College Admissions Essay Outline

Lesson Three: Structure and Outline

Introduction

The easiest way to sabotage all the work you have done so far is to skip this lesson. Writing is as much a discipline as it is an art, and to ensure that your essays flow well and make sense, you need to construct solid outlines before you write. Unless you conscientiously impose structure around your ideas, your essay will be rambling and ineffective. An outline should make sense on its own; the ideas should follow logically in the order that you list them. As you add content around these main points, these words should support and reinforce the logic of the outline. Finally, the outline should conclude with an insightful thought or image. Make sure that the rest of your outline reinforces this conclusion.

The body paragraphs should consist of events, experiences, and activities you have already organized in chronological order or in order of importance. In many of the essays that our editors read, the order of paragraphs seems to have been chosen at random. Make clear why one point follows another: each point in your outline should connect with the next; each main category should be linked to your introduction or thesis; and each sub-category should be linked to the main category. As you make your outline you should be able to see where there are holes in your essay.

Continue on to descriptions and examples of various essay structures, a sample outline and essay, short essay strategies and samples, and essay writing templates to help cure the worst cases of writer's block.

Select One:

From Essays That Will Get You Into College, by Amy Burnham, Daniel Kaufman, and Chris Dowhan.  Copyright 1998 by Dan Kaufman.  Reprinted by arrangement with Barron's Educational Series, Inc.

How do you take a generic application essay prompt and turn it into a personal statement that brings tears of joy to admission counselors' eyes? Well, you can start by following the steps in the example below! And don't forget to check out our complete guide: How to Write the College Application Essay!

Step One: The Prompt

Ease yourself into the process. Take time to understand the question being asked.

At XYZ University, we believe in the power of diversity across all fields of study, beyond racial and ethnic quotas. Based on your background and personal experiences, describe a situation where you fostered diversity. 

Step Two: Brainstorming

Get your creative juices flowing by brainstorming all the possible ideas you can think of to address your essay question.

Possible Topics for XYZ University Application Essay:
- Habitat for Humanity volunteering experience
- Love of science as a girl with microscope story. Make it funny?
- Week at marine biology summer camp in Maine
- Person who taught me about diversity: Teacher? Fictional character?
- How the TV show “Lost” changed my perception of diversity (and reality)

Step Three: The Outline

Map out what you’re going to write by making an outline.

I. Intro: Childhood science experiment scene
    a. Dialogue with mom
    b. MUST GRAB ATTENTION

II. Love of science, exploration, and experiments
    a. Beauty of micro world, fascination

III. High school
    a. Classes, uncovering love of other subjects
    b. Lack of other girls in classes and clubs

IV. College search
    a. Dive into college studies
    b. Campus visit and trip to lab
    c. Student-faculty research?

V. Conclusion
    a. STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) fields and women in the future
    b. Tie back into being a little girl

Step Four: The Essay

Once you are satisfied with your essay in outline format, begin writing!

My mother entered my bedroom and immediately scrunched up her face in disgust. “Oh my Lord. What is that smell?”
    I froze, panicked. I had been discovered.
    Twelve-year-old me was sitting at my desk when she came in. Before me was a small, red, plastic microscope, surrounded by glass slides and “organic” samples. One such sample just happened to be a chicken liver (or maybe it was a kidney) I plucked out of the giblet packet when Mom was making dinner . . . a week before.
    I had been keeping the sample in a Petri dish with my other scientific materials on my desk, shaving off a few thin slices every day to examine using my microscope—the best Christmas present I ever received. (It definitely beat all the Barbie dolls my grandma kept sending to compensate for what she called a “boy’s toy.”)  
    “What is that?” Mom demanded. “Is that meat? Is that raw meat?” With the microscope in front of me, my mother immediately understood what was going on, but as pleased as she was with my passion for science, there were some things she would not tolerate—or so I thought.
    I braced myself for the punishment and the tragic loss of an excellent tissue sample. But when my mother told me I could continue my research until my materials were gone (it was a small liver, after all), I was overjoyed. I would’ve hugged her, but I had work to do.  
    That microscope was my battery-powered window to a fascinating world no one else could see. Who could’ve imagined that the maple leaves scattered on our driveway held a patchwork of perfect green? Or that the microscope’s light could illuminate such a complex collection of purple and pink cells in a (admittedly, pretty gross) piece of chicken liver? Ten times the magnifying power of my naked eye was just okay, but once I cranked the scope up to 200x, each individual cell suddenly gained definition, its own shape and size in a sea of thousands.  
    I would stay up hours past my bedtime with my eye pressed to the eyepiece, keeping detailed records and sketches of everything I found in a notebook. My parents eventually bought me a more powerful scope in high school; this one plugged into the wall.
    As my days filled up with after-school jobs, extracurricular meetings, and choral rehearsals, I missed exploring the minutiae of the world around me. I relished every class period spent in biology and organic chemistry. When I encountered elective science courses with more focus, my interest grew, even as my classmates dwindled—especially those with two X chromosomes. Whenever I considered joining a science club, I felt isolated. Every time, without fail, I was the only girl. And, with time, I would lose my nerve and stop showing up to meetings.  
    During a campus visit last year, I visited one of XYZ University’s undergraduate labs. The sight of all the equipment sent a rush of excitement through me like that Christmas morning I opened my first microscope. Today, I imagine spending hours in the lab (probably way past my bedtime) and seeing my name published in a research journal, perhaps alongside an XYZ University faculty member. Unlike high school, I’m now hoping to enter a place where even if we’re still outnumbered, women will be important, contributing members of the program.     
    I know I’m one of the lucky ones to enter the application process knowing what I want to study, and I finally do not feel disadvantaged as a member of a female minority. Instead, I’m excited and rather proud to represent women in a STEM field. Our numbers are growing, and my future classmates and I will lead the next generation of scientists. I hope we inspire other little girls with their own secret science experiments. Then again, maybe those girls won’t feel compelled to hide them.

P.S. We have tons more college application essay help here, including lots of real-world example essays!

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