes forced to tell them myself.”

At College Essay Guy, we too like good stories well told. The problem is that sometimes students have good stories… that just aren’t well-told. They have the seed of an idea and the makings of a great story, but the college essay format or structure is all over the place.

And what can happen if you don’t find a great college essay format when it comes to writing your essay?

  1. The college admissions reader may see you as disorganized and

  2. Your essay doesn’t make an impact.

So, if you’re here, you’re probably wondering:

How do I pick a college application essay format? How do I structure it? How do I outline it?

In short: How do I make my essay flow?

Good news: That’s what this post answers, in a step-by-step way.

Let’s do this.

Essential Tips for your College Essay Format:

  1. Brainstorm the best topic from your life. Make it real and make it personal.

  2. Learn to structure your essay.

    1. Use the narrative structure for writing about challenges

    2. Use the montage structure for writing about multiple parts of your life.

  3. Decide on a structure that works.

  4. Write that essay. Add plenty of details and color.

  5. Test and revise your essay.

Step 1: How to Brainstorm a Topic

Before we even get to college admission essay format we HAVE to talk about topic. Why? Because without a great topic, the structure doesn’t matter (or it matters much much less). 

So here’s our first bit of advice: choose a topic that is elastic. What do we mean by that? It means choosing a topic that stretches to talk about many different skills/qualities/values you possess. 

How do you do this?

Spend about 10 minutes on each of these exercises.

We get it. You’re already like, “But I already have my topic--I just want to know how to make it better.”

But do you? Is this topic the best topic for you? Is it the most elastic topic you can find? Are you sure, if you’re sure, you can skip ahead. But if you’re not sure that this topic is your deepest story, spend a little time on the exercises above. You may find that you have not one, but several possible stories to tell (that’s a good things, btw).

Once you have a topic  (or several topics) in mind, you’re ready to move on to college admission essay format (aka structure).

At College Essay Guy, we believe a good college essay should either go deep, discussing one moment that fundamentally changed your life, or go wide, discussing many different elements of your life. The Narrative Structure, will help you go deep, while the Montage Structure will help you go wide.

Step 2: Learn About the Different College Essay Formats and Structures

Narrative Structure

The narrative structure is the basis for the majority of American films today. This structure is time-tested and, therefore, pretty reliable. Joseph Campbell, who spent his life’s work decoding the mythological structure, called it the “Hero’s Journey.” The basic elements if this college essay format are:

  • Status Quo

  • Inciting Incident/Status Quo

  • Change

  • Raise the stakes

  • Moment of Truth

  • Outcome/New Status Quo

This college essay format can work especially well for students who have faced challenges in their lives. Here’s how it works:

Status Quo: This the very beginning of the story, which establishes the world of the main character (that’s you). Then...

Inciting Incident/Status Quo: Something big happens: a new club, your family moves to a new city, a death in the family--this thing will change your life forever.

Raise the stakes: Then, the changes get even bigger! The new club loses funding, you’re getting bullied in that new city, that death in the family leads to financial difficulties. This step is important because it raises the dramatic tension. It leaves the reader wondering “How will this person get out of this situation?”

Moment of Truth: This is the climax of the story. The moment that will decide whether or not you will make it out of the problem. Will your club win that scholarship competition? Will you confront the bully and make a new friend? Will you discover a passion that will pull you out of your grief?

Outcome/New Status Quo: What happens after, aka the “so what” of the story. Ideally, you should end up with a few things you didn’t have before--talents, skills, values or a new perspective. Answering “so what” in a compelling way is (in our opinion) the key to a great college essay.

Montage Structure

The montage structure works best when you prefer not to focus on a challenge, but instead want to focus on, say, 3-7 different qualities/skills/values and find a way to connect them.

But first, what is a montage? It’s an editing technique that involves creating a new whole from separate fragments (pictures, words, music, etc.) in which glimpses of a larger whole are juxtaposed to compress time and convey a lot of information in small vignettes or scenes (in your essay these will be your paragraphs). Consider the classic “falling in love” montage, commonly used in romantic comedies.

falling in love montage.gif

We don’t see every single interaction; instead, we see:

He surprises her at work with flowers.

They walk through the park.

They dance in the rain.

They pass an engagement ring store and she eyes a particular ring.

You get the idea. A few images tell the whole story. And you can use this technique for your essay. The juxtaposition of vignettes, anecdotes, or fragments of your life come together to create the overall message you want your reader to walk away with.

So, what vignettes should you choose? To help you decide, consider beginning by searching for a focusing lens for your college essay format. What’s that, you ask? It’s the thematic thread or element that connects all the vignettes. For one student, it was scrapbooking (click here to read that essay). For another student the focusing lens was “travel and languages” (click here to read that one). Here are some...


Make it visual. Storytelling is a visual medium. Use a lens that will help conjure images in the reader’s mind. We’ve had too many students try to write “soundtrack” or “mix-tape” essays in which their favorite songs provide the soundtrack for their lives. The problem with writing this type of essay, however, is that the reader can’t hear the music (and often doesn’t know or have the same emotional connection to the songs referenced).

Use something you know a lot about.. Know how to cook? Use food. Play chess? Use that! Use your essence objects list for ideas.

Find a focusing lens that allows you to “go wide.” Use a metaphor, in other words, that is “elastic” (i.e. stretchy) will allow you to discuss several different aspects of who you are.


Step 3: Pick a College Essay Format (i.e. Structure)

Here’s the simple difference between the Narrative and Montage Structures: while Narrative Structure connects story events in a causal way (X led to Y led to Z), Montage Structure is a college essay format that connects story events in a thematic way (X, Y and Z are all connected because, for example, they are all qualities of a great Endodontist). 

Remember: There is no surefire approach for essay writing. No essay (or college essay format) will, on its own, get a student into a college. Many different students are accepted to colleges each year with many different types of essays. Having said that, the task of the college essay is to shape the student’s life into coherent narratives. And don’t be afraid of blending these college essay format if you can find a compelling way to do so.

Step 4: Test to See if Your College Essay Format or Structure is Working

First, take The Great College Essay Test to make sure your essay is doing its job. The job of the essay, simply put, is demonstrate to a college that you will make valuable contributions in college and beyond. So, how do you do it? We believe these four qualities are essential to a great essay:

  1. Core Values (aka information)

  2. Vulnerability

  3. Insight (aka ‘so what’ moments)

  4. Craft.

Core values are the things that are so important to you that you would fight for them. Here’s a list, for reference. To test what values are coming through…

Read your essay aloud to someone who knows you and ask:

  • Which values are clearly coming through the essay?

  • Which values are kind of there but could be coming through more clearly?

  • Which values could be coming through and were opportunities missed?

To know if you’re being vulnerable in your essay, ask:

  1. Now that you’ve heard my story, do you feel closer to me?

  2. What did you learn about me that you didn’t already know?

To search for “so what” moments of insight, review the claims you are making in your essay. Are you making common or uncommon connections? The uncommon connections are often made up of insights that are unusual or unexpected. (For more on how to test for this, click The Great College Essay Test link above.)

Craft is the sense that you know the purpose of each paragraph, each sentence, each word. How do you test this? For each paragraph, each sentence, each word, ask: Do I need this?

Still feeling you haven’t found your topic? Here’s a list of 100 Brave and Interesting Questions. Read these and try freewriting on a few. See where they lead.

Finally, here’s an...


Example College Essay Format Analysis: The “Burying Grandma” Essay

To see how the Narrative Essay structure works, check out the essay below, which was written for the Common App "Topic of your choice" prompt. You might try reading it here first before reading the paragraph-by-paragraph breakdown below.

They covered the precious mahogany coffin with a brown amalgam of rocks, decomposed organisms, and weeds. It was my turn to take the shovel, but I felt too ashamed to dutifully send her off when I had not properly said goodbye. I refused to throw dirt on her. I refused to let go of my grandmother, to accept a death I had not seen coming, to believe that an illness could not only interrupt, but steal a beloved life.

The author begins with the Inciting Incident. You won’t know this until you’ve read the whole story, but this is the moment her want (to not deal with grandmother’s death) and need (to deal with it and let go/move on) is launched. She also sets up an objective correlative (the shovel) that will come back later.

When my parents finally revealed to me that my grandmother had been battling liver cancer, I was twelve and I was angry--mostly with myself. They had wanted to protect me--only six years old at the time--from the complex and morose concept of death. However, when the end inevitably arrived, I wasn’t trying to comprehend what dying was; I was trying to understand how I had been able to abandon my sick grandmother in favor of playing with friends and watching TV. Hurt that my parents had deceived me and resentful of my own oblivion, I committed myself to preventing such blindness from resurfacing.

In the second paragraph she flashes back to give us some context (i.e. the Status Quo), which helps us understand her world. It also helps us to better understand the impact of her grandmother’s death and raises a question: how will she prevent such blindness from resurfacing?

I became desperately devoted to my education because I saw knowledge as the key to freeing myself from the chains of ignorance. While learning about cancer in school I promised myself that I would memorize every fact and absorb every detail in textbooks and online medical journals. And as I began to consider my future, I realized that what I learned in school would allow me to silence that which had silenced my grandmother. However, I was focused not with learning itself, but with good grades and high test scores. I started to believe that academic perfection would be the only way to redeem myself in her eyes--to make up for what I had not done as a granddaughter.  

In the third paragraph she takes off a hundred miles an hour… in the wrong direction. What does that mean? She pursues her want instead of her need. This Raises the Stakes because we as readers sense intuitively (and she is giving us hints) that this is not the way to get over her grandmother’s death.

However, a simple walk on a hiking trail behind my house made me open my own eyes to the truth. Over the years, everything--even honoring my grandmother--had become second to school and grades. As my shoes humbly tapped against the Earth, the towering trees blackened by the forest fire a few years ago, the faintly colorful pebbles embedded in the sidewalk, and the wispy white clouds hanging in the sky reminded me of my small though nonetheless significant part in a larger whole that is humankind and this Earth. Before I could resolve my guilt, I had to broaden my perspective of the world as well as my responsibilities to my fellow humans.   

The fourth paragraph gives us the Turning Point/Moment of Truth. She realizes she needs perspective. But how? See next paragraph...

Volunteering at a cancer treatment center has helped me discover my path. When I see patients trapped in not only the hospital but also a moment in time by their diseases, I talk to them. For six hours a day, three times a week, Ivana is surrounded by IV stands, empty walls, and busy nurses that quietly yet constantly remind her of her breast cancer. Her face is pale and tired, yet kind--not unlike my grandmother’s. I need only to smile and say hello to see her brighten up as life returns to her face. Upon our first meeting, she opened up about her two sons, her hometown, and her knitting group--no mention of her disease. Without even standing up, the three of us—Ivana, me, and my grandmother--had taken a walk together.

In the second to last paragraph we see how the results of her moment of truth (which, admittedly, is somewhat ambiguous) led her to take action: volunteering at the local hospital helps her see her larger place in the world.

Cancer, as powerful and invincible as it may seem, is a mere fraction of a person’s life. It’s easy to forget when one’s mind and body are so weak and vulnerable. I want to be there as an oncologist to remind them to take a walk once in a while, to remember that there’s so much more to life than a disease. While I physically treat their cancer, I want to lend patients emotional support and mental strength to escape the interruption and continue living. Through my work, I can accept the shovel without burying my grandmother’s memory.

The final paragraph uses what we call the “bookend” technique by bringing us back to the beginning, bt with a change. So we’ll do the same.

...A good story well told. That’s your goal.

Hopefully you now have a better sense of how to make that happen.

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