5 Ways to Structure Your College Essay

A common characteristic of a successful college essay is its capacity to tell a story in a descriptive, engaging way.

Yet even if you’ve reviewed those essay prompts and chosen the right college essay topic, how can you make sure that your essay has this quality?

The secret lies in your essay’s structure. We encourage all of our college essay students to create an outline of their essays prior to writing a first draft, and we do this for a reason: the right structure can ensure you’re telling your story in a compelling fashion.

Great structure can also ensure that your essay is well-written, authentic, and introspective, all qualities of successful personal statements.

It can be tough to nail down a college essay structure after you’ve chosen your topic, especially if you just don’t know where to start. That’s why we wrote this post!

We reviewed a wide range of successful essays and boiled them down to 5 sample structures. While it’s possible to choose any structure out there to suit your essay topic, these are the most common and a great starting place for first-time essay writers.

Here’s what we cover:


The College Essay Structure: 5 Sample Structures

This list of sample college essay structures is by no means comprehensive. But the majority of the essays we see do fit these molds, and often successfully. The sample essays we reference can all be found in 11 College Essays That Worked.

1. The Setback

This is one of the most straightforward and traditional college essay structures. It is ideal for students who wish to discuss

  • a challenge they’ve overcome
  • an experience that didn’t go as expected
  • and/or their response to a specific obstacle.

While Setback essays can take a number of approaches, their structure generally boils down to the following:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Setback (1)

What’s great about the Setback structure is its capacity to encourage introspection. This is what admissions officers are looking for–your ability to deeply reflect on whatever it is you’re discussing, and in a way that adds value to your overall application.

With this structure, students should focus less on the setback itself and more on what they learned or took away from this experience.

In her essay that utilizes the Setback structure, Destiny describes her twelve-year-old ambition to write and publish a novel. When her manuscript comes back from her father’s office covered in red, she is heartbroken at first. Yet this precipitates valuable realizations about what it actually means to achieve your dreams, which she describes in her conclusion:

Publishing that first draft would have been a horrible embarrassment that would have haunted me for the rest of my life. Over the past half-decade, I’ve been able to explore my own literary voice, and develop a truly original work that I will be proud to display. This experience taught me that “following your dreams” requires more than just wishing upon a star. It takes sacrifice, persistence, and grueling work to turn fantasy into reality.

Amanda also follows the Setback structure in her essay, which describes an unexpected encounter during a volunteering experience. Accustomed to working with Joey, a well-mannered special needs child, Amanda struggles to work with Robyn, a child prone to anger and aggression.

Yet, over time, Amanda makes some important realizations about her relationship to compassion and her capacity for empathy, as described in her conclusion:

Was I sincerely an empathetic person if I could only be so when it was easy? Was I truly compassionate because others thought I was? Complacency does not equate with compassion; true empathy is not an ephemeral trait that one possesses only when it suits him or her – when it doesn’t require him or her to try.

Both of these essays–Destiny’s and Amanda’s–describe a setback and the writer’s specific response to this setback, often in the context of values, perspective, and/or beliefs. We finish the essays with a nuanced understanding of that writer’s character as a result of this setback and their response to it.

2. The Thesis

Many high school students are familiar with thesis statements and their value in the context of academic writing. While college essays differ significantly from academic essays, students can use the Thesis structure to great success to structure their ideas.

This is an ideal structure to use if your essay describes

  • a specific belief or characteristic not necessarily framed through an experience
  • your stance on an issue
  • and/or a frank viewpoint on something that’s important to you.

Essays that adhere to the Thesis format generally follow this structure:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Thesis

As we’ve mentioned before, students who use this structure should focus less on the issue at hand and more about what this says about them as a person (the “why” of the thesis statement).

In her essay that utilizes the Thesis structure, Emma begins with a declarative thesis about a specific characteristic and spends the rest of the essay elaborating upon this characteristic and its meaning in her life:

I am an aspiring hot sauce sommelier. Ever since I was a child, I have been in search for all that is spicy. 

Harry’s essay begins with his succinct perspective on the notion of “common values,” which he elaborates in a structured fashion throughout the next few paragraphs:

Establishing a cohesive society where common values are shared is increasingly difficult in multi-faith, globalised societies such as the one I’m part of in the UK. My studies in politics and philosophy have made me more sensitive to this problem and as I have a much larger number of friends from different ethnic backgrounds than my parents and the previous generation, I realise that the friction created by the presence of different ethnic and social groups is not going to disappear anytime soon.

James describes his relationship to rowing in an essay that follows the Thesis structure, beginning with a clear statement about this relationship and elaborating upon this throughout the essay’s body:

Simply put, my place of inner peace is the seat of that 50 foot sliver of carbon and kevlar called a rowing shell, cutting through the water in the middle of a race. This is the one situation in which I find myself to be completely comfortable; the one environment in which I feel most empowered, at home, and content, despite it being quite at odds with the conventional definition of the word “comfortable”.  

Notice how these three essays are very distinct, despite following the same structure! This proves the Thesis format’s versatility.

3. Compare & Contrast

A more niche college essay structure, the Compare & Contrast structure is ideal for students who choose to write about something in comparison with something else. Students can use this structure to:

  • contrast their perspective(s) with another’s
  • or compare two meaningful experiences, individuals, actions, and/or values

Typically, Compare & Contrast essays incorporate the following general structure, although this can be quite flexible:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_Compare and Contrast

Shanaz uses this structure in her essay’s application of the quote “You know nothing, Jon Snow” to her own life. Her comparisons operate at the sentence level, elucidating her understanding of what it means to be “ignorant”:

Like Jon Snow, I’ve never lived a day in another person’s shoes. Fewer than three meals a day. No extra blanket during record-breaking winter cold. No clean water. I may be parched after an intense practice, but I know nothing of poverty. Losing a loved one overseas. Being forced to leave your home. Coups d’état and dictatorial governments. I battle with my peers during class discussions, but I know nothing of war. Denial of education. Denial of religion. Denial of speech. I have an endless list of freedoms, and I know nothing of oppression.

These comparisons are powerful in their ability to magnify the extent of Shanaz’s self-professed ignorance, which also lends the essay a distinct tone of authenticity. 

4. The Discovery Structure

Essays that follow the Discovery structure generally track a specific moment of self-discovery. They are ideal for students writing an essay that focuses largely on:

  • an important, self-shaping experience
  • identity (cultural, social, etc.)
  • a valuable moment of self-reflection or understanding

The Discovery structure differs from the Setback structure in that it doesn’t necessarily involve a concrete challenge or setback. These essays tend to work with broader themes and incorporate a lot of self-reflection. That’s why they can be so successful from an admissions officer’s perspective.

Here’s what the Discovery structure generally looks like:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Discovery Format

In her essay, Aja describes a time when she deeply questions her religious faith, testing her beliefs as she performs lab experiments during a science summer program:

My experiment eventually went beyond the scientific approach, as I questioned in my thoughts. I had to determine what my beliefs meant to me, to find my own answer. I could not simply interpret results of an experiment, but needed to find my own interpretations.

Aja eventually concludes that “the questions themselves proved my practices were valuable to me, and left me with a stronger commitment to my religious faith than I had before.” In sharing with the reader an important moment of self-reflection, she conveys an intimate portrait of how she engages with truth, both as a scientist and a follower of a specific faith.

5. The Evolution Essay

The Evolution essay structure is ideal for students writing about an experience, belief, or characteristic that isn’t necessarily isolated to a concrete moment in time (like the Setback structure, for example). It is very similar to the Discovery structure, but differs in that it often presents the writer’s evolution in relation to

  • a community
  • an ongoing experience
  • a deeply embedded belief

Here’s what the Evolution structure generally looks like, although it is very flexible:

Choosing Your College Essay Format_The Evolution Format

Jonah utilizes the Evolution structure in describing how he evolves and grows by participating in a specific community: a small group of friends tackling challenging problem sets in the corner of an AP Calculus classroom. Jonah essentially traverses four years in his essay, describing how this community has inspired him to progress as a scholar and instructor:

Yet on every occasion, whether I’m facing the board or with my back to it, whether I’m in the ranks of my peers or addressing my teachers, I feel the same elation. In my friends I see Socrates, Newton, and Steinhardt. There’s no place I would rather be than in their company.

Martin also follows the Evolution structure in his essay that describes the various factors and experiences that have shaped his present identity:

I am who I am today as a result of these experiences and personal challenges. In my short life so far, I have developed my soft-hearted and quiet personality to become more open, creative, and self-assured while preserving my identity. I know more challenges lie ahead, but I am open to those opportunities.

Your College Essay Structure: Next Steps

The 5 college essay structures discussed in this post are not the only ones out there. Students have a lot of options when it comes to structuring their pieces, and many times the ideal structure will emerge once you’ve chosen the right topic.

We have multiple tutors ready to help you arrive at that winning topic and, most importantly, craft an essay that “works”!

Learn more about our one-on-one college essay coaching programs now. Or reach out for details about our new summer college essay workshop, a four-week intensive designed for rising 12th graders working on their personal statements.


Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate M.

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. in English Literature and Interdisciplinary Humanities) and Boston University (M.F.A in Creative Writing). Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.