College Application Essay Structure Worksheet

How to Outline a College Admissions Essay

By the time high school graduation comes around students should have acquired a solid working understanding of the basic essay structure. Unfortunately, not all high school English departments are created equal, and some students may find the prospect of writing their college admissions essay more than a little daunting. But if we take some time to review the basic essay structure, and consider how to approach your admissions essay, you will be well on your way to a successful submission.

Sample of a Basic Template Structure

Before we delve to deeply into the process, let's review the basics. The standard essay format that you have been writing in high school, and will be expected to write in college, has a basic structure of five paragraphs. A standard essay consists of an introductory paragraph, three body paragraphs and a final paragraph presenting your conclusion. Obviously, you can have additional body paragraphs depending on the breadth of your argument, but the five paragraph essay is a working model best suited to our current purpose. It is through this simple essay structure that you will present, defend and conclude your argument in a neat and cohesive manner.

Introduction Ideas

The typical introductory paragraph for any essay will present your thesis statement, which will clearly define the subject and purpose of your essay. For example, a simple thesis statement might be, “Switching to a paperless office model will not only save the company money, it will also reduce wastage and create a more efficient workspace while helping the environment.” As you begin your introductory paragraph you will want to approach your topic broadly, bring it into focus over the course of the paragraph and present the reader with your thesis. By the time the first paragraph is finished you should have introduced the reader to your subject, suggested your supporting points of discussion and interested them in your argument.

Formal Body Paragraphs

As you move on in your essay, you will want to dedicate a paragraph to each of the salient points you wish to make to support your thesis statement. Once again, the traditional model includes three paragraphs for developing your argument but this is not a hard and fast rule. As you progress in your essay writing while at college you will find much longer essay forms will be needed. The paragraphs making up the body of your essay should be ordered to reflect your supporting points as addressed in your initial thesis statement. Each paragraph should be supported with research and original ideas that defend you initial assertion.

When you are preparing the outline for your essay, you will want to briefly jot down the supporting points for each paragraph, and list examples or research points you want to include that will prove your original thesis statement. When you look over your outline, you should recognize the skeleton of your finished essay. Your outline will also allow you to see and address any holes in your argument, and to take note of any supportive points that are either too light or too heavy on information.

In Conclusion

The final paragraph of your essay is where you will summarize your argument and present the reader with your ultimate conclusion. The standard format for an essay's conclusion is to restate the thesis, and then concisely demonstrate how your supporting points have proven your original assertion. It is important that the conclusion of your essay be strong and definitive. In the end, you want to present your reader with a coherent and concise essay that demonstrates your knowledge of the topic at hand, and your ability to reason and argue clearly and with precision.

Preparing for your college admissions essay may seem daunting at first. But with an understanding of an essay's basic structure, and a detailed outline, you will be able to present the college admissions board with a cohesive essay that will impress the judges and move your application at the top of the acceptance pile.

Brainstorming and Outlining Your Essay

Article Type: Quick and Dirty

Looking for our College Application Essay Lab? CLICK HERE to dig right in.


You look at the essay prompt. You look at your blank Word document. You look at your essay prompt. You look at your blank Word document.

Okay, time for a break. You're going about this the wrong way. Your essay isn't just going to magically spring out of your fingertips (at least, we hope not, because that would be painful). First, before you do anything, you need an idea. And where do ideas come from? Brainstorms.

Hurricane “Harvard Essay” is on its way.

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Most students choose a prompt before brainstorming their college application essay. And most of the time, that works. But sometimes the reverse works just as well. Before you start thinking about specific essay prompts, we think it's important for you to think about what makes you unique. The best stories make the best essays, so what story can you (and only you) tell really, really well? What's super important to you? What's the one quality you possess that makes you a little bit different from the rest of the students at your high school?

Finished? Well, wasn't that fun.

Time to click on this link, grab a snack, and Shmoop your way to the college essay of your dreams.

Or, scroll down for some survival tips from our college essay-writing experts. You could also keep both windows open. Live dangerously. All of the options are options, you know.

Four Steps To Surviving A Brainstorm

1. Read the essay prompt. Observe it in its natural habitat. Understand what the prompt is really asking for. Focus on key words, like “contribution” or “accomplishment”, “challenge” or “diversity.”

2. Write down what comes into your head. Use a piece of paper and a pen or your laptop, we don't care. The ideas will come thick and fast, and your job is to jot everything – everything – down. Don't second-guess yourself. Don't censor. This is a brainstorm: the forecast is calling for heavy showers of ideas, and you gotta catch 'em all. (Wait, that's Pokémon.)

3. Detach yourself from the writing utensil of your choice. Once the ideas are no longer pinging around your brain, once your mind is empty, you need to stand up and go do something else. Let those ideas marinate like a good steak. Mmmm, steak. Don't return to your page full of ideas for at least a day.

4. Revisit what you wrote down. Some of your ideas are going to leap out at you because they are beautiful and fabulous and essay gold. Hold them close: you've survived the brainstorm.

Trust us. Trying to write a perfect essay in one sitting is a great way to pop a blood vessel.

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Outlining your Essay

You've gotta start somewhere (the mud pit on the football field? Starbucks?) and when you're writing an essay, that somewhere is typically an outline (ohhh, the groaning!).

Now that you've selected your essay topic and prompt, you may be raring to go, but trust us, starting with an outline will save you time in the long run.

An outline is an important first step in the essay-writing process. It helps you focus in on the best details to include and forces you to think about how each section connects with the next. Writing an essay without an outline can result in rambling, unfocused paragraphs. Don't go there. It's more terrifying than hugging a lion.

 Start by breaking your essay down into four or five parts: an intro, two to three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. But don't worry—no one will be checking for thesis statements or asking for an annotated bibliography. This is just an easy way to organize your ideas, and to keep your essay at a length that will meet the Common App word limit requirements.

For more help brainstorming, check out our handy College Essay Lab. Trust us.

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