Choosing the right essay format can get a little tricky (and frustrating), but it’s an important step in making sure you organize your paper properly. Your professor will be grading you on the format and structure of your essay, so it’s important that you do it right to avoid losing out on easy marks or minor mistakes.
If you’re new to university or college life, you will definitely have some questions about writing your essays and papers. It doesn’t take long to figure out that a post-secondary level paper is quite different from the papers you were used to writing in high school. The standards are much higher, and your essays should reflect this in everything from the content to the references page.
Even if you aren’t new to the post-secondary academic world and you just need some help starting your next essay or assignment, it’s helpful to get a refresher so you know you’re on the right track.
Use this guide to help you choose the right essay format for your next assignment and start getting organized.
Student taking down notes on proper essay format
The Basic Essay Format
The basic essay format most college and university students use is the 5-point or 5-paragraph method. Essentially, you have a paragraph for your introduction, a paragraph for your conclusion, and three body paragraphs in the middle discussing each major point in your thesis statement.
This type of format can be used for most types of essays, but there are certain papers that might require you to switch up the structure a little bit. For example, if you’re writing a personal reflection essay, you don’t need to follow this structure the same way and can take a more liberal approach to your body paragraphs.
Additionally, if your paper is longer (think over five pages), you’ll require more than five paragraphs. You can still organize them by main point, but this way you can be more specific with each argument you make.
We’ll talk more about how you should structure each paragraph within your essay, but before we get to that we’re going to explain how to format your essay for different referencing styles.
College student using her laptop in a park to develop her essay structure
Formatting For Referencing Styles
The specific essay format you use will also be determined by the referencing style you’re using. Certain referencing styles have certain guidelines you’ll need to follow, especially when it comes to title pages, citations, and identifying information.
Regardless of the style you use, fonts should be kept to the standard Times New Roman. As a general rule, most guidelines recommend that if you’re going to deviate from Times New Roman, you should choose a font that has a noticeable contrast between the italics and regular font. However, it’s best to play it safe and just use Times New Roman.
Use size 12 for your font, and a one-inch margin on all sides regardless of the style of your paper. Always double-space your paper unless your professor has specifically asked you to use single spacing. If you’re using a title page, don’t try to get fancy and underline or bold your title.
While there are plenty of referencing styles out there that you might need to use at one point in time, we’re going to go over basic formatting rules for the three most common styles: MLA, APA, and Chicago Style.
MLA Essay Format
Papers written in MLA style don’t require a title page. Instead, you include all of your essay and publication details on the first page of your paper.
Your header should be in the top right corner of each page, with your last name and the page number. In the top left of your first page, you should include the following publication details, each on its own line: Your full name, your professor’s name, your course name, and the due date. The next line should include your essay title centred in the middle of the page. Then, you can start your essay on the next line.
For more information on MLA citation, read our quick MLA guide here.
APA Essay Format
As of October 2019, the official APA style manual has updated its requirements, and these differ depending on the type of paper you’re writing – whether you’re writing a student essay or a professional paper in your industry. We’re going to focus on student papers for the purposes of helping you format your academic essay.
APA style essays and papers do require a title page. For student title pages, you’ll need to include your full paper title centred in the upper half of the page. On the next line, write your name, and on the next lines after that include the following information, each centred on its own line: your school name and department (ie. Department of English, York University), course name, professor’s name, and the date. Make sure everything is double-spaced.
While APA papers used to require a “running head” with a shortened title and page numbers, this is no longer required for students. Instead, you only need to include page numbers in the top right of each page. Additionally, some APA papers will require you to write an abstract, which can go on the next page. Your essay will begin on the page after that.
If you need more tips and tricks on using APA citation and formatting, check out Episode 35 of the Homework Help Show.
Chicago/Turabian Style Essay Format
Chicago Style also requires a title page, sometimes referred to as a cover page. On this page, place the title of your essay in the upper half of the page, centred in the middle. The next lines below the title should include the following information, each centred and on its own line: your name, your professor’s name, your course name, and the date. However, instead of putting these lines directly below the title, place them a few lines down in the bottom half of the page.
You will need to include page numbers in the top right corner of the page, but make sure they start on the first page of your essay. Don’t put page numbers on your title page. You can change these settings in the Page Layout tab of your word processing program.
Student sitting on the floor writing essay transitions
Organize Your Essay Structure With an Outline
In order to make sure you follow your essay structure properly, use an essay outline. This will help you organize and set up the format of your essay, and ensure you follow it consistently while writing.
Using an outline is an important element in the writing process because it serves a roadmap to guide you as you write. This way, you stay on top of the order of your paper while making sure you include all of the content you need to use in order to make your main points and provide enough context for your reader. Your professor is going to be checking for flow and cohesion, so make sure you get it right by organizing it ahead of time.
If you’re the kind of student that waits to the last minute to start their papers and tries to get them done as quickly as possible, you’ve likely been skipping the essay outline process. However, once you start using an outline regularly, you’ll never want to skip this part again. Taking that extra little bit of time to do your outline can drastically improve the speed and overall effectiveness of the writing itself.
Hook Your Reader With an Amazing Introduction
Your introduction should follow this format: start with a hook that catches your reader’s attention right away, then introduce some background information or context, and end with your thesis statement.
A good hook will make your reader excited to see what’s coming next. Avoid using overrated opening lines such as cliches, quotes, or dictionary definitions. You want to choose something that really stands out and makes you look creative or innovative. Try a startling statistic, an interesting anecdote that relates to your arguments, or a thought provoking question you’ll be answering within the paper.
The type of background information you provide will depend on the type of essay you’re writing. If it’s a research paper, give a little summary about the subject with some general information. For papers based on a text or another piece of work, give a small summary about that piece of work. This is the space where you provide information your reader should know before you dive into your arguments or main points.
Your thesis statement will come at the end of this paragraph and introduce the main points you’ll be making in your paper. These main points will match up to each body paragraph, so you want to be as direct and clear as possible.
Need more help writing an amazing and catchy introduction? Check out our blog, where we go over everything you need to know to start your essay strong.
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Building Strong Body Paragraphs
As we just mentioned, each body paragraph should be used for one main point. This keeps your work direct, and keeps your reader focused on one thing at a time. In turn, your arguments are stronger and make a much more effective impact. Use as many body paragraphs as you need to if you have more than three points to make.
Start each paragraph with a topic sentence. This sentence should be used to introduce the main point you’re going to be making in this paragraph, and how it ties together with your overall thesis statement.
Next, introduce your evidence. Every time you introduce a new piece of evidence, make sure you use the proper citations. You also need to explain your evidence so your reader understands why you’re bringing it up. Don’t just throw in evidence just for the sake of meeting the minimum number of citations you need.
At the end of each body paragraph, you need to include transitions. These transitions allow the reader to flow right into the next point and paragraph easily. The key is to find a way to connect one point into the other in a way that sounds natural and relatable, so one idea molds into the next. Your professor will be looking for these to check on how you’ve structured and arranged your writing.
Male student writing down essay notes on a piece of paper
Wrapping it up in an Effective Conclusion
Your conclusion should always begin with your thesis statement. However, this time, it should be re-written so it’s different than what you wrote in your introduction. To re-write your thesis statement, try restructuring it in a way that flips it around. It’s important not to lose the order you made your main points in, because that should be connected to the order of your body paragraphs, but you can flip around the way you introduce them.
For example, let’s say your introduction includes this thesis statement: “Climate change is being impacted by many industries; the biggest contributors to pollution are the agriculture industry, the transportation industry, and the fossil fuel industry.” To re-write it in your conclusion, you could try something like this: “Despite many industries omitting dangerous pollution that contributes to greenhouse gases, agriculture, transportation, and fossil fuels are the industries that have the biggest impact on climate change.”
Keep in mind that this is a very basic thesis statement, and yours should be a little more complex or descriptive, but the point is that you can introduce your main points first instead of second, or vice versa.
After you’ve re-written your thesis statement as the first line of your conclusion, you can then go into a summary of the points you’ve made in your paper. You want to keep this brief and to the point, and avoid introducing any new information in this section. End your conclusion with a great last line that leaves the reader with something to think about.
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Formatting Your Bibliography
Depending on which referencing style you’re using, you’ll need to include either a bibliography, a Works Cited page, or a references page at the end of your essay. This does not count toward your word or page count, so don’t try to fill up your page with a ton of references thinking it will push you to meet your professor’s requirements.
For MLA essay format, you’ll need a Works Cited page. APA format requires a references page, and Chicago Style format uses a bibliography. Each of these styles has their own guidelines for both in-text citations and entries in your bibliography. This is where things can get a little tricky, so you can always use a citation generator like EasyBib® or Citation Machine® to do it for you.
Regardless of the style you use, you should always make sure your bibliography follows the same spacing as your paper (most of the time this will mean double-spaced). Your title (Works Cited, Bibliography, References, etc.) should always go at the top, and don’t bold, italicize, or underline it. All entries should be listed in alphabetical order, and anything you list here should have at least one corresponding citation in your paper.
Additionally, each style usually requires you to use a hanging indent on every additional line of your entry. See the example below, which is for a basic book entry in MLA essay format:
Smith, Mark. The Mystery of King Tut’s Tomb and the Journey of Howard Carter in The Early
Twentieth-Century. New York City, Oxford University Press, 1981.
Download our free essay writing ebook, Making the Grade: A Guide to Essay Writing Like a Pro for more citation reference guides, examples, and everything else you could possibly need to know about the core citation styles. There are tons of great resources in there that will help you make sure you’re formatting your essays properly and in accordance with your essay instructions.
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A Quick Essay Format Checklist
Your professor will be checking to make sure you’ve followed the right essay structure and included all the right formatting elements as part of their grading rubric. Here is a quick essay format checklist for you to follow to ensure you haven’t missed out on those minor mistakes that could cost you unnecessary marks.
Make sure each paragraph in your essay includes the following elements:
● Opening hook
● Background information or context
● Thesis statement
● Topic sentence
● Argument or main point
● Evidence and citations
● Transitions into the next paragraph
● Re-stated thesis statement
● Summary of your main points
● A closing line that gives your reader something to think about
● Title centred at the top
● All entries in alphabetical order
● Double spacing unless otherwise specified
● Size 12 Times New Roman font
● Proper referencing style throughout
● Headers and footers (dictated by referencing style)
● Title page if required
● 1-inch margins on all sides
College student procrastinating while writing her paper
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