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These outlines will make your college essays stronger (and save you so much time)

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Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller

Outlining is important to writing college application essays efficiently and compellingly. The two best structures are the Journey and Theme outlines, for which this article gives step-by-step instructions. 

The two outline structures that work: Journey + Theme; Show the reader what the “New You” is all about with a Journey Outline; Show the reader your best traits or passions with the Theme Outline
The two outline structures that work: Journey + Theme; Show the reader what the “New You” is all about with a Journey Outline; Show the reader your best traits or passions with the Theme Outline

    Using an outline usually means getting to a great essay in just two drafts. Without an outline, it generally takes — [deflating balloon sound goes here] — three or four drafts to get there. 

    (We speak from experience: we’ve reviewed hundreds of thousands of college essays.)

    And quality improves, too — outlines, if you think about them another way, are just tools to help you highlight your most compelling content. 

    So, if you’re convinced, join us below the table of contents, and we’ll show you exactly how to do it. 

    (For help with all aspects of your college application, head to our College Essay Help Center.)

    In this article:

    The two outline structures that work: Journey + Theme

    Show the reader what the “New You” is all about with a Journey Outline

    Show the reader your best traits or passions with the Theme Outline

    The two outline structures that work: Journey + Theme

    When it comes to the Common App personal statement (and many of the supplements), two basic structures make life easy for students while creating compelling essays for colleges:

    The Journey — for essays that show a clear progression of personal growth that came from an impactful experience or life event (ie: There was a Before Version of You, now there's an After Version of You). 

    The most important part of this essay is what you went on to do AFTER the experience of growth. Which actions did you take that prove you’re a changed person? (It’s surprisingly common for people to leave the critical post-experience part out.) 

    The Theme — for essays that show how you developed

    • (a) one important trait over many distinct experiences, or 
    • (b) one meaningful passion over time. 

    Before you choose one (trait or passion), start by making sure sure you have done the work of brainstorming your best experiences first (we talk about that in this article on how to write the personal statement and also, oh, in every article we’ve ever written). 

    Once you know what you want to say (Prompt’s step 1), use the outline that best helps you say it (step 2). 

    Help the reader get to know the "New You" with the Journey Outline 

    This tends to be the most popular outline, as many essays are about how one experience changed you. 

    The new you is the key: As we mentioned above, you'll want to make sure you discuss the lessons you learned, the new interests you developed, or the new goals that you've set thanks to this formative experience.

    Note on time: The period of personal growth might be as short as a moment, or it could cover weeks, months, or years. All of that is good, so long as this growth took place in high school. Childhood and middle school are best saved for exploring in your memoirs, not your college application essays. Older experiences simply don't tell the reader enough about who you are today.

    Journey essay’s 4 components:

    1. Intro

    • Length — short. About 3-5 sentences should do. 
    • What — Your admissions reader is tired. It’s a rainy Tuesday afternoon, and they’ve been slogging through piles of essays all day, trying to keep their eye away from the clock. Shake them awake with a quick, active scene from the middle of your story. 
    • Example — You don't need to go for super creative here. Just vivid or exciting. “If you'd asked me a year ago, I never would have guessed I'd be ____"

    2. Before aka the Old You:

    • Length — Short. Together, the Before and Intro Sections should make up about 1/3 of your essay.
    • Aim — Contrast the Old Version of You to the New Version of You.
    • What — Briefly describe who you were before the personal growth. 

    3. During:

    • Fun note: This is often the easiest section to write. 
    • Length: Resist the temptation to let this part take over your essay (a common error). Instead, keep it to ~1/3rd of the essay. 
    • Aim: Show that you overcame an obstacle; that you learned and grew. 
    • What: Tell the reader what happened + what actions you took during your time of personal growth. 

    4. After aka the New You:

    • Why: This is the part that spotlights the more enlightened you. The You that’s going to make the reader’s eyes light up and hand grab for their “admit this kid” pen.
    • Length: Don’t short-change this section like so many students do. Give it a good — you guessed it! — about 1/3rd of your essay space. 
    • What: Consider these questions to help show off your growth. 

    • What did you learn about yourself from the experience? What values have you developed as a result?
    • How has the experience impacted other parts of your life — ex: academic interests, friends, family, and community relationships? 
    • Particularly valuable: How are you different now? What things do you do that you didn’t do before? 

    5. Conclusion

    • Length: Super-short. 2-4 sentences max.
    • What: Quickly summarize the main points you made. Or you could optionally talk about how the experience will help you achieve your future goals. 

    Show the reader your best traits or passions with the Theme Outline

    Sometimes, you don’t have a single experience that motivated you to change. Nevertheless, you’ve been engaged in ongoing growth or learning that you want to tell admissions officers about. 

    You can. With the theme structure, you can write 2 or so distinct experiences that showcase your best traits and help define who you are. You will tie those experiences together under a theme — either a positive trait or a meaningful passion

    Note on time: As with the Journey outline, make sure all your experiences took place in your high school years. Save earlier stuff for your memoirs. 

    Theme essay’s 3 components:

    1. Intro: 

    • What: As with the Journey structure, create a brief opening scene that grabs the attention of the snoozy admissions officer. Allude to your theme directly or indirectly — you could  mention your theme as the last sentence of your introduction, so the reader knows what the essay will be about.
    • Length: Short. 3-5 sentences should do it.

    2. Middle: 

    • What: Develop 2-3 experiences or anecdotes here. 
    • Length: Devote one paragraph to each experience. 
    • How the paragraphs relate to each other: Each paragraph (experience/anecdote) should provide a new angle on the essay’s big theme. 
    • Paragraph structure: Begin each paragraph with a short two to four sentences describing the situation, and the actions you took. Then, take the rest of the paragraph to reflect on how you grew or improved as a result.
    • 5 traits — Make sure each paragraph relates to at least one of the five traits colleges look for in application essays. Using concrete, specific examples of the actions you took, show how the experience has made you into the type of student who will succeed in college and beyond.

    3. End: 

    • What: Explain why the theme is meaningful to you. You could also say how it relates to your future ambitions.
    • Length: 3-5 sentences max. 

    BTW, here’s our guidance for approaching any college supplement + here’s where you can find our guides for almost every college’s supplements

    Feeling inspired? A great place to start is at our College Essay Help Center

    More articles on’s admissions-boosting methods:

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