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!

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