When a Collegewise counselor brainstorms an essay with one of our students, we present them with a suggested outline to get them started on their first draft. But each outline (and essay, and student) is different. There is no one best structure to follow. And to share a college essay outline here would border on admissions malpractice. But here are five elements that are important to just about every story. I’ve seen plenty of students take these five and apply them as a way to organize a great college essay. But take and use whichever seem most applicable to your prompt and the story you want to tell.
1. Where do you want to start?
Every story has to start somewhere. But this isn’t an academic essay for your English class that requires a formal introduction. It’s a personal story that needs a beginning. So jump right in. How would you start telling this story to a friend? What would you say to make them want to lean in and listen to the rest? That’s a good place to start.
2. What’s the topic’s origin?
Whatever it is you’ve chosen to write about, where does that story begin? This is often distinct and different from the beginning of your essay. How did you begin to teach yourself guitar? What led you to search for a part time job? When did your family first start embracing the tradition of dinners together every Sunday? Not every topic has a story about the origin. But if yours does and it means something to you, consider sharing it.
3. How did it progress?
What happened between the day you started art classes and the day you realized you were finally getting good at it? How did you manage to go from someone who’d never spoken a word of Spanish to speaking comfortably with a host family in Spain less than one year later? How did you learn to manage around your learning disability after you were diagnosed? Many topics that are important don’t necessarily start out that way—they progress to get there. And that progress is often an interesting part of your story.
4. What was your high point, turning point, biggest struggle, etc.?
When you’re 70, what part of this story do you think you’ll still remember? That memorable moment is often a good litmus test for inclusion in an essay. Maybe you will never forget the first time your dad showed up to watch you march with the band at halftime. Maybe your school counselor was the first person who ever told you that you could go to college if you wanted to. Maybe the cast party where the musical’s stars recognized you for your lighting work was all the thanks you needed. Maybe you still cringe at the feeling of letting your teacher and your parents down when you just didn’t put the effort in like you should have. These particularly impactful moments for you are often the most impactful stories for your reader.
5. What’s next?
It’s natural for a reader to wonder how you will bring—literally or figuratively—this activity, experience, lesson, etc. to college with you. Say you write your essay about your experience playing on the lacrosse team. Do you hope to play for a college team? A club team? Will you play other intramural sports instead? Or will you leave athletics behind entirely (and if so, why, and what do you envision doing instead)? Colleges don’t expect that everything you did in high school will translate directly to your life in college. But an essay that doesn’t reveal what’s next is like a movie that leaves you hanging at the end with no sense of what happens to the characters. Don’t invent future plans that don’t really exist. But if you can, try to give a reader some sense of the connection between what you’ve written about today and the student you’ll be on their campus tomorrow.
There’s no one topic or approach that works for every student or every essay. But as you consider your topic and how to approach it, consider running through this list of questions. If you have answers that make you realize how much you have to say, you’ve probably hit on not just a topic, but maybe a potential outline, too.
About Us: With more than twenty years of experience, Collegewise counselors and tutors are at the forefront of the ever-evolving admissions landscape. Our work has always centered on you: the student. And just like we’ve always done, we look for ways for you to be your best self - whether it’s in the classroom, in your applications or in the right-fit college environment. Our range of tools include counseling, test prep, academic tutoring, and essay management, all with the support of our proprietary platform, leading to a 4x higher than average admissions rates.