College Essay Format: The ABCs of Brilliant Structure

The secret to an effective college essay format is as easy as ABC. Or “ABDCE,” to be exact. It’s a simple but brilliant formula that creative writing instructors refer to all the time but is seldom taught in high school.

From ancient Greek drama to each and every episode of Breaking Bad, this classic narrative structure has stood the test of time. At Naked Essay, we find ourselves recommending ABDCE over and over as a college essay format. While there are exceptions, the majority of students will find that a narrative, or story-based, college essay format will work best for their Common Application essay. So what is ABDCE?

A: Action

A compelling hook sets up expectations about your essay, establishes your credibility, grabs your readers’ attention and makes them eager to read the rest. Start right in the middle of the action (background info will come next). An anecdote or snippet of dialog are common and effective ways to begin a personal narrative. As a rule of thumb, aim for about three sentences. You may actually end up writing this part last, but go ahead and brainstorm a few different options as you start planning your college essay format. 

Expert tip: Consider revealing a bit of vulnerability in your first paragraph—it’s a powerful technique that will draw your reader into your story and make them care about what happens next. (It also makes your likeability as an applicant skyrocket—we can’t help but identify with people and be on their side if we see them in a vulnerable state.)

For inspiration, check out these famous opening lines:

  • “Through the fence, between the curling flower spaces, I could see them hitting.” —William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury 
  • “He was an old man who fished alone in a skiff in the Gulf Stream and he had gone eighty-four days now without taking a fish.” —Ernest Hemingway, The Old Man and the Sea
  • “I write this sitting in the kitchen sink.” —Dodie Smith, I Capture the Castle 
  • “I, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus This-that-and-the-other (for I shall not trouble you yet with all my titles) who was once, and not so long ago either, known to my friends and relatives and associates as “Claudius the Idiot,” or “That Claudius,” or “Claudius the Stammerer,” or “Clau-Clau-Claudius” or at best as “Poor Uncle Claudius,” am now about to write this strange history of my life…” —Robert Graves, I, Claudius 

B: Background

Now that your reader is hooked, you can slow things down a bit and set the scene. It’s okay to use a cold open or teaser in your first paragraph, but in this section you want to think in terms of taking your reader by the hand and leading them into the world of your essay. Provide some basic context (who, what, when, where), so that we can get to know you and where you are coming from, relate to you, and root for you. 

D: Development

This section is the meat and potatoes of any college essay format. In a traditional narrative, authors show their character(s) trying to attain what they want and the difficulties that stand in their way. In other forms of writing (such as a montage, persuasive, or argumentative essay), this would be the part of the essay where you make your case with specific examples. If you incorporate conflict and suspense into this part of your college essay format, your story will be sure to hold your reader’s attention.

C: Climax

This is what you have been building towards—your catharsis, or your story’s point. The tension or question introduced in the first paragraph of your college essay format will be resolved here. Readers love it when you can circle back to the beginning of the essay and demonstrate progress or growth.

E: End

Where the story stops/your dénouement. Thousands of years ago, Aristotle said to keep beginnings short and endings shorter. The same advice applies to your college essay format. As Ivy admissions officer and writing teacher Harry Bauld says, “Think like a camera. With what shot do you end the movie that is your essay?”

Pro tip: Ending your essay with a kicker, or memorable final sentence, can show your sense of humor, wit, or ability not to take yourself too seriously. But don’t worry if you can’t come up with a snappy one-liner. Another way to make yourself unforgettable is to end your essay with concrete language and sensory detail. Concepts, abstractions, and intangibles don’t lodge in our memories like things we experience through our senses. Think action and description over exposition/explaining. One of the most famous endings in literature is an example of concrete imagery. F. Scott Fitzgerald’s final line in The Great Gatsby is (spoiler alert!), “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

College Essay Format—Final Words

By high school most students have over a decade of storytelling experience—from childhood favorites likes Corduroy and Where the Wild Things Are, to every movie, video game, or television show ever produced, to modern storytelling methods such as Vine comics and @VeryShortStory on Twitter. With a little practice, most students will find that the ABDCE college essay format comes quite naturally!

If you have questions about college essay format or would like more information about our services, please use the contact form below, email, or call/text 878-444-0455. We do our best to respond to all messages in an hour or less.

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Money, Working, or Social Class as a College Essay Topic

If you wrote about money, working, or social class as your college essay topic, you can send it to the New York Times for possible publication in the paper.  This is an annual contest, so if you’re still thinking of a possible topic for your applications next year, keep this broad category in mind.

Does money make a good college essay topic?

Discussing money can make for a good college essay topic, though it presents challenges. It’s something that most people aren’t comfortable talking about with honesty.  If you’re coming from a place of privilege, it can be difficult to state your perspective without coming across as entitled or pretentious.  It can be equally difficult to write from a disadvantaged perspective, as opening up can bring you to a very vulnerable place.  But a well written essay on this topic can be surprising and fresh.  As colleges become more and more expensive and economically stratified, admission committees will be increasingly interested to hear from students who have a true knowledge and perspective on these issues.

For information on the New York Times essay contest, go here.


Common App Essay Prompts for 2015-16: How to Choose

common app essayChanges to the Common App Essay for 2015-16 were released March 31st.

Prompt #4 is brand new; the others have been tweaked slightly. Which Common App essay should you choose? Take a look at the new Common App essay prompts below, then check out our video tutorial on selecting the best essay.

Common App Essay Prompts:

  1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  2. The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
  3. Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma–anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution.
  5. Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Which Common App essay prompt did colleges report to be the most effective?

Plus, how do you know which prompt matches your most promising material? Check out our video for answers to these questions and more Common App essay tips!

College Essay Tips from Great Writers: Kazuo Ishiguro

College Essay Tips from Great Writers: Kazuo IshiguroOne of my favorite modern writers is Kazuo Ishiguro, author of extraordinary novels such as The Remains of the Day, Never Let Me Go, and When We Were Orphans. Aren’t his titles wonderful? He recently published his first book in 10 years, The Buried Giant, and Anna and I were lucky enough to hear him speak this week at the University of Chicago about his new book and his writing process. He explained how when he is first starting a new book, he concentrates solely on the ideas.

He pays no attention to form or style; it’s all about getting the important ideas onto the paper. The polishing is secondary, and there’s no need to worry about it until later drafts.

Now, the college essay is much shorter than a novel, but students can learn a lot from Ishiguro’s process. When you start writing, just focus on the ideas and getting the important and essential points across. Run on sentences, dangling participles, and clichés are fine at this point! You can fix all of that later.

If the idea is there, and if the idea is real and new and tells us something about you, then you have an essay.

More college essay tips are available on our blog. For information about our private college essay tutoring, check out our rates and call 878.444.0455, or contact us using the form below:

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College Essay Topics Video: From Cliché to Captivating

college-essay-topicsGoogle “college essay topics” and you’ll find laundry lists of college essay topics to avoid, clichés, dos and don’ts (heavy on the don’ts), warnings, and other well-intentioned rules and advice. It’s enough to paralyze even the most competent writer with self-doubt and indecision: the precious time you have to devote to your college essays is spent staring down a blinking cursor. Or worse, weeks and months are wasted pressing out 650 words on a college essay topic that follows all the rules but barely holds your own interest—much less an admission reader’s. At Naked Essay, we have a different approach to college essay topics.

In our experience, the best guiding activities help students temporarily set aside the rules so that they can write freely, confidently, and productively.

As you begin the brainstorming process, try to welcome clichés and “bad” college essay topics. The key to effective brainstorming is, after all, the idea that there are no bad ideas. When we brainstorm, we don’t expect to come up with completely unique and fully-formed college essay topics right away. Only after building on the original ideas several times do we find ourselves with something fresh and imaginative.

For example, a Naked Essay student started with the idea of writing about a service project. There are some advisors who caution students against volunteer essays (“Let’s crown you for sainthood now. You’re amazing. And your essay is awful!” is one blog’s advice on the subject).

Before dismissing out of hand potential college essay topics that are meaningful to you, give the brainstorming process a chance to work its magic.

For our student writing about her service project, that meant narrowing the essay’s focus to an interaction she had when she danced with a nursing home resident named Ilene. (You can read the essay here.) Often all it takes to transform so-called clichéd college essay topics into unique, vivid pieces of writing is specificity. Bring a revealing moment or incident to life and your admissions readers will thank you!

What passions and personal qualities make you you? What memories, images, and anecdotes from your life illustrate those traits? Take five minutes, a day, a week—forget all the rules and let yourself write about something you truly care about!

According to the famously prolific Joyce Carol Oates, “When a writer finds his true subject rather than the usual false one, the writing should come easily.” Our true subjects—the ones we feel strongly about—often begin with platitudes or clichés. Embrace them! The real test of a good college essay topic is how quickly and enthusiastically your fingers are typing.


The Waiting Season

While we wish our students the best of luck as they wait for their letters of acceptance to arrive over the next few weeks, this article from the New York Times helps put the whole process in perspective.


“For every person whose contentment comes from faithfully executing a predetermined script, there are at least 10 if not 100 who had to rearrange the pages and play a part they hadn’t expected to, in a theater they hadn’t envisioned. Besides, life is defined by setbacks, and success is determined by the ability to rebound from them. And there’s no single juncture, no one crossroads, on which everything hinges.”


A Year of Reading

What’s the best way to prepare for your college essays? Besides actually writing them, and rewriting them, and then editing them, and of course, building life experience so that you have something to write about, it’s a good idea to read as much as you can in the meantime. Read more than just school-assigned books. Those are often just chosen for their length, or their appropriateness, or the easily palatable lesson they can teach. There’s so much more out there!

I’ve always believed that everyone would be obsessed with books if they only found the right one to get them started.

Here at Naked Essay, it’s obvious that we love to write, but even more, we love to read. I’m always loathe to recommend books, because one person’s Favorite is the next person’s Forgettable. But I always keep track of the books I read, and this is my list of Books Read in 2014:

A Passage to India-E.M Forster
Out of Africa-Isak Dinesen
August:Osage County-Tracy Letts
The Ambassadors-Henry James
The Guts-Roddy Doyle
Persuasion-Jane Austen
If on a winter’s night a traveler-Italo Calvino
Some Do Not-Ford Madox Ford
War Brides-Helen Bryan
No More Parades-Ford Madox Ford
A Man Could Stand Up-Ford Madox Ford
The Last Post-Ford Madox Ford
Fingersmith-Sarah Waters
Mrs Dalloway-Virginia Woolf
The Last Enchantments-Charles Finch
Longbourn-Jo Baker
Brighton Rock-Graham Greene
The Book of My Lives-Aleksandar Hemon
The Boy Kings of Texas-Domingo Martinez
A Childhood in Scotland-Christian Miller
Small Island-Andrea Levy
A Room with a View-E.M. Forster
Dangerous Liaisons-Pierre Choderlos de Laclos
Lost for Words-Edward St. Aubyn
The Custom of the Country-Edith Wharton
Pnin-Vladimir Nabokov
A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man-James Joyce
Super Sad True Love Story-Gary Shteyngart
The Silkworm-Robert Galbraith
A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius-Dave Eggers
East of Eden-John Steinbeck
An Artist of the Floating World-Kazuo Ishiguro
Essays by George Orwell
-Such, such were the joys…
-Charles Dickens
-Rudyard Kipling
-Shooting an Elephant
-Politics and the English Language
-Reflections on Gandhi
-Looking Back on the Spanish War
-Inside the Whale
-England Your England
-Why I Write
Wolf Hall-Hilary Mantel
Stories by Anton Chekhov
-A Story without an End
-A Living Chattel
-The Doctor
-Mari d’elle
-Too Early!
-The Cossack
-An Inquiry
-The Lion and the Sun
-The Daughter of Albion
-A Work of Art
-A Joke
-A Country Cottage
-A Blunder
-Fat and Thin
-The Death of a Government Clerk
-A Pink Stocking
-At a Summer Villa
The Handmaid’s Tale-Margaret Atwood
An Alphabet for Gourmets-M.F.K. Fisher
Bring Up the Bodies-Hilary Mantel
Consider the Oyster-M.F.K. Fisher
Frankenstein-Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley
The Children Act-Ian McEwan
The Black Sheep-Honoré de Balzac
The Kite Runner-Khaled Hosseini
On the Edge-Edward St. Aubyn
Nora Webster-Colm Toibin
The Zone of Interest-Martin Amis
Life Never Let Up: A Review of Call It Sleep-Irving Howe
George Orwell: “As the Bones Know”-Irving Howe
Tolstoy: Did Anna Have to Die?-Irving Howe
Where’d You Go Bernadette: Maria Semple
Empress Dowager Cixi-Jung Chang
The Narrow Road to the Deep North-Richard Flanagan
How to Be Both-Ali Smith
Dept. of Speculation-Jenny Offill
The Third Policeman-Flann O’Brien

Looking back over this year’s books, my favorites would have to be Ford Madox Ford’s Tetralogy, Christian Miller’s A Childhood in Scotland, Orwell’s Essays, Hilary Mantel’s books on Thomas Cromwell (the third is coming out next Spring!), and The Children Act by Ian McEwan.

What will I read in 2015? I’ll be re-reading some Brontë’s in my Classics Book Club, and various histories and novels about colonialism for my Serious book club.  Two of my favorite writers, Kazuo Ishiguro and Kate Atkinson both have new novels coming out in the Spring.  Waiting for me on my bedside table are Goodbye to All That by Robert Graves, The Blue Flower by Penelope Fitzgerald, The Bottle-Factory Outing by Beryl Bainbridge, Two Serious Ladies by Jane Bowles, The Liberal Imagination by Lionel Trilling, and The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien. I can’t wait to get started!