College Outline Essay

Many students balk at the idea of creating an essay outline since, at first glance, it may seem like additional work. So, for starters, let’s examine the question: Why create an outline?

Surely, there are alternative options, such as using a pre-set template or just diving in.

However, an outline may be the most appropriate option for you.

Why Create an Outline?

Diving in can be a great way to work through ideas, but may result in a messy and disorganized essay. Using a template may make your essay formulaic or cookie-cutter, two words that you definitely don’t want attached to your submission.

Readers examine hundreds of essays, so essays that do not show individuality will not add to your application.

The purpose of an essay is not only to add a personal element to your essay that would not come out in your test scores and transcript, but also to demonstrate your well-honed and impressive essay-writing skills.

In college, you will be writing essays in a majority of your classes. Most colleges have a mandatory or strongly recommended introductory writing course, but universities want students who will bring strong writing skills to campus.

An outline can lay the foundation for the organized, coherent essay that will allow you to gain admission into your choice college. While other techniques are beneficial to explore, an outline can be the much-needed first step for most students.

The Idea

The central point of your essay may seem to be the most important aspect, but this philosophy is far from accurate. Wonderful and successful essays can concern anything from your summer job to the best way to consume cereal.

If you’re at a loss for ideas, making a list is perhaps the simplest option. Enumerate extra-curricular activities, events that influenced your childhood, your heroes, your favorite songs, movies, and any other elements of your life that could inspire an essay.

If nothing sticks, a family member or lifelong friend may be your best source.

The Outline Itself

When you have your idea, or a host of them, beginning the outline may be the simplest part. An outline can even serve to select an idea from a list of several.

In essence, the outline fleshes out the essay. You will need an intro, body, and conclusion, just like every other essay you wrote in high school.

On the other hand, this essay is much shorter, so it is extremely unlikely that you will be using three body paragraphs. The body of your essay will likely be one paragraph, or one central idea broken up into smaller paragraphs.

Many people know and will tell you that it is easier to cut than to add. Don’t be afraid to include anecdotes and stories in your outline, but mind the length. Too many anecdotes will dilute the power and strength of your essay.

The outline is also a fine bird’s-eye view of the essay in its entirety. Closely reading an essay may blind you to problem areas, such as a rambling or unnecessary introduction.

Also, the outline saves time, as jumping into an essay that does not pan out will prevent you from beginning any supplemental essays or personal statements.

Finally, an outline will force you to justify your writing. Flowery language detracts from the limited word count. To produce an essay that demonstrates emotional growth or your personality, you will likely desire more than 650 words.

Unfortunately, you are limited to that number, and so creating an outline will help to ensure that your essay is meaningful and succinct.

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Brainstorming and Outlining Your Essay

Article Type: Quick and Dirty

Looking for our College Application Essay Lab? CLICK HERE to dig right in.


You look at the essay prompt. You look at your blank Word document. You look at your essay prompt. You look at your blank Word document.

Okay, time for a break. You're going about this the wrong way. Your essay isn't just going to magically spring out of your fingertips (at least, we hope not, because that would be painful). First, before you do anything, you need an idea. And where do ideas come from? Brainstorms.

Hurricane “Harvard Essay” is on its way.

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Most students choose a prompt before brainstorming their college application essay. And most of the time, that works. But sometimes the reverse works just as well. Before you start thinking about specific essay prompts, we think it's important for you to think about what makes you unique. The best stories make the best essays, so what story can you (and only you) tell really, really well? What's super important to you? What's the one quality you possess that makes you a little bit different from the rest of the students at your high school?

Finished? Well, wasn't that fun.

Time to click on this link, grab a snack, and Shmoop your way to the college essay of your dreams.

Or, scroll down for some survival tips from our college essay-writing experts. You could also keep both windows open. Live dangerously. All of the options are options, you know.

Four Steps To Surviving A Brainstorm

1. Read the essay prompt. Observe it in its natural habitat. Understand what the prompt is really asking for. Focus on key words, like “contribution” or “accomplishment”, “challenge” or “diversity.”

2. Write down what comes into your head. Use a piece of paper and a pen or your laptop, we don't care. The ideas will come thick and fast, and your job is to jot everything – everything – down. Don't second-guess yourself. Don't censor. This is a brainstorm: the forecast is calling for heavy showers of ideas, and you gotta catch 'em all. (Wait, that's Pokémon.)

3. Detach yourself from the writing utensil of your choice. Once the ideas are no longer pinging around your brain, once your mind is empty, you need to stand up and go do something else. Let those ideas marinate like a good steak. Mmmm, steak. Don't return to your page full of ideas for at least a day.

4. Revisit what you wrote down. Some of your ideas are going to leap out at you because they are beautiful and fabulous and essay gold. Hold them close: you've survived the brainstorm.

Trust us. Trying to write a perfect essay in one sitting is a great way to pop a blood vessel.

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Outlining your Essay

You've gotta start somewhere (the mud pit on the football field? Starbucks?) and when you're writing an essay, that somewhere is typically an outline (ohhh, the groaning!).

Now that you've selected your essay topic and prompt, you may be raring to go, but trust us, starting with an outline will save you time in the long run.

An outline is an important first step in the essay-writing process. It helps you focus in on the best details to include and forces you to think about how each section connects with the next. Writing an essay without an outline can result in rambling, unfocused paragraphs. Don't go there. It's more terrifying than hugging a lion.

 Start by breaking your essay down into four or five parts: an intro, two to three supporting paragraphs, and a conclusion. But don't worry—no one will be checking for thesis statements or asking for an annotated bibliography. This is just an easy way to organize your ideas, and to keep your essay at a length that will meet the Common App word limit requirements.

For more help brainstorming, check out our handy College Essay Lab. Trust us.

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