Top 10 Essay Formats for Students: A Comprehensive Guide

Essay formats put structure to the writing. Here are 10 essay formats for students to follow in academic settings.

Writing essays is a common experience in high school and college. Even research papers are just expounded essays. Students who can present their ideas in an essay using clear writing and careful thought can do very well in school.

Writing an essay usually starts with creating an essay outline and choosing a thesis statement. Understanding the basic college essay format and the various styles will help you craft an essay that flows well and works for your teacher’s recommendations and requirements.

Here is a closer look at the basic essay formats you may see in academic settings. Each one has its own rules, from extra spaces to Oxford commas, and knowing these will help you craft winning essays.

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Essay Formats for Students

1. Standard Essay Format

The standard essay has three parts: the introduction, body, and conclusion. The introduction is typically one paragraph with a topic sentence, supporting details, and a concluding sentence. The body is multiple paragraphs that cover the outline points. The conclusion summarizes the outline points and any concluding thoughts.

The introduction section of a basic essay introduces the problem or concern, then gives a thesis statement. The thesis statement limits the topic and defines the course of the essay, similar to what it does in a research paper. The difference is that an essay is much shorter than a research paper.

While the body of a basic essay can be any length, these traditionally have three body paragraphs. All three should cover one point that supports the thesis statement. You might also be interested in our guide on book formats.

2. Expository Essay Format

The expository essay asks a student to investigate an idea or evaluate evidence. The main goal is to communicate factual information. This essay is common in high school and middle school classrooms where students are still learning to write.

Expository essays follow the standard essay format. They have a title and thesis statement, but the information to back that thesis statement comes from facts, not an argument or persuasive stance. They rely heavily on sources to back up the information presented rather than the author’s opinion about the topic.

Sometimes teachers call this type of essay an academic essay because the goal is to research and present information.

3. Argumentative Essay Format

An argumentative essay is a common type of essay writing in high school classrooms. This essay follows the basic essay format, but the opening paragraph provides background information about the argument. The thesis statement is the writer’s opinion on the argument.

Each of the body paragraphs in an argumentative essay will support the writer’s opinion. They provide the proof for the thesis statement.

Other than the way the information flows in the essay, the argumentative essay will follow the general guidelines for essay writing. 

4. Narrative Essay Format

A narrative essay deviates from the standard essay format. This type of essay tells a story from a real-life experience. Teachers give students a writing prompt, such as “Tell about a time when you were really frightened,” and the students write.

However, this format still has some rules. First, it will use first-person to tell a story from the writer’s point of view. It will also start with an engaging opening hook in the first paragraph.

The body paragraphs of this essay format will focus on conveying the story’s details. Build towards the conclusion, which is the climax of the story. Sometimes narrative essays will end with some form of a personal statement.

5. Descriptive Essay Format

A descriptive essay paints a picture of something. The writer receives a prompt about a person, place, or object to write about. They then use descriptive words to describe that item.

Descriptive essays use sensory details and words to appeal to readers’ senses. This type of essay can also have a lot of emotion. The goal is to communicate a deeper meaning through the writing.

Descriptive essays may not follow quite as strict of a format as the other types of essays. However, it should still have an intro, body, and conclusion.

6. Comparative Essay Format

A comparative essay compares two or more things. It looks at their similarities and differences and decides if they are more alike or different.

To write this essay format, start by listing the differences and similarities of the items. Then, see if they have more things in common or more things different. 

This format may require more than five paragraphs. In each paragraph, talk about a particular aspect of one of the items, then show the similar or different aspect of the other item in the following paragraph. Continue this back-and-forth structure until you reach your conclusion.

7. Cause and Effect Essay Format

The cause and effect essay has a thesis statement showing an over-arching cause and effect. The body paragraphs support that thesis by showing each paragraph’s related cause and effect. 

This essay has one body paragraph called the antithesis paragraph. Here the writer shows the opposite side of the argument, outlining the causes and effects opposing the thesis.

Finally, the conclusion reiterates the points and shows why the writer’s original thesis statement is the logical conclusion.

8. MLA Essay Format

The MLA format is a popular choice for college essay writing. It follows the basic essay format, but it has some specific rules about formatting the page.

MLA-style essays require a 12-point, easily legible serif font with double-spacing throughout the paper. The margins are 1 inch, and the style uses the Oxford comma for lists. Paragraphs have a 1/2-inch indentation.

With an MLA format essay, the format requires no title page. Students place the essay title at the top left-hand corner of the page. When referencing a source within the paper, the writer creates a citation in parentheses with the Author’s last name and the page number.

This essay style requires a works cited page that lists the references you used to write it. This page is the last page of the essay and has the words “Works Cited” at the top of the page, centered. The works cited are alphabetically organized and contain the following information in this order:

  • Author
  • Title
  • Title of the place you found the source (magazine, website, etc.)
  • Other contributors
  • Version
  • Number
  • Publisher
  • Publication date
  • Location of the source (page numbers, website URL, etc.)

If this information is not provided for your particular source, skip that section. Each item is divided by a comma.

9. APA Essay Format

Essay Formats for Students: APA Style
APA-style essays do not use the Oxford comma

The American Psychological Association (APA) has its essay format. This format is commonly the choice for research papers in the sciences.

APA style requires a 12-point Times New Roman font. The type should be double-spaced, paragraphs have a 1/2-inch indent, and the margins should be one inch on all sides. APA-style essays do not use the Oxford comma.

The first part of the APA paper is a title page that contains the title, the writer’s name, and the institution. The second page is the abstract, which summarizes the essay in one paragraph of 150 to 250 words. Any research methods or questions covered in the essay must be in the abstract.

After the abstract is the essay, you will use an introductory paragraph, body paragraphs, and conclusion. This format uses in-text parenthetical citations that include the author’s last name and the year of publication. Page numbers only show in citations that involve direct quotes.

The final page is the references page. This starts with the word REFERENCES at the top, centered on the page. All references are in alphabetical order. APA style requires different formatting for each reference type, so always check the APA style guide to see how to list a reference.

10. Chicago Essay Format

The final style guide is the Chicago style, also called the Turabian style. This style came from the University of Chicago Press and is the least common in school settings.

Chicago-style essays use Times, Times New Roman, or Palatino fonts with no less than 10 points. Margins must be 1 to 1.5 inches on all sides, and paragraphs have a 1/2-inch indent. This style of academic writing uses the Oxford comma. It also requires footnotes for in-text citations with a full citation for the first reference and an abbreviated citation stating the author’s last name and page number for subsequent notations. All paragraphs are double-spaced.

This style also begins with a title page as the first page. It starts 1/3 of the way down the page and has the paper’s title in all caps. Then, the writer pushes Enter eight times to type their full name, pushes Enter again to type the name of the course, and pushes Enter again to type the date.

Chicago-style essays follow the basic essay structure with an introduction, body, and conclusion. The last page of the essay is the Bibliography, with references written based on the Chicago Manual of Style.

If you are interested in learning more, check out our essay writing tips!

  • Bryan Collins is the owner of Become a Writer Today. He's an author from Ireland who helps writers build authority and earn a living from their creative work. He's also a former Forbes columnist and his work has appeared in publications like Lifehacker and Fast Company.