Organizing your college entrance essay is one of the most important steps in creating a paper that “wows” admission officers. Second only to choosing a great topic and developing that topic with specific details, structuring your essay for maximum impact helps demonstrate your control over the English language, something admission officers are definitely interested in seeing in each essay.
It can be tempting to organize your essay as a traditional literary analysis, which is the kind of essay most students write in high school English. However, writing a college entrance essay is different because rather than making an argument about a book, you are using your personal experiences to make an argument about yourself, and the way you organize those experiences in your essay can either help your argument, or hurt it.
There are three time-tested ways to organize your essay—though I’ll warn you upfront that some are more powerful than others!
Many students that I work with structure their essay in terms of chronological order. Let’s say a student writes about the death of a grandparent (this is a popular choice for the “central to my identity” prompt). In chronological order, the essay would be organized as follows:
- Introduction to the topic of the essay
- Arriving at the hospital
- Witnessing death
- Explaining how the death impacted the student
While chronological order is great for explaining what happened to a friend, chronological order organizes the essay around an event rather than around the growth experienced by the writer.
When working with writers on their first drafts, I often encourage them to reorganize their paper from chronological order to a more stylistically interesting format, like the following structures.
The Before and After
This is one of my favorite organizational structures for college entrance essays because they’re a great way to foreground personal growth. It’s perfect for the 2014-2015 essay prompts that asks for an event that marked the transition from childhood to adulthood.
One student I worked with described how she went from a “normal” teenager who only cared about hanging out with her friends to someone who wanted to make a difference in the world. Her essay revolved around her experience volunteering in an elderly care facility and was organized into the following paragraphs:
- A single experience illustrating her “normal teenager” outlook
- Her “ah-ha” moment that occurred while playing chess with an elderly man
- Analysis of the ways in which she changed
- How this change influenced her goals for the future
The “before and after” structure works best with an introduction that jumps straight into the storytelling, which is a great way to pull in the reader with an engaging moment. However, it can be challenging to pinpoint one “ah ha” moment that illustrates personal growth. Many students feel that growth occurs over a long range of time and find themselves tempted to just explain how they moved from one point of view to another. However, it’s really important to show personal growth using an “ah-ha” moment if you decide to use the “before and after” technique to organize your college entrance essay.
The snapshot is great for students who want to challenge themselves to take stylistic risks. The snapshot requires the writer to zoom in on an event, place, or experience and recreate that space for the reader using their strong command of language. My own college entrance essay was written using the snapshot method; I wrote about my bookcase.
Much like the “Before and After,” I start by describing all of the most boring parts of my room. Then, I bring the reader closer to the bookcase, increasing their excitement by changing my tone. It really is just a 500 word essay describing the bookshelf in loving and intimate detail, crafting an argument about who I am as a person: romantic, sensitive, political, curious, and engaged. You can see that the structure also starts out broad, to orient the reader, before narrowing in focus.
There you have it—three ways to organize your college entrance essay. Certain topics will do better for each technique, so make sure you choose a great topic before deciding how to structure your essay!