How To Prepare An Outline For An Essay


Getting Your Outline in Line

Writing an outline is the best way to ensure that you have a clear, structured, and well-organized essay in which key information is accessible and easy for the admissions officer to pick out. Keep in mind that the average admissions officer reads over thirty submissions per day, so you will want that key information to be as available to him or her as possible.  Making an outline will ensure that your information is conveyed strategically (to get you into your dream school!).

Your outline should be a bullet-pointed summary of all of your essay’s main points. The more work you put into your outline, the easier your essay-writing will be. Your outline should be written such that if your admissions officer only skimmed your outline, it would be enough to get you into the school.

There are four main components to an outline: (1) a theme, (2) subcategories, (3) supporting evidence, and (4) introspection. You may take this content from your brainstorming (see Brainstorming for information on brainstorming).

  • Your theme is your main idea. Every single point that you make in your essay will relate to this main idea. The entire theme of your essay should be stated clearly and deliberately in your thesis statement.
  • The theme is then supported by subcategories—main points that illustrate your theme. Each of these subcategories will make up one body paragraph.
  • Then, each subcategory must include supporting evidence and introspection. Supporting evidence demonstrates your points, and introspection includes your insight and ideas that you have developed on those points.

Drafting your Outline

There are many different ways to outline a paper. The following is the best method for writers who are looking to achieve top-notch structure and organization in their papers (often the most difficult element of essay-writing). Also, keep in mind when you are writing an outline that your essay is still in its early stages, and that nothing has to be perfect. Very little, some, or most of your outline can change by the time you have a completed and polished essay.

Step 1: Write the first draft of your thesis (see Developing Your Thesis) Because the thesis should include your theme, as well as a perspective on that theme, it should be no less than ten words, and at times may need to be split up into two separate sentences. Strong theses usually include two or three subcategories to be further elaborated upon in the body. This is your working thesis. Feel free to change it as you continue your outline.

Step 2: Write down your subcategories in bullet points beneath your thesis statement. Make them into clear and concise sentences that relate back to the thesis. These will introduce each body paragraph.

Step 3: After each subcategory, write 1-3 indented bullets that include your supporting evidence. These can be segments from a longer narrative that you thread throughout the essay, or short anecdotes or examples.

Step 4: Indented below each point of supporting evidence briefly cite one or two pieces of introspection. The introspection is derived from your personal perspective, or what you have deduced based on this evidence.

Step 5: Write your hook as a bullet underneath your thesis.

Step 6: Write the first sentence of your conclusion at the end of your outline.

Step 7: Add content. Include a few sentences as bullet points indented under your thesis, stating generally what you wish to write about (see An Introduction to Writing Your Introduction to learn how to write an introduction). Do the same for your conclusion (see The Conclusion).

Here is a visual of an outline’s structure:

My passion for playing the piano has had a significant influence on many aspects of my character; it has taught me discipline, patience, and the value of hard work.Thesis statement containing my theme, my opinion, and a reference to subcategory a, subcategory b, and subcategory c.
The biggest travesty of my young adult life happened when I broke the pinky finger on my left hand.First sentence or hook.
Ø  Since I had first started playing the piano, I had not gone more than three days without practicing. Now, I had to spend two weeks apart from my instrument facing the prospect of never being able to play professionally.A few sentences briefly citing main points for my introduction.
I have learned that discipline is vital for becoming a professional musician.Topic sentence on subcategory a.
Ø  For the past four years, I have practiced for three hours a day.Supporting evidence for subcategory a.
Ø  I can commit myself in this way now to anything I do. I realize that being a music student requires discipline on many levels, and I can apply myself to even the most mundane work knowing that, in the end, I will benefit from it.Supporting introspection for subcategory a.
Learning difficult pieces on the piano has given me patience, which I now consider an invaluable attribute in many facets of my life.Topic sentence on subcategory b.
Ø  Mathematics and science have always been subjects that have proven difficult for me. The preparation for calculus exams take double or triple the preparation necessary for history and language arts. However, if there was anything I did not understand, I always took care to seek extra help from a teacher or a peer. Because of the patience I learned from practicing my instrument, I am able to persevere even when projects seem too difficult.Supporting evidence for subcategory b.
Ø  Patience is not only a virtue, but an invaluable attribute that I take pride in. I have found that my patience has separated me from other, sometimes more talented musicians and has given me the necessary confidence to push through challenges. I feel that no task is unattainable, and that some simply require more patience than others.Supporting introspection for subcategory b.
Hard work is always necessary when studying music.Topic sentence on subcategory c.
Ø  Playing the piano is a skill that is not natural for anyone. It is only possible after rigorous training and countless hours spent on every piece.Supporting evidence for subcategory c.
Ø  For this reason, I have learned never to rely solely on natural ability. I revel in the opportunity to learn new disciplines and take the necessary steps to better myself.Supporting introspection for subcategory c.
Playing the piano has had a significant impact on my character. I have learned to extract the lessons I have learned from my time studying music and apply them to all aspects of my life.First sentence of my conclusion: rehashing the thesis statement.
Ø  The qualities I have gained will make me into a passionate and dedicated college student.Brief explanation of the conclusion’s content.

Once you have written your outline, you are ready to start writing. Be sure to check out our articles on each of the components of your college admissions essay!


Trying to devise a structure for your essay can be one of the most difficult parts of the writing process. Making a detailed outline before you begin writing is a good way to make sure your ideas come across in a clear and logical order. A good outline will also save you time in the revision process, reducing the possibility that your ideas will need to be rearranged once you've written them.

The First Steps

Before you can begin outlining, you need to have a sense of what you will argue in the essay. From your analysis and close readings of primary and/or secondary sources you should have notes, ideas, and possible quotes to cite as evidence. Let's say you are writing about the 1999 Republican Primary and you want to prove that each candidate's financial resources were the most important element in the race. At this point, your notes probably lack much coherent order. Most likely, your ideas are still in the order in which they occurred to you; your notes and possible quotes probably still adhere to the chronology of the sources you've examined. Your goal is to rearrange your ideas, notes, and quotes—the raw material of your essay—into an order that best supports your argument, not the arguments you've read in other people's works. To do this, you have to group your notes into categories and then arrange these categories in a logical order.


The first step is to look over each individual piece of information that you've written and assign it to a general category. Ask yourself, "If I were to file this in a database, what would I file it under?" If, using the example of the Republican Primary, you wrote down an observation about John McCain's views on health care, you might list it under the general category of  "Health care policy." As you go through your notes, try to reuse categories whenever possible. Your goal is to reduce your notes to no more than a page of category listings.

Now examine your category headings. Do any seem repetitive? Do any go together? "McCain's expenditure on ads" and "Bush's expenditure on ads," while not exactly repetitive, could easily combine into a more general category like "Candidates' expenditures on ads." Also, keep an eye out for categories that no longer seem to relate to your argument. Individual pieces of information that at first seemed important can begin to appear irrelevant when grouped into a general category.

Now it's time to generalize again. Examine all your categories and look for common themes. Go through each category and ask yourself, "If I were to place this piece of information in a file cabinet, what would I label that cabinet?" Again, try to reuse labels as often as possible: "Health Care," "Foreign Policy," and "Immigration" can all be contained under "Policy Initiatives." Make these larger categories as general as possible so that there are no more than three or four for a 7-10 page paper.


With your notes grouped into generalized categories, the process of ordering them should be easier. To begin, look at your most general categories. With your thesis in mind, try to find a way that the labels might be arranged in a sentence or two that supports your argument. Let's say your thesis is that financial resources played the most important role in the 1999 Republican Primary. Your four most general categories are "Policy Initiatives," "Financial Resources," "Voters' Concerns," and "Voters' Loyalty." You might come up with the following sentence: ÒAlthough McCain's policy initiatives were closest to the voters' concerns, Bush's financial resources won the voters' loyalty.Ó This sentence should reveal the order of your most general categories. You will begin with an examination of McCain's and Bush's views on important issues and compare them to the voters' top concerns. Then you'll look at both candidates' financial resources and show how Bush could win voters' loyalty through effective use of his resources, despite his less popular policy ideas.

With your most general categories in order, you now must order the smaller categories. To do so, arrange each smaller category into a sentence or two that will support the more general sentence you've just devised. Under the category of "Financial Resources," for instance, you might have the smaller categories of "Ad Expenditure," "Campaign Contributions" and "Fundraising." A sentence that supports your general argument might read: "Bush's early emphasis on fundraising led to greater campaign contributions, allowing him to have a greater ad expenditure than McCain."

The final step of the outlining process is to repeat this procedure on the smallest level, with the original notes that you took for your essay. To order what probably was an unwieldy and disorganized set of information at the beginning of this process, you need now only think of a sentence or two to support your general argument. Under the category "Fundraising," for example, you might have quotes about each candidate's estimation of its importance, statistics about the amount of time each candidate spent fundraising, and an idea about how the importance of fundraising never can be overestimated. Sentences to support your general argument might read: "No candidate has ever raised too much money [your idea]. While both McCain and Bush acknowledged the importance of fundraising [your quotes], the numbers clearly point to Bush as the superior fundraiser [your statistics]." The arrangement of your ideas, quotes, and statistics now should come naturally.

Putting It All Together

With these sentences, you have essentially constructed an outline for your essay. The most general ideas, which you organized in your first sentence, constitute the essay's sections. They follow the order in which you placed them in your sentence. The order of the smaller categories within each larger category (determined by your secondary sentences) indicates the order of the paragraphs within each section. Finally, your last set of sentences about your specific notes should show the order of the sentences within each paragraph. An outline for the essay about the 1999 Republican Primary (showing only the sections worked out here) would look something like this:




            A.  Fundraising

                        a.  Original Idea

                        b.  McCain Quote/Bush Quote

                        c.  McCain Statistics/Bush Statistics

            B.  Campaign Contributions

            C.  Ad Expenditure


Copyright 2000, David Kornhaber, for the Writing Center at Harvard University

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