What Does a College Essay Look Like?


You are in college now, and your profs have a lot of expectations of you. One is that when you turn in a written assignment, they will recognize it as an essay. So here, on the surface at least, is what a college essay looks like:



Unless your prof says otherwise, follow standard MLA guidelines for the format of your paper. Use a very normal looking font, 12 pt., no bold, no ALL CAPS, indent your first line of each paragraph 1/2”, and double space the entire paper. Do not use a cover sheet. Instead, in the top left hand corner do this:


Your name

Professor Lastname

Basketweaving 101

XX Monthspelledout 200X

On the top right should be a header (which Microssoft Word will do automatically for you). It should be lastname space pagenumber. The MLA handbook has an example of all this on p. 105, or you can find an example at this website:



Okay, those are the surface features. Now to the real heart of the matter. Most college essays, outside of creative writing projects, should adhere more or less to the following paradigm:




Thesis statement

Body paragraph

Topic sentence

Supporting details

Body paragraph

Topic sentence

Supporting details

Body paragraph…

Topic sentence

Supporting details




This can be catchy, cute, creative or just to the point, such as:

A Day at Disney World

Spaced Out in Space Mountain

How to Wait in Line All Day and Not Lose Your Mind

Captured by Pirates

Getting in Touch with My Inner Child

I Met My Maker on Toad’s Wild Ride

The Most Expensive Junk Food in the World

Postmodernism Meets Late Capitalism


The title indicates, at least in some fashion, what the essay is about. Sometimes, after you’ve done some freewriting, clustering, and general research and thinking about your topic, writing the title first helps you focus.

You can always change the title later.




Here is an example of a creative approach:

I was 7 years old the first time I snuck out of the house in the dark. It was winter, and my parents had been fighting all night. They were short on money and long on relatives who kept “temporarily” moving into our house because they had nowhere else to go.


You can easily tell from this paragraph that this is going to be an informal, slightly sarcastic or tounge-in-cheek story about a seven year old from a normally dysfunctional family sneaking out at night.


Body Paragraphs:

Body paragraphs support and explain the essay’s thesis. The more the merrier, for several reasons:


Some Guidelines:

For example:

At night when everyone was asleep, we lay on our pillows watching it [TV] with the sound off. We watched Steve Allen’s mouth moving. We watched Johnny Carson’s mouth moving. We watched movies filled with gangsters shooting machine guns into packed rooms, dying soldier hurling a last grenade, and beautiful women crying at windows. Then the sign-off finally came, and we tried to sleep.


Now note this:

This assignment was obviously for a relatively short essay.  If the assignment was for more pages, it would have been easy to peel off that last sentence (Then the sign-off finally came, and we tried to sleep.) and thrown in a paragraph or two illustrating, talking about a special show or two and how they reacted to it.  Then that last sentence could have been thrown back in as a one sentence paragraph to tie up the section on TV watching.


You can have as many or as few sentences to a paragraph as you want,

and in fact it makes your paper more readable, creates a better rhythm, if you vary the paragraph length. Every now and then throw in a one sentence paragraph for emphasis, particularly in creative assignments.


The Golden Rule:

Don’t let a paragraph wander – keep it to one central thought.

When you feel your mind changing gears, it’s time to change paragraphs!



A concluding paragraph is the final paragraph in our essay, and it does NOT start with “In conclusion…”

It can wrap up an essay in several ways:


A couple of other hints:




Worth Weller

Created 1.12.02