Personal College Essay Outline

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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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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