essay format

Proper Essay Format Guide (Updated for 2018)

Content is king. The substance of what you write is the most important thing in your essays and term papers.

However, you also have to nail the mechanics of academic writing. You need to master good grammar and sentence structure, and use appropriate vocabulary for your subject or assignment. Many instructors take points off for incorrect formatting.

You also need to understand different types of essay format, and use the one that is appropriate to your assignment. This article introduces you to the basic elements of essay format, and helps you to improve your essay formatting.

What is Proper Essay Format?

The format of an essay refers to its basic structure, layout, and even its appearance on the page. Although it seems confusing at first, mastering the different essay formats is not that hard.

There are different formats you will use in different classes, but they share many elements in common. After you write enough essays, you will become familiar with the main essay formats used in typical college classes. Also, some subject areas have preferred essay formats or styles. 

Standard College Essay Format

Technically, there is no “right” college essay format. Each teacher will have personal preferences for how they want their students’ papers to appear. Each class will have its own rules, and it is up to you to follow whatever rules your professor provides.

However, there are some basic elements in a college essay format including font or typeface, linen spacing, margins, and whether to include page numbers, headers, headings, and/or a title page. With a few possible variations, the common formatting elements in college essays include the following:

Fonts

Standard college essays use standard fonts to create a uniform appearance. The most widely acceptable font used in college essays is Times New Roman, but Arial is sometimes acceptable too. Typically, you will be asked to standardize the size of your font to 12 point, but some instructors prefer 10.  Read this article for more information on how to write an essay.

Line Spacing

Most of the time, you will be asked to use double spacing in your college essays. Occasionally you will be asked to use single spacing, or even 1.5 spacing.

Margins

The most common margin size is one inch all around.

Page Numbers and Title Page

Short essays usually do not take a title page, but some do. Likewise, you may be asked to include page numbers only for longer assignments.

First Line Indent

Your college essay will be formatted a lot like the books you read, with the first line of each paragraph being indented. Typically, the first line indent is .5 inch. Also, your college essay should be left aligned, as opposed to centering the text on the page.

Essay Format Headings vs. Headers

Some of your college professors may request that you use a heading, while others will ask that you use a header. Some may ask for both. What is the difference between a heading and a header?

A heading appears only on the first page, and will typically include your name, your professor’s name, the name of the class, and the date of the assignment. For example, MLA style formatting frequently asks for a heading in addition to a running header.

A running header appears on all the pages of your college essay and typically includes only the title of the essay and the page number. Your pages will look like this:

Essay Format Outline

Essay outlines also have their own formats. If you have to create a formal outline for an academic essay, it is always best to check with your professor to see if there is a specific style you are supposed to follow. A typical college essay outline is as follows, using Roman numerals as the top level:

I. Introduction

II. Body

            A. Body section

                        1. Sub-section

                                    a. Detail

                                    b. Detail

                        2. Sub-section

            B. Body section

III. Conclusion

Essay Format Templates

Scholarship Essay Format

If you ever hope to earn a scholarship, now is the time to master the scholarship essay. A scholarship essay should be tailored to the specific fund you are applying for, and it is best to avoid a generalized essay. The main components of the scholarship essay format are similar to those in a standard college essay:

  • 12-point font (Times New Roman or Arial)
  • First line indent
  • Double-spacing
  • 1-inch margins

Unlike most college essays, a scholarship essay is going to be written in the first person, because it is about you. You are supposed to talk about yourself in a scholarship essay, whereas in a college essay, you should be writing in third person unless instructed otherwise. The scholarship essay will give you a chance to show how much work you have done to reach your goals, and why you stand out from the crowd.

Even for needs-based scholarships, you will want your reader to know that receiving financial aid is not the only reason you are worthy of receiving the scholarship. Talk at length about what motivates you and what makes you tick. Even if your future goals and career plans are not etched in stone, you can share information about your visions and dreams for the future and how you believe a college education will help you contribute to society.

College Application Essay Format

Like a scholarship essay, a college application essay should be written in the first person. Some college essays will be as short as 100 words, whereas others will be 1500 words or even more. Always follow the instructions, while also keeping in mind the standard rules for what the admissions committee wants:

  • 12-point font (Times New Roman or Arial)
  • First line indent
  • Double-spacing
  • 1-inch margins

If you are sincere about getting into a school, spend time on your admissions essay. Make sure the formatting is correct, that you answered the question or responded to the prompts, and that you use good grammar.

For many college application essays, you want to start with a powerful introduction. Telling a brief story about something that happened in your life to shape your character is a good start. Then, be honest and tell the admissions committee about who you are, and why you are interested in their institution. You should ideally share information about your interests and goals, and what courses you are interested in as well. Many college entrance essays have prompts that ask you to reflect on a personal experience that shaped who you are, a position of leadership that you held, or a story about how you overcame a challenge or defeated an obstacle. Because a college application essay is a high stakes situation, it is advisable to seek help from a professional writer or tutor to help you polish your prose. Remember, you are competing with hundreds of applicants and your essay needs to stand out.

Reflective Essay Format

A reflective essay is naturally less formal than an ordinary expository essay. However, there are still formats that you would be expected to follow when you prepare a reflective essay. Some reflective essays are written in the first person, whereas others are more formal like a typical college essay. The format of the reflective essay will include the basic rules of font, paragraph and line formatting, and page setting like margins.

  • 12-point font (Times New Roman or Arial)
  • First line indent
  • Double-spacing
  • 1-inch margins

Some reflective essays ask you to reflect on an event in your life or on your own personality. However, not all reflective essays are that personal. Many reflective essays ask you to comment on a specific text that you have been reading in class, a work of art or music, or a current event. When asked to write a more formal reflective essay like this, it helps to begin with an introduction to the object of reflection. If you are reflecting on a scholarly article, your introductory paragraph would include information about the author and title of the publication, and a brief summary of the main arguments. Then, you would begin the reflection as if you were having a conversation with the author.

A sample reflective essay outline is as follows:

I. Introduction

            A. Name, date, and title of the article, piece of music, or work of art.

            B. Brief overview or summary of the object of reflection

            C. Thesis: Your opinion or take on the article.

                        1. Do you agree or disagree with the author, or like or dislike the piece?

                        2. Introduce a new angle or line of thinking that adds to or challenges the original piece.

II. Body

            A. Focus on one element of the source, weaving in your own ideas or personal experiences.

            B. Focus on another element of the source, weaving in your own ideas or personal experiences.

III. Conclusion

            A. Wrap up the reflective essay with a brief summary

            B. Suggestions for further research or reflection       

Persuasive Essay Format

When you write a persuasive essay, your goal is to influence your reader. For example, you want to talk your reader into changing his or her voting habits, or you want your reader to stop eating meat. When you write a persuasive essay, you have the opportunity to use all the rhetorical strategies you have been learning, such as pathos, ethos, and logos. Use strong and emotionally powerful diction, tone, and imagery, but also rely on credible evidence to substantiate your claim.

A persuasive essay can be of almost any length, and is written in formal academic style. You will follow the structure and outline used for a standard academic essay with an introduction, body, and conclusion. Persuasive essays are also strongly driven by a thesis statement.

I. Introduction

            A. Hook your reader with a fun or controversial opening statement.

            B. Lead into the main topic with background information.

            C. State your case, persuade your reader with a strong thesis statement.

II. Body

            A. Reason one

            B. Reason two

            C. Reason three

            D. Acknowledge the opposing or alternative points of view

            E. Respond to and refute the opposing points of view

III. Conclusion

            A. Restate your claim

            B. Urge the audience to take action

Use the same essay format for standard college essays, with 12-point Times New Roman font throughout and double spacing.

APA Essay Format

The American Psychological Association (APA) offers one of the most widely used essay formats. It is unlikely you will get through college without having to write at least one essay using APA style citation. Psychology classes almost always rely on APA formatting, but APA formatting is standard in a range of other social science disciplines including criminal justice and nursing.

APA formatting follows the basic rules for a standard college essay:

  • 12-point font (Times New Roman)
  • First line indent
  • Double-spacing
  • 1-inch margins

However, APA formatting also includes a title page, a running header with both title and page numbers, and in some cases, an abstract.

APA Title Page

A title page helps your completed essay look polished and presentable in class. On the APA formatted title page, you will include the title of your essay, centered on the page. On a line immediately below the title, also centered, you will write your name. You may also write the name of your class or institution below your name, as well as the date.

APA Running Header

A running header is what appears at the top of every page of the completed essay. In APA format, your essay header will include the TITLE OF THE ESSAY IN ALL CAPITAL LETTERS, and also the page numbers. An example of a title page with the running header in APA format is as follows:

APA Abstract

Longer research papers in APA format may include an abstract. An abstract is similar to a summary in that it includes the main points of your research. Especially if you are preparing the results of your own research, you will include an abstract that reviews the methods and results of your experiment. Not all papers require an abstract. Usually an abstract accompanies original research in which you want the reader to have a snapshot or overview of how you conducted the study and what the results indicate.

Some APA format papers follow the standard format of research publications, which include the following sections after the abstract:

Introduction or Background

Review of Literature

Methods

Results

Discussion

Conclusions

References

Appendices

Not all APA format papers are research reports, though. Some will be standard college essays, some will be article reviews, and others will be responses to essay questions or prompts.

In APA formatting, when you have a longer paper it helps to organize it with subheadings. The subheadings help draw the reader’s eye to the different sections of your paper. You can use bold font to identify the subheadings, as follows:

Introduction

This is the introduction to your topic, and where you hook the audience into reading the rest of the paper.

Review of Literature

The review of literature is where you describe some of the most important research studies that have already been done on this topic.

Methods

The methods section is where you describe the research participants and procedures of the experiment. If you did not conduct an experiment, then you would discuss how you went about compiling data, such as through a search of academic databases or through interviews.

Results

This is the section where you list the raw data from your survey or experiment, or where you simply discuss the results without making inferences or analyses.

Discussion

In the discussion section of an APA paper, you analyze the results of your research, placing those results into the context of prior literature. Talk about whether you proved your hypothesis. Also discuss limitations to the research, and suggestions for future research.

Conclusion

Wrap up all your research neatly, mentioning how your research contributes to the growing body of knowledge on the topic.

References

Always list the sources you used in the paper, but do not list any sources that you do not cite directly in the body of the essay using parenthetical citations.

Appendix or Appendices

Include the survey instrument you used, a list of interview questions, or important tables and charts.

MLA Essay Format

Another one of the common essay formats you will encounter in college is from the Modern Language Association (MLA). Used most commonly in the arts and literature classes, MLA format shares some elements in common with other college essays, such as:

  • 12-point font (Times New Roman)
  • First line indent
  • Double-spacing
  • 1-inch margins

Unlike APA formatting, MLA does not typically require a title page. However, you may be asked to put your name, professor’s name, class name, and date in the upper left corner of the first page of your essay instead. For example:

Another thing that differentiates MLA format from APA and other types of essay formats is how you cite your sources. In MLA, you always offer the page number even when you do not quote directly. This may seem problematic when you are paraphrasing an author’s main idea, but it is nevertheless standard practice. MLA papers tend to be discursive. You are expected to engage a work of art or literature in a sort of conversation, weaving in what other people have said on the topic.

Chicago Essay Format

Chicago style format is also common in college essays, particularly in classes in history, political science, and public policy. With Chicago style, you can stick to the basics:

  • 12-point font (Times New Roman)
  • First line indent
  • Double-spacing
  • 1-inch margins

Chicago style formatting also has a title page, similar to APA format. However, you will insert a lot of space between the title of the essay and your name and date as follows:

Another thing that differentiates Chicago style from other styles of essay formats is the citation style. Whereas APA and MLA style essays use in-text parenthetical citations, Chicago style usually takes footnotes.

Additional Elements of an Essay

Some types of essays, such as longer research papers or dissertations, also include other elements. A table of contents is one thing that is unnecessary in all shorter essays, but essential for long assignments like dissertations or Masters theses. Software like Microsoft Word can help you create a table of contents that takes into account the important headings or subheadings of your document.

Types of Essay Formats

The most common types of essay format you are likely to encounter in college include the following:

Essay Format Example

The main elements of any standard college essay include the following:

  • Title Page
  • Running Header (Title and Page Number)
  • Introduction
  • Body
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography/References/Works Cited

The main elements of an APA format essay include the following:

  • Title Page
  • Running Header (Title and Page Number)
  • Abstract
  • Introduction/Background
  • Body
  • Conclusion
  • References

Conclusion

The format of an essay is important for its overall appearance and structure. When you master the different essay formats, you will find it much easier to complete your assignments. Each essay format has its own set of rules and guidelines, but all college essays share certain elements in common.

Almost all essays have an introduction, body, and a conclusion. In some cases, you will also need a title page, an abstract, and a running header. Each class and each instructor will give you specific instructions about the formatting of your essay.

After reading this article, you have a better understanding of the most common essay formats you will encounter during your academic career. You can apply what you have learned about standard college essays to any assignment you encounter. In addition to this guide, you can also consult with a writing coach or assistant to help you with your work.

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