College Essay Format Headings

If your instructor has specific requirements for the format of your research paper, check them before preparing your final draft. When you submit your paper, be sure to keep a secure copy.

The most common formatting is presented in the sections below:

Margins

Except for the running head (see below), leave margins of one inch at the top and bottom and on both sides of the text. If you plan to submit a printout on paper larger than 8½ by 11 inches, do not print the text in an area greater than 6½ by 9 inches.

Text Formatting

Always choose an easily readable typeface (e.g., Times New Roman) in which the regular type style contrasts clearly with the italic, and set it to a standard size (e.g., 12 points). Do not justify the lines of text at the right margin; turn off any automatic hyphenation feature in your writing program. Double-space the entire research paper, including quotations, notes, and the list of works cited. Indent the first line of a paragraph half an inch from the left margin. Indent set-off quotations half an inch as well (for examples, see 76–80 in the MLA Handbook). Leave one space after a period or other concluding punctuation mark, unless your instructor prefers two spaces.

Heading and Title

Beginning one inch from the top of the first page and flush with the left margin, type your name, your instructor’s name, the course number, and the date on separate lines, double-spacing the lines. On a new, double-spaced line, center the title (fig. 1). Do not italicize or underline your title, put it in quotation marks or boldface, or type it in all capital letters. Follow the rules for capitalization in the MLA Handbook (67–68), and italicize only the words that you would italicize in the text.

Do not use a period after your title or after any heading in the paper (e.g., Works Cited). Begin your text on a new, double-spaced line after the title, indenting the first line of the paragraph half an inch from the left margin.

A research paper does not normally need a title page, but if the paper is a group project, create a title page and list all the authors on it instead of in the header on page 1 of your essay. If your teacher requires a title page in lieu of or in addition to the header, format it according to the instructions you are given.

Running Head with Page Numbers

Number all pages consecutively throughout the research paper in the upper right-hand corner, half an inch from the top and flush with the right margin. Type your last name, followed by a space, before the page number (fig. 2). Do not use the abbreviation p. before the page number or add a period, a hyphen, or any other mark or symbol. Your writing program will probably allow you to create a running head of this kind that appears automatically on every page. Some teachers prefer that no running head appear on the first page. Follow your teacher’s preference.

Placement of the List of Works Cited

The list of works cited appears at the end of the paper, after any endnotes. Begin the list on a new page. The list contains the same running head as the main text. The page numbering in the running head continues uninterrupted throughout. For example, if the text of your research paper (including any endnotes) ends on page 10, the works-cited list begins on page 11. Center the title, Works Cited, an inch from the top of the page (fig. 3). (If the list contains only one entry, make the heading Work Cited.) Double-space between the title and the first entry. Begin each entry flush with the left margin; if an entry runs more than one line, indent the subsequent line or lines half an inch from the left margin. This format is sometimes called hanging indention, and you can set your writing program to create it automatically for a group of paragraphs. Hanging indention makes alphabetical lists easier to use. Double-space the entire list. Continue it on as many pages as necessary.

Tables and Illustrations

Place tables and illustrations as close as possible to the parts of the text to which they relate. A table is usually labeled Table, given an arabic numeral, and titled. Type both label and title flush left on separate lines above the table, and capitalize them as titles (do not use all capital letters). Give the source of the table and any notes immediately below the table in a caption. To avoid confusion between notes to the text and notes to the table, designate notes to the table with lowercase letters rather than with numerals. Double-space throughout; use dividing lines as needed (fig. 4).

Any other type of illustrative visual material—for example, a photograph, map, line drawing, graph, or chart—should be labeled Figure (usually abbreviated Fig.), assigned an arabic numeral, and given a caption: “Fig. 1. Mary Cassatt, Mother and Child, Wichita Art Museum.” A label and caption ordinarily appear directly below the illustration and have the same one-inch margins as the text of the paper (fig. 5). If the caption of a table or illustration provides complete information about the source and the source is not cited in the text, no entry for the source in the works-cited list is necessary.

Musical illustrations are labeled Example (usually abbreviated Ex.), assigned an arabic numeral, and given a caption: “Ex. 1. Pyotr Ilich Tchaikovsky, Symphony no. 6 in B, opus 74 (Pathétique), finale.” A label and caption ordinarily appear directly below the example and have the same one-inch margins as the text of the paper (fig. 6).

Paper and Printing

If you print your paper, use only white, 8½-by-11-inch paper of good quality. If you lack 8½-by-11-inch paper, choose the closest size available. Use a high-quality printer. Some instructors prefer papers printed on a single side because they’re easier to read, but others allow printing on both sides as a means of conserving paper; follow your instructor’s preference.

Corrections and Insertions on Printouts

Proofread and correct your research paper carefully before submitting it. If you are checking a printout and find a mistake, reopen the document, make the appropriate revisions, and reprint the corrected page or pages. Be sure to save the changed file. Spelling checkers and usage checkers are helpful when used with caution. They do not find all errors and sometimes label correct material as erroneous. If your instructor permits corrections on the printout, write them neatly and legibly in ink directly above the lines involved, using carets (⁁) to indicate where they go. Do not use the margins or write a change below the line it affects. If corrections on any page are numerous or substantial, revise your document and reprint the page.

Binding a Printed Paper

Pages of a printed research paper may get misplaced or lost if they are left unattached or merely folded down at a corner. Although a plastic folder or some other kind of binder may seem an attractive finishing touch, most instructors find such devices a nuisance in reading and commenting on students’ work. Many prefer that a paper be secured with a simple paper or binder clip, which can be easily removed and restored. Others prefer the use of staples.

Electronic Submission

There are at present no commonly accepted standards for the electronic submission of research papers. If you are asked to submit your paper electronically, obtain from your teacher guidelines for formatting, mode of submission (e.g., by e-mail, on a Web site), and so forth and follow them closely.

Designed to be printed out and used in the classroom. From the MLA Handbook, 8th ed., published by the Modern Language Association.

When you’re applying to college, even small decisions can feel high-stakes. This is especially true for the college essay, which often feels like the most personal part of the application. You may agonize over your college application essay format: the font, the margins, even the file format. Or maybe you’re agonizing over how to organize your thoughts overall. Should you use a narrative structure? Five paragraphs?

In this comprehensive guide, we’ll go over the ins and outs of how to format a college essay on both the micro and macro levels. We’ll discuss minor formatting issues like headings and fonts, then discuss broad formatting concerns like whether or not to use a five-paragraph essay, and if you should use a college essay template.

 

How to Format a College Essay: Font, Margins, Etc.

Some of your formatting concerns will depend on whether you will be cutting and pasting your essay into a text box on an online application form or attaching a formatted document. If you aren’t sure which you’ll need to do, check the application instructions. Note that the Common Application does currently require you to copy and paste your essay into a text box.

Most schools also allow you to send in a paper application, which theoretically gives you increased control over your essay formatting. However, I generally don’t advise sending in a paper application (unless you have no other option) for a couple of reasons:

  • Most schools state that they prefer to receive online applications. While it typically won’t affect your chances of admission, it is wise to comply with institutional preferences in the college application process where possible. It tends to make the whole process go much more smoothly.

  • Paper applications can get lost in the mail. Certainly there can also be problems with online applications, but you’ll be aware of the problem much sooner than if your paper application gets diverted somehow and then mailed back to you. By contrast, online applications let you be confident that your materials were received.

Regardless of how you will end up submitting your essay, you should draft it in a word processor. This will help you keep track of word count, let you use spell check, and so on.

Now I’ll go over some of the concerns you might have about the correct college essay application format whether you're copying and pasting into a text box or attaching a document, plus a few tips that apply either way:

 

Plus, online submission doesn't require any stamps!

 

If You'll Be Copy-and-Pasting Into a Text Box:

The main thing when you copy and paste into a text box is to double- and triple-check that everything transferred over correctly.
  • First, check that your whole essay transferred over and wasn’t cut off!

  • Word counts can get messed up by wonky formatting or be counted differently in the text box, so be aware that you may need to make slight adjustments there.

  • When you copy and paste, you may lose formatting like bold or italics. Sometimes bold and italics also just won’t work in the text box, so you may be better off just not using them.

  • Your paragraph spacing may get messed up when you copy and paste your essay over. So make sure that all of your paragraphs are clearly delineated, either through tabs or through a skipped line if tabbing doesn’t work.  

  • Font will probably be standardized, but if it’s not, choose a standard font like Times New Roman or Arial (you’ll probably have limited options anyways) and a normal size (12 pt).

 

If You're Attaching a Document:

If you’re attaching a document, you have to be more concerned with the overall college essay format. Things like margins and spacing become more important.
  • Use one-inch margins all around. This is standard and easy to read.

  • While single-spaced essays are usually acceptable, your essay will be easier to read if it’s 1.5 or double-spaced.

  • Clearly delineate your paragraphs. A single tab at the beginning is fine.

  • Use a font that’s easy to read, like Times, Arial, Calibri, Cambria, etc. Avoid fonts like Papyrus and Curlz. And use 12 pt font.

  • You may want to include a college essay heading with a page number and your application ID. Don’t include your name unless it’s specifically requested.

  • Oftentimes, you’ll need to submit your college essay in a specific file format. The application may only accept certain versions of Word files (i.e. only .doc and not .docx), .rtf or .pdf files. So just be sure that you are saving your file in an accepted format before you upload it! I recommend .pdf files whenever possible, because they are uneditable and always look the same.

 

Formatting Guidelines That Apply No Matter How You End Up Submitting the Essay:

  • Unless it’s specifically requested, you don’t need a title. It will just eat into your word count.

  • Avoid cutesy, overly colloquial formatting choices like ALL CAPS or ~unnecessary symbols~ or, heaven forbid, emoji and #hashtags. Your college essay should be professional, and anything too cutesy or casual will come off as immature.

 

Keep these out of your essay!

 

How To Structure Your College Essay

Maybe you’re less concerned with the micro-level college essay format, like fonts, and more concerned with the macro-level format, like how to structure your college admissions essay. Is there’s some secret paragraph formula that will make writing easy and clearly express all of your strengths to an awestruck admissions committee?

Sadly, no. However, the good news is that a college essay is actually a good opportunity to play with structure a little bit and break free from the five-paragraph essay. (You’re certainly not disallowed from writing a five-paragraph essay, but it’s by no means guaranteed to be the best college essay structure.)

A good college essay is like a sandwich, where the intro and conclusion are the pieces of bread and whatever comes between them is the sandwich toppings. A sandwich without bread is a bad sandwich, but a good sandwich could have any number of things between the bread pieces.

So you need a clear introduction that gives a pretty clear idea of where you will be going in the essay and a conclusion that wraps everything up and makes your main point clear.

However, how you approach the middle part is up to you. You could structure your essay more like a narrative, relating an important experience from your life. You could use an extended analogy, where each paragraph is a part of the analogy. You want to adhere broadly to the wisdom that each paragraph should have an identifiable main idea, but a college essay is definitely a great chance to break free from the five-paragraph essay.

For more in-depth advice on how to structure your essay, check out our expert step-by-step guide on tackling the essay.

 

Mmm, delicious essay...I mean sandwich.

 

Why College Essay Templates Are a Bad Idea

You might see college essay templates online that offer guidelines on how to structure your essay and what to say in each paragraph. I strongly advise against using a template. It will make your essay sound canned and bland—two of the worst things a college essay can be. It’s much better to think about what you want to say, and then talk through how to best structure it with someone else and/or make your own practice outlines before you sit down to write.

You can also find tons of successful sample essays online. Looking at these to get an idea of different styles and topics is fine, but again, I don’t advise closely  patterning your essay after a sample essay. You will do the best if your essay really reflects your own original voice and the experiences that are most meaningful to you.

 

College Application Essay Format: Key Takeaways

There are two levels of formatting you might be worried about: the micro (fonts, headings, margins, etc) and the macro (the overall structure of your essay).

Tips for the micro level of your college application essay format:

  • Always draft your essay in a word processing software, even if you’ll be copy-and-pasting it over into a text box.
  • If you are copy-and-pasting it into a text box, make sure your formatting transfers properly, your paragraphs are clearly delineated, and your essay isn’t cut off.
  • If you are attaching a document, make sure your font is easily readable, your margins are standard 1-inch, your essay is 1.5 or double-spaced, and your file format is compatible with the application specs.
  • There’s no need for a title unless otherwise specified—it will just eat into your word count.

Tips for the macro levelof your college application essay format:

  • There is no super-secret college essay format that will guarantee success.
  • In terms of structure, it’s most important that you have an introduction that makes it clear where you’re going and a conclusion that wraps up with a main point. For the middle of your essay, you have lots of freedom, just so long as it flows logically!
  • I advise against using an essay template, as it will make your essay sound stilted and unoriginal.

Plus, if you use a college essay template, how will you get rid of these medieval weirdos? 

 

What's Next?

Still feeling lost? Check out our total guide to the personal statement, or see our step-by-step guide to writing the perfect essay. 

If you're not sure where to start, consider these tips for attention-grabbing first sentences to college essays! 

And be sure to avoid these 10 college essay mistakes. 

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

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