Confused on How to Format Your
Common Application Essay?
Here are 9 Hot Tips
The 2017-18 Common Application opened for business earlier this week (August. 1). Chances are you will soon need to know how to format your common application essay.
If you are on the ball, you might be ready to apply to specific colleges and universities and need to submit your core Common Application essay, as well as other shorter essays required by certain schools (often called Supplemental Essays).
Or you are still getting ready or working on writing them, but will need to know how to format your common application essay(s) in upcoming weeks or months.
The first step is to get an account with The Common Application.
Then figure out your list of colleges you will be applying to, and start searching the site for additional shorter essays they want you to write.
Under each college or university, you will see a tab called Writing Requirements. You can find these additional short essays either under the College Questions or the Writing Supplements.
Every school is different, so really root around all the tabs and drop-down options. For example, some schools will ask you to write about an extracurricular activity (in 150 words or so) under the College Questions section, under one of the drop down tabs, such the Activities or Essay Questions tab.
Confusing, yes. But it will make more sense once you get logged on and explore the site.
RELATED: 10 Hot Tips to Power your Supplemental Essays
I like to advise my students to collect all the supplemental essays (by prompt and word count) in one place (such as a Word or Google doc file). That way they know what they will need to write about at the start, and also be able to see which ones are the same or similar. (For example, many schools have supplemental essays about “Why are you a fit?” or writing about your intended major.)
RELATED: Check out this short Slideshare to Learn How to Write Short Essays.
Of course, the most important essay you will write is the core Common Application essay, although some schools do not require it—and you can determine which ones do as you read through the application site. (Even if you only have one of your target schools that requires the main Common App essays, you will need to write one–and learn how to format your common application essay.)
Nine Hot Tips to Format Your Common Application Essay
If you do need to submit a core Common App essay (you pick from one of 7 prompts; 250-650 words), here are some tips on how to format your common application essay:
- Compose your draft in either a Word file or Google docs. Do not craft it directly in the Common Application text box (You could lose your work)! If you use Word or Google docs, you can use their word count and, most importantly, the spell check feature. The Common App now allows you to upload Google docs directly from Google Drive. (Hint: If you want to use this feature, you might want to get a Gmail account that you use exclusively for these essays.) You can also copy and paste your Word or Google doc directly into the Common App text box.
- The Common Application essay text box does not allow tabbing. So make your paragraphs with block formatting (have a space in between each paragraph instead of an indentation.) You can format this way in your Word or Google doc, but make sure it translates after you either upload your Google doc, or copy and paste from the Word or Google doc.
- The Common Application essay text box only has formatting for Bold, Underline and Italics. I would format your essay along MLA guidelines (using italics for things like book titles, foreign words, those types of copyediting rules.), and then make sure they translate or carry over after you upload or copy and paste. If you lose the italics, use the Common App italics formatting to add them inside the text box. I see no reason to use either Bold or Underlining in your essays. Avoid gimmicky formatting, such as ALL CAPS, emojis or #hashtags.
- Avoid titles. Even though I think a snappy title can enhance an essay, I see no way to format it at the top of the Common App essay that would center it, and think it could be more of a distraction. If you really love your title, feel free to give it a try, but I think it will only stick on the far left of the first line. (If you go for it that way, maybe put it in Bold to make it clear it’s a title.)
- Do NOT include the prompt at the top of your essay. That only eats up precious words. With your Common App essay, you simply check the box that your essay lines up with the best.
- Supplemental (shorter) essays have similar formatting options. Use the same rules as above for these. Some do not provide a text box and require you to upload from Google docs or attach a Word file (converting it to a PDF.)
- Double check word counts. The Common App text box and text boxes for the supplemental essays show the minimum and maximum word counts, which is very helpful. After you copy and paste an essay, always scroll through it to make sure everything copies (and your formatting carried over) and make sure it’s within the word count requirement shown under the box.
- You can go back and make edits after you have submitted your essays. Even after you submit, go back and review to make sure it’s exactly how you wanted it.
- General rules for formatting drafts in Word or Google docs: Use a common font (Times New Roman, Arial, Cambria…), write in 12 pt font, double space.
I hope this helps you format your Common Application essay, and not sweat it.
If you are still working on finding a hot topic for your essay, read my Five Top Tips on Finding Topics.
If you have more questions on how to format your common application essay, let me know in the Comments box below. If I don’t know the answer, I will do my best to find a credible source to answer you.
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0.1) If you’ve been asked to submit a paper in MLA style, your instructor is asking you to format the page and present the content in a specific way. Just as football referees dress a certain way, and Japanese chefs cook a certain way, writers in certain disciplines follow a certain set of conventions. This document will show you how to format an essay in MLA style.
For the most complete information, check your campus library or writing center for the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, 8th ed.
1. Document Settings
Your word processor comes with default settings (margin, line height, paragraph spacing, and typeface) that will likely need adjustment. For MLA style, you need:
|(Jump directly to instructions for adjusting MS-Word settings in Windows or Mac; or, skip ahead to 2) Page Header.)|
1.1 Adjusting Document Settings in MS-Word (Windows)
My copy of Microsoft Word for Windows defaults to
- 1-inch margins all around
- 1.15 line height
- 10pt spacing between paragraphs
- Calibri 11-point typeface.
Changing to MLA Style (Windows)
- The default margins in my test run were fine, but if you need to change them:
Page Layout -> Margins -> Normal (1-inch all around)
- The default line height is too low. Change it to 2.0.
Home -> Line Spacing -> 2.0.
(You could try fudging it to 1.9 or 2.1 to meet a page count, but any more than that and your instructor may notice.)
- The MS-Word default adds extra space after paragraphs.(MLA Style instead requires you to signal paragraph breaks by indenting the first line.)
CTRL-A (select all your text)
Home -> Line Spacing -> Remove Space After Paragraph
- Change the typeface to Times New Roman 12-point.
Home-> Font Face Selector (change to Times New Roman)
Home -> Font Size Selector (change to 12)
1.2 Adjusting Document Settings in MS-Word (Mac)
My copy of Microsoft Word for Mac defaults to
- 1.25 inch left and right margins, 1 inch top and bottom
- 1.0 line height
- no extra spacing after paragraphs
- Cambria 12-point typeface
Changing to MLA style (Mac)
- In my test run, the left and right margins are too big. To change them:
Layout -> Margins -> Normal (1-inch all around)
- The default line height is too low. Change it to 2.0.
Home -> Line Spacing -> 2.0
- My Mac copy of MS-Word does not add extra spaces after paragraphs. If yours does:
Home -> Line Spacing -> Line Spacing Options… (a new window will pop up)
Don’t add space between paragraphs of the same style (check this box) -> OK
- The 12-point Cambria will probably be fine, but to change the typeface:
Home -> Font Face Selector (change to Times New Roman)
Home -> Font Size Selector (change to 12)
2. Page Header
In the top right of every page, use your word processor’s “Page Header” function add an automatic page number and your surname.
2.1 Adding the Page Header in MS-Word (Windows)
- Insert -> Page Number -> Top of Page -> (choose the right-justified “Plain Number” option)
- The cursor will jump automatically to the right place for you to type your surname.
- Click anywhere in the body of the paper to exit the header area.
2.2 Adding the Page Header in MS-Word (Mac)
- Insert (in the top menu) -> Page Numbers… -> (Set “Position” to “Top of Page (header)” and “Alignment” to “Right”)
- Click just to the left of the new page number, and type your surname.
- On my test document, my name was too far over to the left; grab the triangular tab adjuster just above your name, and drag it a notch to the right.
3. Title Block
In the upper left corner, type your name, your instructor’s name, the course number and section, and today’s date. Centered on the next line, type an informative title that actually informs the reader of your main point (not just “English Paper” or “A Comparison between Hamlet and Macbeth”).
- Like all the other text in an MLA style paper, the title block is double-spaced.
- The title is in the same font as the rest of the paper — it is not boldface, or enlarged.
- There is no extra space above or below the title.
- A truly informative title will include the general topic, and your precise opinion on that topic. (So, if you pan to compare Hamlet and Macbeth, your title should state the unique point you want to make about Hamlet and Macbeth. Reuse part of your thesis statement.)
This handout presumes you already know why you should cite your sources (to establish your authority, to introduce persuasive evidence, to avoid plagiarism, etc.), These instructions focus on how you format the page. (For a resource to help you determine how to cite a specific source, see the MLA Bibliography Builder).
To fully cite a source requires two stages. The first happens in the body of your paper (the “in-text citation”) and the second happens on a separate page at the end of your paper (see “Works Cited List,” below.)
4.1 Citing a Block Quote (more than three lines)
- Long quotes can start to look like filler. Only use a block quote if you have a very good reason to include the whole passage. (You can usually make your point with a shorter quote.)
- If you do have a good reason to quote a passage that is several lines long:
- Select the text and click the “Increase Indent” icon (see image, right).
- Place the parenthetical citation (the author’s name and the page number) after the period. (This is different from inline quotes, below.)
- There is no comma between the author’s name and the page number.
- If the quotation runs across more than one page: (Wordsworth-Fuller 20-21) or (Wordsworth-Fuller 420-21).
- Skip wordy introductions such as, “In his informative guide The Amazing Writing Book, published by Elizabeth Mount College in 2010, the noted composition expert Maxwell Wordsworth-Fuller describes the importance of citations in MLA style papers.” Cutting the filler leaves more room to develop your own original ideas. (See “Integrating Quotations.”)
4.2 Citing an Inline Quotation
When the passage you want to quote is less than three lines long, use inline style. Here we have two brief passages, taken from the same page of the same source, so we can handle both with a single parenthetical citation.
- The parenthetical citation appears outside the quoted material.
- The period that ends the sentence comes after the close parenthesis. (This is different from block quotes, above.)
- In this example, we have changed the first word a little, lowercasing it in order to fit it into our own sentence. To let the reader know what we changed, we put  around it.
- Again, note the absence of a full sentence that explains who Wordsworth-Fuller is and where the quote comes from. All that info will be in the Works Cited list, so we leave it out of the body of the paper.
4.3 Citing a Paraphrase
Let’s imagine we want to reference Wordsworth-Fuller’s general idea about citation as a way to establish credibility, but we don’t need to include any of the technical details. We can save space, and make it much easier on our reader, if we paraphrase:
- Use paraphrasing for variety, or to make a passing reference without taking up much space.
- If we use an author’s idea, rephrased in our own words, we must still cite the idea.
5. Works Cited List
A research paper isn’t a research paper unless you end with full bibliographical details on every source you cited. This part can be tedious and tricky; leave yourself plenty of time to do it.
- Start a new page.
- MS-Word Wind: Insert -> Page Break -> New Page.
- MS-Word Mac: Document Elements -> Break -> Page.
- Title your new page: Works Cited
MLA style calls for no extra spaces above or below the page title; no special formatting.
5.1. How to Create an Individual Works Cited Entry
Exactly what goes into each item in your bibliography depends on what kind of item it is. The following pages give you some questions to answer, then let you push a button to get an individual works-cited entry.
MLA-Style Bibliography Builder: Create Works Cited Entries by Filling in a Form
- Article (in a periodical, or chapter; printed or electronic)
- Book (printed or electronic)
- Web Page (corporate web page, blog entry, YouTube video, etc.)
If you prefer a more narrative explanation, see Purdue OWL’s handouts for how to create a bibliography entry for a book, an article in a periodical (such as a journal or newspaper), or an electronic source (such as an email, web page or a YouTube clip). See also this list of other common sources (such as a personal interview or a movie).
5.2. How to Organize Your Works Cited list
Sort the entries alphabetically by the author‘s last name.
- If the author is an organization (such as a government agency or non-profit foundation), alphabetize according to the name of the organization.
- If you are citing a painting, or a composer, then obviously “author” has to be interpreted a little loosely.
- Unless your instructor ask you to organize your Works Cited list differently, everything should be alphabetized together, in a single list. MLA does not require that you separate works of different kinds, or that you cite works in the order that they appeared in your paper, or that you write annotations to go along with each item.
- Use double-spaced line height. (in my copy of Word, I select the text and choose Format -> Paragraph -> Line spacing -> Double -> OK.)
- Use hanging indent paragraph format. (In my copy of word, I select the text then choose Format -> Paragraph -> Indentation -> Special -> Hanging Indent.)
29 May 2011 — new document posted, replacing outdated handout written in 1999.
06 Jun 2011 — expanded section on organizing the Works Cited list, since several readers asked for clarification.
07 Jun 2011 — reorganized for emphasis
19 Apr 2012 — added numbers to more subheads
24 Mar 2014 — added details on Works Cited paragraph formatting.
02 Oct 2016 — updated with MLA 8th Edition details.
30 Nov 2016 — added annotated Works Cited sample image.
Related Writing Links
|Dennis G. Jerz|
Researched Papers: Using Quotations Effectively
If your college instructor wants you to cite every fact or opinion you find in an outside source, how do you make room for your own opinion? Paraphrase, quote selectively, and avoid summary.Dennis G. Jerz
MLA Works Cited Citation Builder
Choose a form, fill it out, and push the button… you will get an individual entry for a “Works Cited” page, which you may then copy and paste into your word processor. The BibBuilder is more like a guide than a full-fledged utility, but you may nevertheless find it helpful.
|Jerz’s Literacy Weblog|