Best Formats to Use in an Essay

December 6, 2022

Last Updated on December 6, 2022


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Why does an essay have a format?

An essay is indeed a miniature research paper. The goal of essay writing at school and college is to teach students the skill of critical and creative thinking and to prepare them for more serious academic research papers, such as a thesis or a dissertation. This is the origin of a formalized approach to essay writing – to prepare students for advanced academic papers, it has to carry at least some characteristics of those papers. 

In a nutshell, an essay format trains students in framing their thoughts and stories into something that has a beginning, a middle part, and an ending, but above all – there must be a purpose for writing. The latter in academic research papers is called a research question or a thesis statement, which is usually placed in the introductory part.

So, the next time you hear somebody complaining about formalities in an essay assignment, remind them about these basics and that the purpose behind them is to make students’ further college path easier. 

What best essay formats are there?

All essay formats can be divided into two big categories: structure formats and referencing formats also called styles.

Structure formats. These define requirements for the structure of an essay, or the components used to build an essay. Some of the best structural essay formats are the following: a three-paragraph essay, a five-paragraph essay, and an extended essay. 

Find out how

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  • The three-paragraph essay format is normally used in high schools and colleges. It stipulates devoting a single paragraph to an introduction, a paragraph to the main body, and a paragraph to the conclusion. It is applied to all short essays, such as admission essays or application essays. If your essay requirement states that you should write a text consisting of 300-500 words, this is the best indication that a three-paragraph essay format is the one to be used in this particular task. 
  • The five-paragraph essay is similar to the previous one; whereas, in place of a single paragraph allocated to the main body, it used three paragraphs.  This essay format is popular in colleges and universities. One should use it when they have several arguments to support the thesis statement, as each paragraph is normally allocated to a separate argument/thought.
  • Extended essay. Such a format is required for graduate students and all those approaching their degree papers. A typical structure of an extended essay consists of the following components:
    • Title page
    • Abstract (an essence of your work in a few sentences)
    • Table of contents
    • Introduction (with a thesis statement and research question)
    • The main body (the main part with arguments)
    • Conclusion
    • Appendices (any additional information, if available)
    • Bibliography (the external sources cited in the paper)

Style formats. These are commonly recognized by abbreviations MLA, APA, and AP. Some of the best formats for school and college essays are the following two styles:

  • APA style is the citation style and referencing format of the American Psychological Association, proposed as a universal format for quoting and compiling works cited and external references. It is mainly used in academic papers (especially in essays) devoted to areas of social science, including law, art, economics, psychology, and sociology. These scientific areas are typically defined by numerous external sources and wide coverage of the studied material within the limits of a given research paper. That is why in APA format the presence of 2-3 references per essay page is considered the norm in a five-paragraph essay, as is the list of sources consisting of dozens of external sources in an extended essay. Truly, the APA style is considered one of the best formatting options out there.
  • Chicago citation style is a stand-alone formatting style widely used across the US and worldwide. Compared to other popular citation styles, it offers more flexibility and freedom, which is ideal for essay writing. Chicago formatting style was first released in 1906 by the University of Chicago Press. The most up-to-date edition was published in September 2010 (16th edition). This is a very comprehensive style, regularly updated based on new case studies and academic practices. It covers everything from English grammar to document formatting. Chicago style is a workhorse of essay formatting styles often used in humanities, social sciences, and historical and academic journals.


The ultimate choice of essay format is the personal business of every single student. Unless a specific format is indicated in an essay assignment, you should always choose the one you feel most comfortable working with, and the one you think is suited the most for the writing task at hand. 

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