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College Essays

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Figuring out your college essay can be one of the most difficult parts of applying to college. Even once you've read the prompt and picked a topic, you might wonder: if you write too much or too little, will you blow your chance of admission? How long should a college essay be?

Whether you're a terse writer or a loquacious one, we can advise you on college essay length. In this guide, we'll cover what the standard college essay length is, how much word limits matter, and what to do if you aren't sure how long a specific essay should be.

How Long Is a College Essay? First, Check the Word Limit

You might be used to turning in your writing assignments on a page-limit basis (for example, a 10-page paper). While some colleges provide page limits for their college essays, most use a word limit instead. This makes sure there's a standard length for all the essays that a college receives, regardless of formatting or font.

In the simplest terms, your college essay should be pretty close to, but not exceeding, the word limit in length. Think within 50 words as the lower bound, with the word limit as the upper bound. So for a 500-word limit essay, try to get somewhere between 450-500 words. If they give you a range, stay within that range.

College essay prompts usually provide the word limit right in the prompt or in the instructions.

For example, the University of Illinois says :

"You'll answer two to three prompts as part of your application. The questions you'll answer will depend on whether you're applying to a major or to our undeclared program , and if you've selected a second choice . Each response should be approximately 150 words."

As exemplified by the University of Illinois, the shortest word limits for college essays are usually around 150 words (less than half a single-spaced page). Rarely will you see a word limit higher than around 650 words (over one single-spaced page). College essays are usually pretty short: between 150 and 650 words. Admissions officers have to read a lot of them, after all!

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Weigh your words carefully, because they are limited!

How Flexible Is the Word Limit?

But how flexible is the word limit? What if your poignant anecdote is just 10 words too long—or 100 too short?

Can I Go Over the Word Limit?

If you are attaching a document and you need one or two extra words, you can probably get away with exceeding the word limit by such a small amount. Some colleges will actually tell you that exceeding the word limit by 1-2 words is fine. However, I advise against exceeding the word limit unless it's explicitly allowed for a few reasons:

First, you might not be able to. If you have to copy-paste it into a text box, your essay might get cut off and you'll have to trim it down anyway.

If you exceed the word limit in a noticeable way, the admissions counselor may just stop reading your essay past that point. This is not good for you.

Following directions is actually a very important part of the college application process. You need to follow directions to get your letters of recommendation, upload your essays, send supplemental materials, get your test scores sent, and so on and so forth. So it's just a good general rule to follow whatever instructions you've been given by the institution. Better safe than sorry!

Can I Go Under the Word Limit?

If you can truly get your point across well beneath the word limit, it's probably fine. Brevity is not necessarily a bad thing in writing just so long as you are clear, cogent, and communicate what you want to.

However, most college essays have pretty tight word limits anyways. So if you're writing 300 words for an essay with a 500-word limit, ask yourself: is there anything more you could say to elaborate on or support your points? Consult with a parent, friend, or teacher on where you could elaborate with more detail or expand your points.

Also, if the college gives you a word range, you absolutely need to at least hit the bottom end of the range. So if you get a range from the institution, like 400-500 words, you need to write at least 400 words. If you write less, it will come across like you have nothing to say, which is not an impression you want to give.

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What If There Is No Word Limit?

Some colleges don't give you a word limit for one or more of your essay prompts. This can be a little stressful, but the prompts generally fall into a few categories:

Writing Sample

Some colleges don't provide a hard-and-fast word limit because they want a writing sample from one of your classes. In this case, a word limit would be very limiting to you in terms of which assignments you could select from.

For an example of this kind of prompt, check out essay Option B at Amherst :

"Submit a graded paper from your junior or senior year that best represents your writing skills and analytical abilities. We are particularly interested in your ability to construct a tightly reasoned, persuasive argument that calls upon literary, sociological or historical evidence. You should NOT submit a laboratory report, journal entry, creative writing sample or in-class essay."

While there is usually no word limit per se, colleges sometimes provide a general page guideline for writing samples. In the FAQ for Option B , Amherst clarifies, "There is no hard-and-fast rule for official page limit. Typically, we anticipate a paper of 4-5 pages will provide adequate length to demonstrate your analytical abilities. Somewhat longer papers can also be submitted, but in most cases should not exceed 8-10 pages."

So even though there's no word limit, they'd like somewhere in the 4-10 pages range. High school students are not usually writing papers that are longer than 10 pages anyways, so that isn't very limiting.

what is the max word count for a college essay

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Implicit Length Guideline

Sometimes, while there's no word (or even page) limit, there's still an implicit length guideline. What do I mean by this?

See, for example, this Western Washington University prompt :

“Describe one or more activities you have been involved in that have been particularly meaningful. What does your involvement say about the communities, identities or causes that are important to you?”

While there’s no page or word limit listed here, further down on page the ‘essay tips’ section explains that “ most essay responses are about 500 words, ” though “this is only a recommendation, not a firm limit.” This gives you an idea of what’s reasonable. A little longer or shorter than 500 words would be appropriate here. That’s what I mean by an “implicit” word limit—there is a reasonable length you could go to within the boundaries of the prompt.

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But what's the proper coffee-to-paragraph ratio?

Treasure Hunt

There is also the classic "treasure hunt" prompt. No, it's not a prompt about a treasure hunt. It's a prompt where there are no length guidelines given, but if you hunt around on the rest of the website you can find length guidelines.

For example, the University of Chicago provides seven "Extended Essay" prompts . You must write an essay in response to one prompt of your choosing, but nowhere on the page is there any guidance about word count or page limit.

However, many colleges provide additional details about their expectations for application materials, including essays, on FAQ pages, which is true of the University of Chicago. On the school’s admissions Frequently Asked Questions page , they provide the following length guidelines for the supplemental essays: 

“We suggest that you note any word limits for Coalition or Common Application essays; however, there are no strict word limits on the UChicago Supplement essays. For the extended essay (where you choose one of several prompts), we suggest that you aim for around 650 words. While we won't, as a rule, stop reading after 650 words, we're only human and cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention indefinitely. For the “Why UChicago?” essay, we suggest about 250-500 words. The ideas in your writing matter more than the exact number of words you use!”

So there you go! You want to be (loosely) in the realm of 650 for the extended essay, and 250-500 words for the “Why UChicago?” essay.

Help! There Really Is No Guidance on Length

If you really can't find any length guidelines anywhere on the admissions website and you're at a loss, I advise calling the admissions office. They may not be able to give you an exact number (in fact, they probably won't), but they will probably at least be able to tell you how long most of the essays they see are. (And keep you from writing a panicked, 20-page dissertation about your relationship with your dog).

In general, 500 words or so is pretty safe for a college essay. It's a fairly standard word limit length, in fact. (And if you're wondering, that's about a page and a half double-spaced.) 500 words is long enough to develop a basic idea while still getting a point across quickly—important when admissions counselors have thousands of essays to read!

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"See? It says 500 words right there in tiny font!"

The Final Word: How Long Should a College Essay Be?

The best college essay length is usually pretty straightforward: you want to be right under or at the provided word limit. If you go substantially past the word limit, you risk having your essay cut off by an online application form or having the admissions officer just not finish it. And if you're too far under the word limit, you may not be elaborating enough.

What if there is no word limit? Then how long should a college essay be? In general, around 500 words is a pretty safe approximate word amount for a college essay—it's one of the most common word limits, after all!

Here's guidance for special cases and hunting down word limits:

If it's a writing sample of your graded academic work, the length either doesn't matter or there should be some loose page guidelines.

There also may be implicit length guidelines. For example, if a prompt says to write three paragraphs, you'll know that writing six sentences is definitely too short, and two single-spaced pages is definitely too long.

You might not be able to find length guidelines in the prompt, but you could still hunt them up elsewhere on the website. Try checking FAQs or googling your chosen school name with "admissions essay word limit."

If there really is no word limit, you can call the school to try to get some guidance.

With this advice, you can be sure you've got the right college essay length on lockdown!

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Hey, writing about yourself can even be fun!

What's Next?

Need to ask a teacher or friend for help with your essay? See our do's and dont's to getting college essay advice .

If you're lacking in essay inspiration, see our guide to brainstorming college essay ideas . And here's our guide to starting out your essay perfectly!

Looking for college essay examples? See 11 places to find college essay examples and 145 essay examples with analysis !

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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.

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what is the max word count for a college essay

How Long Should Your College Essay Be? What Is the Ideal Length?

What’s covered: , personal statement length vs. supplemental essay length, are college essay word limits hard, what if a college essay word count isn’t given, what if you need to submit a graded paper, where to get your essays edited.

Students often spend hours agonizing over the best topics for their college essays. While it’s natural to wonder whether your personal statement is original or compelling enough, there’s one aspect of the process that shouldn’t cause you undue stress—how many words should a college essay be? Fortunately, with a little research, you can uncover the ideal college essay length for all your applications.

Unlike high school assignments, which typically have a strict page requirement, most colleges provide a word limit or word range for their application essays. This practice helps ensure that essays are the same length regardless of font or formatting. A good guideline is that students should strive to get as close as possible to the upper limit of the word range without exceeding it. Keep reading to learn more about best practices for college essay length.

How many words should a college essay be? Personal statements are generally 500-650 words. For example, the Common Application , which can be used to apply to more than 800 colleges, requires an essay ranging from 250-650 words . Similarly, the Coalition Application , which has 150 member schools, features an essay with a recommended length of 500-650 words.

650 words is the most common limit for your personal statement, but some schools may ask students to write more or less. For example, ApplyTexas , a platform used to apply to Texas public universities and other select colleges, requests essays with requirements that vary by school. For example, students applying to UT Austin will need to submit an essay of 500-700 words, along with three short-answer questions of 250-300 words each.

On the other hand, the University of California (UC) application includes a Personal Insight section with eight prompts . Students are asked to respond to any four of these prompts, with each response topping out at 350 words.

Additionally, some schools request a few supplemental essays, which are typically shorter than a personal statement. These questions are designed to gain more information about a student’s interests and abilities, and may include topics like your reasons for wanting to attend their school, your desired major, or your favorite activity.

Most schools require 1-3 supplemental essays, though some may require more or none at all (see our list of top colleges without supplemental essays ). These essays tend to be around 250 words, but some may be just as long as your main essay. For example, Cornell requires applicants to write a second supplemental essay (of 650 words max) that is specific to the program they’re applying to. The exception to this is the Cornell College of Engineering, for which applicants are required to compose two supplemental essays of 250 words max each.

For best results, keep your essays within the word range provided. While you don’t have to hit the count exactly, you should aim to stay within a 10% difference of the upper limit—without including fluff or filler. For example, if the school requests 500 words, try to ensure that your essay is between 450 and 500 words.

For the Common App, try to stay within 550-650 words, even though the given range is 250-650. Any submission shorter than 500 words will make it look as though you simply didn’t care enough to give your best effort. An essay shorter than 500 words won’t be long enough to truly share who you are and what matters to you.

Exceeding the word count isn’t an option—the application portal cuts off anything over the maximum number of allowed words. This is something you want to be particularly careful of if you’re drafting your essay in a Word or Google document and pasting it into the application.

Although most schools provide applicants with a specific word count, some offer more general guidelines. For example, a college may ask for a particular number of pages or paragraphs.

If you aren’t given a word count, try to adhere to the best practices and conventions of writing. Avoid writing especially short or overly long paragraphs—250 words per paragraph is generally a safe upper limit. If you’re asked to write a certain number of pages, single- or double-spaced, stick to a standard font and font size (like 12-point Times New Roman).

In the event that the college doesn’t offer any guidelines at all, aim for an essay length of around 500 words.

While essays are the most commonly requested writing sample, some colleges ask for additional pieces of content. For example, Princeton University requires students to submit a previously graded paper for evaluation .

Princeton offers guidelines that cover length, but if another school requests an old paper and doesn’t offer length requirements, a paper ranging from 3-5 pages should yield the best results. The goal is to select a paper long enough to showcase your writing skills and unique voice, but short enough that the admissions officer doesn’t get bored reading it.

Is your essay effective while staying within the required word count? It’s hard to evaluate your own writing, especially after rereading it numerous times. CollegeVine’s free Peer Essay Review provides an opportunity to have your essay reviewed by a fellow student, for free. Similarly, you can help other students by reviewing their essays—this is a great way to refine your own writing skills.

Expert advice is also available. CollegeVine’s advisors are prepared to help you perfect your personal statement and submit a successful application to your top schools. Find the right advisor for you to improve your chances of getting into your dream school!

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How long should a college essay be?

Bonus Material : PrepMaven’s 30 College Essays That Worked

If you’re a high school student preparing to apply to top schools, you might already know that one of the most important parts of the application process is your college admissions essay. Because the personal essay is so crucial, you’ll want to make sure you perfect it before sending it out to admissions committees. 

We’ve helped thousands of students gain admission into selective colleges through college essay coaching, and in this blog post we’ll guide you through how the length of your essay affects your chances of admission. 

By using this guide alongside our other college application essay guides on brainstorming and formatting , you can perfect your college application essay and maximize your chance of acceptance. 

Another great starting point is our collection of 30 real, proven sample essays that worked to secure top-tier admissions for our past students, which you can download free below. 

Download Thirty College Essays that Worked

Jump to section:

What is the word limit on the Common App Personal Statement? How long should your final essay be? How long should your first draft be? How do you cut to get to the word count? How do you add more to get to the word count? Next steps

What is the word limit on the Common App Personal Statement?

The Common App’s personal essay has had the same maximum word count for years: you get 250-650 words for the entire essay. While you don’t have to hit this limit exactly, the Common App portal will not accept anything longer than 650 words. Any part of the college essay beyond the 650 words will simply not paste in.

Though the Common App is by far the most common college application essay, accepted by the majority of universities, there are a few other personal essay word limits you should be familiar with. 

what is the max word count for a college essay

The University of California system is the most important other one to know: it asks you to respond to four “Personal Insight Questions,” each of which has a maximum of 350 words. 

Other college application essays you’ll write, like supplemental essays, will vary widely in length, though will often cap you at somewhere between 150 and 250 words. Of course, you’ll have to ensure you double-check each essay question’s specific maximum and minimum word count. 

How long should your final essay be?

what is the max word count for a college essay

We can’t stress this enough: the best common application essay responses are at or near the maximum word count . The personal essay is your chance to tell the admissions committee about what makes you unique, and it should actually feel difficult to condense your personality and interests into a mere 650 words. 

With very rare exception, the most successful college admissions essays are between 600 and 650 words. If your personal essay comes out shorter than that, you’re simply not maximizing the opportunity provided to you. In other words, you need to really sit down and think about what could be expanded, what else you could say to make a strong impression on admissions officers. 

Below, we’ll talk about the different stages of the drafting process. Even though the personal statement should end up close to 650 words, that does not mean your first draft should be at the same length. We’ll also offer some advice on how to both shorten and expand your admissions essay.

This advice is backed by decades of experience in crafting successful college application essays, but it is general advice. If you want personalized essay coaching on your specific essays, there’s no better way to get it than by reaching out to us here and getting connected with one of our expert college essay counselors. 

And be sure to read over these real sample essays and note how long each one is: you’ll notice most of the best essays come close to the word count. 

How long should your first draft be?

what is the max word count for a college essay

The easiest way to set yourself up for a college admissions essay that hits the word count is to start long. The truth is that it’s easier to shorten an essay than to add to it. The best way to ensure you don’t find yourself under the word count for your final essay is to start with a first draft that exceeds the word count. 

When we work with students, we advise them to start with a first draft of 850 or more words. We know: that sounds like a lot of writing, but this approach has a ton of benefits for the final product. For one thing, writing more than you have to at first lets you warm up and sharpen your writing skills. 

For another, it pushes you to get all of your ideas on paper. There may be ideas that you don’t initially want to include in your admissions essay: maybe you think they’re unresponsive to the essay question, or maybe you think they wouldn’t interest college admissions officers. 

what is the max word count for a college essay

But the only way to actually know if these ideas will work is to get them on paper. Writing a long first draft ensures you don’t leave any potentially good ideas behind. One of the best things you can do for the first draft of your admissions essay is to get all your ideas on paper, then have someone–like, say, one of our phenomenal admissions essay counselors–read your first draft and tell you what’s worth keeping. 

The truth is that most students will need to cut lots of the things from their first draft of the college admissions essay. If you start your first draft at or near the word count, that’ll make it harder to hit that sweet spot of just under 650 words. 

Your essay’s length might look something like this through the drafting process: 

  • Draft 1: around 850 words
  • Draft 2: around 750 words
  • Draft 3: around 650 words
  • Draft 4 and on: just below 650 words. 

Of course, this is just a sample: your own process might be faster or slower, but the gradual shortening of the essay through the drafting process is nearly universal. 

In a nutshell: start with a long first draft, and cut from there as you redraft. 

How do you cut to get to the word count?

So, let’s say you’ve written the first draft of your college admissions essay and gotten to around 900 words. Well done! But now how do you get it down under the maximum word count? How do you decide what deserves to get cut from the essay, and what absolutely has to make its way to college admission officers?

what is the max word count for a college essay

You can think of this process as consisting of three stages:

Start by identifying what is central to your essay. What moments or reflections are absolutely crucial for you to tell your story? Anything not totally necessary to your essay should be on the chopping block. Remember: it is far better to go into detail on a few ideas than to talk about lots of things but without specificity. 

This is the chopping stage: in essence, you eliminate entire moments/sections/paragraphs from your essay. You’re deciding that these elements of your essay simply don’t need to be there. This stage, which is one of the most important in the editing process, should reduce your word count significantly. 

Next, you trim. If you’re certain that all of the content you have in your draft needs to be there for your college admissions essay to work but the draft is still above the word count, you need to trim your existing ideas down to size. 

When we trim essays, we’re not generally removing any of the content. Instead, we’re tactically cutting two words here, a word there. This is precise fine-tuning: can you flip the sentence structure to save yourself two words without losing the flow? Can you cut a helping verb without messing with the grammar of the sentence?

The trimming stage can take a long time, but you’ll be surprised how much you can shorten an essay even if you’re working just one to two words at a time. 

what is the max word count for a college essay

Of course, there’s nothing worse than cutting something that might have wowed an admission committee, or taking out precisely the wrong word in an effort to shorten a sentence. The best way to avoid those mistakes is with an experienced second-opinion: our essay coaches have been through this process themselves, and will be happy to help you avoid any crucial mistakes in these drafting stages. 

If you look at the below essays, you might want to think about all the work that went into ensuring none of this brilliant content got cut out along the way. 

How do you add more to get to the word count?

Ideally, you won’t have this problem: if you follow our initial drafting advice, you’ll be worried about cutting, not adding. 

But if you’re already in the later drafting stages and are struggling with getting up to the maximum word count, there are a few things you can do without adding new content. 

The biggest is simply to add more detail! This is, at the end of the day, what makes a strong college admissions essay: the specific, vivid details from your own life. It’s basically the time-tested adage of “show don’t tell.” 

Instead of saying, for example, “I was nervous as I prepared to perform in the school play,” you’d be better off writing something like, “As I waited my turn to take the stage, I felt my knees grow weak. Was I going to make a fool of myself out there? Had I really rehearsed my role enough?” And so on: it’s the same basic information, but more detailed, more interesting, and longer. 

what is the max word count for a college essay

Ultimately, all suggestions on adding to reach a word count will circle around this same basic idea: more detail. But again, we recommend sidestepping this whole problem by beginning with long drafts overflowing with specific details and content. 

If you’re preparing to write your college essay, your next steps are pretty straightforward. First, make sure you’re well-prepared by reading our guides on brainstorming and essay formatting. Then, read over a few sample essays from the 30 real college essays we’ve collected below. Then: write that long first draft!

We know, we know: it’s easy to say “Write a first draft of 850+ words,” but it can be a lot harder to actually do it. That’s why we’ve got a brilliant team of college essay tutors, all of whom have been accepted to elite universities and all of whom are ready to help you craft the perfect application essay as soon as you reach out. 

Mike

Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.

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The Perfect College Essay Length: Tips and Recommendations

When it pertains to composing a college essay, one of the most popular concerns individuals have been, “How many words should a college essay be?” Unfortunately, the answer to this question is not a straightforward one since the length of a college essay may vary based on several different aspects .

In this article, we will discuss how long an ideal essay for college should be, as well as provide some advice on how to strike the right balance between the length of the essay and the subject matter it covers. Now, let’s get into the core and see what we have prepared below.

The Ideal Length for Your Paper

The number of words required for a college application essay may vary anywhere from 250 to 650, with some schools mandating a certain minimum or maximum number of words for their applicants’ essays. Nonetheless, while the word count is significant, the substance of the paper is what counts in this context. Surely, there’s an opportunity to expand your knowledge of it through research paper writing help . You will find out the exact number of words that are required for a top-notch sample with it. An essay that is too short could not have enough depth, while one that is too long can bore the reader and cause them to lose interest in the subject matter.

In most cases, an average length of an essay should be between 400 and 500 words long. This length gives you sufficient room to completely develop your thoughts and deliver your case, while yet allowing you to keep the reader interested throughout the whole process. Note, however, that this is only a general guideline, and that the length of your essay will ultimately rely on the particular criteria of the institution or university to which you are applying.

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Following Word Count Demands

If the institution or university to which you are applying requires an application essay to have a certain number of words, you must adhere to these requirements. If you fail to do so, there is a chance that your essay may be invalidated or not evaluated at all. On the other hand, if there is no particular criterion about the number of words, you should strive for a length of around 500 words. That is usually an average word count for any college essay.

Quality Always Comes First

It is essential to keep in mind that the quality of your work is more significant than the amount of it while you are writing your essay. No matter how long are essays in college, you should make sure that it is well-written, interesting, and instructive. You should also steer clear of utilizing filler text and refrain from repeating yourself in your essay since doing so will just help to make your paper lengthier without contributing anything of worth to it.

Consider The Type of Essay You Are Writing

The kind of paper you are writing is yet another key consideration to make when calculating the appropriate length for your college application essay. For instance, if you want to fully describe your experiences and aspirations in a personal statement with limited words for a college essay, you may need more room to do so. But in a shorter piece, you could be more suited to respond to a particular topic or prompt.

Analyzing The Prompt or Question

Reading the prompt or issue that you are being asked to respond to in your college essay attentively and doing an in-depth analysis of it is, ultimately, the most effective approach to figuring out the word count for academic writing . This will not only provide you with a better knowledge of the scope and criteria of the essay, but it will also assist you in determining how much space you need to adequately explore your thoughts.

Taking Into Account the Admissions Committee

The viewpoint of the admissions committee should be kept in mind while determining the length of the college essay you will submit with your application. These are the people who will read and assess your essay; they are searching for a reflective and well-written piece that demonstrates both your unique personality and your potential as a student. Even while you should make sure to provide your essay with sufficient substance and depth, you should also make sure to keep it succinct enough to capture the reader’s interest and successfully convey the idea you want to get through.

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Performing Cuts Based on Length

If you want to make sure that your essay length is acceptable, one approach that you can use is to write the initial draft of your essay without being concerned about the word count. Then edit and modify the essay so that it is the correct length after the first draft. Without becoming caught down in the specifics of word count, this strategy may help you concentrate on the substance and arrangement of your essay rather than on the number of words it contains. When you go through the process of editing your essay, you should do the following:

  • Ask yourself whether every phrase and paragraph contributes to the overall theme and effect of your essay.
  • You can assist tighten up your essay and increase its clarity and effect by getting rid of any extra text that isn’t essential.

Utilizing Visual Aids

Using visual aids, such as graphs, charts, or tables, to convey material in a manner that is both succinct and compelling is yet another approach to keeping the interpretive essay within the usual word count range. Rather than depending exclusively on words, using these visual aids may assist you in communicating complicated information in a manner that is both more efficient and successful. On the other hand, it is essential to make judicious use of these visual aids and to check that they are suitable for the setting and the subject matter of your essay.

The optimal length for an essay submitted to a college or university is normally approximately 500 words; however, the particular criteria of the institution or university to which you are applying may mandate a longer or shorter essay. Remember that the substance of your essay is more crucial than its length while you are writing it, and prioritize quality over quantity when setting out to accomplish this task. If you follow these recommendations, you will be able to write an essay that is both interesting and informative, which will help you stand out from the other applicants and get closer to achieving your objectives.

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Frequently asked questions

How do i stay under the word count on my college application essay.

Write concisely and use the active voice to maintain a quick pace throughout your essay and make sure it’s the right length . Avoid adding definitions unless they provide necessary explanation.

Frequently asked questions: College admissions essays

When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.

No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.

The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.

Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

Most importantly, your essay should be about you , not another person or thing. An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability.

Your essay shouldn’t be a résumé of your experiences but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.

When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding your message and content. Then, check for flow, tone, style , and clarity. Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors .

If your college essay goes over the word count limit , cut any sentences with tangents or irrelevant details. Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay.

If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.

If you’ve got to write your college essay fast , don’t panic. First, set yourself deadlines: you should spend about 10% of your remaining time on brainstorming, 10% on outlining, 40% writing, 30% revising, and 10% taking breaks in between stages.

Second, brainstorm stories and values based on your essay prompt.

Third, outline your essay based on the montage or narrative essay structure .

Fourth, write specific, personal, and unique stories that would be hard for other students to replicate.

Fifth, revise your essay and make sure it’s clearly written.

Last, if possible, get feedback from an essay coach . Scribbr essay editors can help you revise your essay in 12 hours or less.

Avoid swearing in a college essay , since admissions officers’ opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay. However, it’s safest to try to make the same point without swearing.

If you have bad grades on your transcript, you may want to use your college admissions essay to explain the challenging circumstances that led to them. Make sure to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects and highlight how you overcame the situation or learned an important lesson.

However, some college applications offer an additional information section where you can explain your bad grades, allowing you to choose another meaningful topic for your college essay.

Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:

  • Extracurriculars, especially sports
  • Role models
  • Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family
  • Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
  • Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp
  • Overcoming a difficult class
  • Using a common object as an extended metaphor

It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.

Yes. The college application essay is less formal than other academic writing —though of course it’s not mandatory to use contractions in your essay.

In a college essay , you can be creative with your language . When writing about the past, you can use the present tense to make the reader feel as if they were there in the moment with you. But make sure to maintain consistency and when in doubt, default to the correct verb tense according to the time you’re writing about.

The college admissions essay gives admissions officers a different perspective on you beyond your academic achievements, test scores, and extracurriculars. It’s your chance to stand out from other applicants with similar academic profiles by telling a unique, personal, and specific story.

Use a standard font such as Times New Roman or Arial to avoid distracting the reader from your college essay’s content.

A college application essay is less formal than most academic writing . Instead of citing sources formally with in-text citations and a reference list, you can cite them informally in your text.

For example, “In her research paper on genetics, Quinn Roberts explores …”

There is no set number of paragraphs in a college admissions essay . College admissions essays can diverge from the traditional five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in English class. Just make sure to stay under the specified word count .

Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:

  • Overly personal (e.g. graphic details of illness or injury, romantic or sexual relationships)
  • Not personal enough (e.g. broad solutions to world problems, inspiring people or things)
  • Too negative (e.g. an in-depth look at your flaws, put-downs of others, criticizing the need for a college essay)
  • Too boring (e.g. a resume of your academic achievements and extracurriculars)
  • Inappropriate for a college essay (e.g. illegal activities, offensive humor, false accounts of yourself, bragging about privilege)

To write an effective diversity essay , include vulnerable, authentic stories about your unique identity, background, or perspective. Provide insight into how your lived experience has influenced your outlook, activities, and goals. If relevant, you should also mention how your background has led you to apply for this university and why you’re a good fit.

Many universities believe a student body composed of different perspectives, beliefs, identities, and backgrounds will enhance the campus learning and community experience.

Admissions officers are interested in hearing about how your unique background, identity, beliefs, culture, or characteristics will enrich the campus community, which is why they assign a diversity essay .

In addition to your main college essay , some schools and scholarships may ask for a supplementary essay focused on an aspect of your identity or background. This is sometimes called a diversity essay .

You can use humor in a college essay , but carefully consider its purpose and use it wisely. An effective use of humor involves unexpected, keen observations of the everyday, or speaks to a deeper theme. Humor shouldn’t be the main focus of the essay, but rather a tool to improve your storytelling.

Get a second opinion from a teacher, counselor, or essay coach on whether your essay’s humor is appropriate.

Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.

You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.

To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic . But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style .

There are no foolproof college essay topics —whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic

  • Is meaningful, specific, and personal to you
  • Focuses on you and your experiences
  • Reveals something beyond your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars
  • Is creative and original

Unlike a five-paragraph essay, your admissions essay should not end by summarizing the points you’ve already made. It’s better to be creative and aim for a strong final impression.

You should also avoid stating the obvious (for example, saying that you hope to be accepted).

There are a few strategies you can use for a memorable ending to your college essay :

  • Return to the beginning with a “full circle” structure
  • Reveal the main point or insight in your story
  • Look to the future
  • End on an action

The best technique will depend on your topic choice, essay outline, and writing style. You can write several endings using different techniques to see which works best.

College deadlines vary depending on the schools you’re applying to and your application plan:

  • For early action applications and the first round of early decision applications, the deadline is on November 1 or 15. Decisions are released by mid-December.
  • For the second round of early decision applications, the deadline is January 1 or 15. Decisions are released in January or February.
  • Regular decision deadlines usually fall between late November and mid-March, and decisions are released in March or April.
  • Rolling admission deadlines run from July to April, and decisions are released around four to eight weeks after submission.

Depending on your prospective schools’ requirements, you may need to submit scores for the SAT or ACT as part of your college application .

Some schools now no longer require students to submit test scores; however, you should still take the SAT or ACT and aim to get a high score to strengthen your application package.

Aim to take the SAT or ACT in the spring of your junior year to give yourself enough time to retake it in the fall of your senior year if necessary.

Apply early for federal student aid and application fee waivers. You can also look for scholarships from schools, corporations, and charitable foundations.

To maximize your options, you should aim to apply to about eight schools:

  • Two reach schools that might be difficult to get into
  • Four match schools that you have a good chance of getting into
  • Two safety schools that you feel confident you’ll get into

The college admissions essay accounts for roughly 25% of the weight of your application .

At highly selective schools, there are four qualified candidates for every spot. While your academic achievements are important, your college admissions essay can help you stand out from other applicants with similar profiles.

In general, for your college application you will need to submit all of the following:

  • Your personal information
  • List of extracurriculars and awards
  • College application essays
  • Transcripts
  • Standardized test scores
  • Recommendation letters.

Different colleges may have specific requirements, so make sure you check exactly what’s expected in the application guidance.

You should start thinking about your college applications the summer before your junior year to give you sufficient time for college visits, taking standardized tests, applying for financial aid , writing essays, and collecting application material.

Yes, but make sure your essay directly addresses the prompt, respects the word count , and demonstrates the organization’s values.

If you plan ahead, you can save time by writing one scholarship essay for multiple prompts with similar questions. In a scholarship tracker spreadsheet, you can group or color-code overlapping essay prompts; then, write a single essay for multiple scholarships. Sometimes, you can even reuse or adapt your main college essay .

You can start applying for scholarships as early as your junior year. Continue applying throughout your senior year.

Invest time in applying for various scholarships , especially local ones with small dollar amounts, which are likely easier to win and more reflective of your background and interests. It will be easier for you to write an authentic and compelling essay if the scholarship topic is meaningful to you.

You can find scholarships through your school counselor, community network, or an internet search.

A scholarship essay requires you to demonstrate your values and qualities while answering the prompt’s specific question.

After researching the scholarship organization, identify a personal experience that embodies its values and exemplifies how you will be a successful student.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

In most cases, quoting other people isn’t a good way to start your college essay . Admissions officers want to hear your thoughts about yourself, and quotes often don’t achieve that. Unless a quote truly adds something important to your essay that it otherwise wouldn’t have, you probably shouldn’t include it.

Cliché openers in a college essay introduction are usually general and applicable to many students and situations. Most successful introductions are specific: they only work for the unique essay that follows.

The key to a strong college essay introduction is not to give too much away. Try to start with a surprising statement or image that raises questions and compels the reader to find out more.

The introduction of your college essay is the first thing admissions officers will read and therefore your most important opportunity to stand out. An excellent introduction will keep admissions officers reading, allowing you to tell them what you want them to know.

You can speed up this process by shortening and smoothing your writing with a paraphrasing tool . After that, you can use the summarizer to shorten it even more.

If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

In your application essay , admissions officers are looking for particular features : they want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

You don’t need a title for your college admissions essay , but you can include one if you think it adds something important.

Your college essay’s format should be as simple as possible:

  • Use a standard, readable font
  • Use 1.5 or double spacing
  • If attaching a file, save it as a PDF
  • Stick to the word count
  • Avoid unusual formatting and unnecessary decorative touches

There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:

  • A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
  • A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.

Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.

Campus visits are always helpful, but if you can’t make it in person, the college website will have plenty of information for you to explore. You should look through the course catalog and even reach out to current faculty with any questions about the school.

Colleges set a “Why this college?” essay because they want to see that you’ve done your research. You must prove that you know what makes the school unique and can connect that to your own personal goals and academic interests.

Depending on your writing, you may go through several rounds of revision . Make sure to put aside your essay for a little while after each editing stage to return with a fresh perspective.

Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your language, tone, and content . Ask for their help at least one to two months before the submission deadline, as many other students will also want their help.

Friends and family are a good resource to check for authenticity. It’s best to seek help from family members with a strong writing or English educational background, or from older siblings and cousins who have been through the college admissions process.

If possible, get help from an essay coach or editor ; they’ll have specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and be able to give objective expert feedback.

When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style , and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Include specific, personal details and use your authentic voice to shed a new perspective on a common human experience.

Through specific stories, you can weave your achievements and qualities into your essay so that it doesn’t seem like you’re bragging from a resume.

When writing about yourself , including difficult experiences or failures can be a great way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but be careful not to overshare, and focus on showing how you matured from the experience.

First, spend time reflecting on your core values and character . You can start with these questions:

  • What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
  • Whom do you admire most and why?
  • What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?

However, you should do a comprehensive brainstorming session to fully understand your values. Also consider how your values and goals match your prospective university’s program and culture. Then, brainstorm stories that illustrate the fit between the two.

In a college application essay , you can occasionally bend grammatical rules if doing so adds value to the storytelling process and the essay maintains clarity.

However, use standard language rules if your stylistic choices would otherwise distract the reader from your overall narrative or could be easily interpreted as unintentional errors.

Use first-person “I” statements to speak from your perspective . Use appropriate word choices that show off your vocabulary but don’t sound like you used a thesaurus. Avoid using idioms or cliché expressions by rewriting them in a creative, original way.

If you’re an international student applying to a US college and you’re comfortable using American idioms or cultural references , you can. But instead of potentially using them incorrectly, don’t be afraid to write in detail about yourself within your own culture.

Provide context for any words, customs, or places that an American admissions officer might be unfamiliar with.

College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing . Use a conversational yet respectful tone , as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.

Aim to write in your authentic voice , with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.

Admissions officers use college admissions essays to evaluate your character, writing skills , and ability to self-reflect . The essay is your chance to show what you will add to the academic community.

The college essay may be the deciding factor in your application , especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

Some colleges also require supplemental essays about specific topics, such as why you chose that specific college . Scholarship essays are often required to obtain financial aid .

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How to Stick to the Word Count on College Essays

Hand holding pen writing in journal to represent sticking to word count on college essays - image by Magoosh

You have a lot to think about when writing your college essay: brainstorming a topic , writing it well, and proofreading and editing it until it represents your best work. And of course, you can’t forget about sticking to the word count.

Keeping your essay short can be challenging. It’s supposed to showcase your best self, set you apart from other candidates, and give some extra insight into your individuality and personality. And you have to accomplish all of this in a limited amount of space?

Don’t worry—sticking to the word count while writing an excellent college essay is certainly possible. We’ll show you how!

What is the word count for college essays?

First, you might be wondering: What is the word count for college essays? The answer varies, but let’s take a look at some general guidelines.

Most college applicants will end up writing the Common App essay. Currently, the Common App asks you to write an essay ranging from 250-650 words . 650 words is just over one page of single-spaced type. When you fill out the application online, it won’t allow you to submit an essay with less than 250 or more than 650 words. So, sticking to the word count is not optional.

If you don’t write the Common App essay, or if you write additional essays, note that most college essays set word limits around 500-750 words. In the rare case that no word limit is specified, most experts recommend staying under 800 words.

Remember that the person reading your essay has read a lot of other essays, so be kind. Say what you need to say as concisely as possible. Here’s how:

Tips to Stick to the Word Count on College Essays

1. “zoom in” on your topic.

The best college essays focus on a specific topic . For instance, you might write about a single moment or event that profoundly impacted you, or a small but meaningful aspect of your life.

When you get specific, you’re able to provide details that are unique to you and your experiences, crafting an essay that no one else could write. Plus, you narrow the scope of your essay, which helps you stay within the word count.

Think about it like “zooming in” with a camera. Maybe you have a broad idea to start with, like family. But you can’t pack all of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences about family into 650 words. If you tried to, your essay would probably feel scattered and unorganized. It wouldn’t give a close, personal look at you or your life.

That means you need to zoom in some more. Let’s take a closer look. Maybe there’s a specific aspect of your family you want to highlight, like the way your family has taught you to speak your mind and stand for your beliefs. This is good, but it’s still pretty broad.

Let’s zoom in again. Get more specific. How has your family taught you to speak your mind? Is there a particular memory that stands out? Now, you decide to write about the spirited debates your family loves to have around the dinner table—and how those debates have shaped you as a person.

Now, that’s a topic you might be able to thoroughly cover in 650 words. And it’s going to be a lot more reflective, meaningful, and personal than a generic essay about “family.”

2. Outline First, Then Write

Once you’ve narrowed the scope of your essay, you’re almost ready to write. One of the most powerful strategies to help you stick to the word count is to create a plan or outline. Map out your essay before you start writing. If you have a plan, you’re less likely to ramble, go off on tangents, and ultimately waste words.

Think about the main purpose of your essay. What do you want the reader (college admissions officers) to know about you when they’re finished? What’s the point you’re trying to make?

As you plan or outline your essay, create a narrative:

  • What is the beginning, middle, and end of the story you’re telling ?
  • What is your character arc?
  • Who were you at the beginning? How were you challenged, influenced, or inspired? What did you learn or how did you grow as a result? Who are you now?

Focus on including information that accomplishes your main purposes and moves your narrative along. If it’s unrelated to any of your key points, you can probably cut it. And if it’s information that’s found somewhere else in your application, you don’t need to include it in your plan.

Having a clear, concise, and focused plan for your essay will help you convey your message without exceeding the word limit.

3. Keep the Introduction Short

The most important part of your essay is the body. That means your introduction doesn’t need to be extremely long. Save your words for the “meat” of the essay, where you’ll really dig into your narrative.

An effective introduction is engaging, interesting, and brief. It provides a glimpse or a preview into what you’ll discuss, but not too much. You want to leave the admissions officer wanting to read more.

In general, an introduction only needs three key parts:

  • Hook/grabber (an interesting sentence that immediately engages the reader)
  • Necessary background information (keyword: necessary)
  • Thesis statement or thematic statement (a clear statement summarizing your overall point)

Because college essays are more creative, you don’t have to follow this pattern exactly. But it gives you an idea of why a solid introduction can be short and sweet. Many students make the mistake of including too much unnecessary background in their introduction. Try to limit your intro to 4-6 sentences, unless there’s other essential information you must include.

If your intro is longer than six sentences, go back and underline or highlight sentences that are essential to the meaning of your essay. Then, review the sentences you didn’t highlight. Can you cut them entirely, or at least shorten them? Can this piece of info wait until the body of your essay?

4. Focus on the Important Stuff

We already mentioned that you want to focus on information that advances your narrative and relates to your main point. You also want to devote most of your word count to reflection and introspection.

When an admissions officer reads your essay, they’re most interested in reading your analysis of your life experiences. Think about questions like:

  • What did this event mean to you?
  • Why is it significant?
  • How has it shaped your life?
  • How did you learn or grow from this experience?
  • What does the information in this essay convey about you as a person, the way you think, or what you believe in and value?

If you write an essay about a challenge in your life, for example, you want to describe the challenge itself only briefly. The majority of your essay should focus on how you overcame the challenge and what you learned from the experience. It should demonstrate positive qualities that the experience revealed or helped you develop, like resilience, determination, and courage.

So, if it looks like you’re going to exceed the word count, reread. How many of these sentences are telling your story? How many are reflecting on your story? If you have to cut something, cut nonessential storytelling pieces. Include specific details that bring your story to life and tell it clearly without taking up too much space.

5. Eliminate Repetition

Have you included any repetitive words or phrases? Do any of your sentences basically mean the same thing? Reread your essay for repetition, and cut it.

Here’s an example:

It was the hardest decision I had ever made in my life. I wanted to avoid embarrassment, but I also wanted to do what was right. Making matters worse, I was torn between my two best friends. I never expected to face such a tough decision.

The first and last sentences of the paragraph above basically say, “It was a hard decision.” The writer doesn’t need both of them. If you can find sentences in your essay that don’t add any new information, then it’s safe to delete them.

6. Avoid Using Unnecessary Words

Similarly, sticking to a tight word limit requires you to write concisely. Concise writing is succinct and to the point. It avoids unnecessary words and sentences. To write concisely, think of each word as a $100 bill. You want to spend them wisely.

Of course, you don’t want to sound like a robot. Writing concisely doesn’t mean that you need to cut interesting details or doses of personality. Choose your words deliberately, and avoid words that don’t add meaning, like:

In some circumstances, some of these words might add meaning. But if you’re struggling to stay within the word limit, these words should be some of the first to go. Does the sentence make sense without it? If yes, cut it. In using the $100 bill analogy above, where can you save money? What unnecessary expenses could your essay live without?

Avoid Using Unnecessary Words: Let’s Practice!

Let’s look at my first paragraph above:

I’m not trying to stick to a 650-word limit, but what if I was? What could I cut? Here are some ideas:

  • The word “Similarly” doesn’t add any information. I could just say, “Sticking to a tight word limit requires you to write concisely.”
  • In the third sentence, I could delete “To write concisely.” You already know that the topic of this paragraph is concise writing. It would still make sense to say, “Think of each word as a $100 bill.”
  • In the final sentence, I could say, “Spend them wisely” instead of, “You want to spend them wisely.” Deleting those two words doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. In fact, it makes the sentence clearer and more direct.

Now, let’s look at my third paragraph:

If I had to cut something, what could I cut? Here are some suggestions:

  • In the first sentence, I could shorten “In some circumstances” to “Sometimes.” It means the same thing and saves me two words.
  • In the second sentence, I could delete “some of,” making the sentence, “But if you’re struggling to stay within the word limit, these words should be the first to go.” “Some of” doesn’t add meaning, and deleting it makes the sentence stronger. Plus, I said “some of” in the previous sentence too, so it sounds repetitive.
  • I could delete “above” from the question, “In using the $100 bill analogy above, where can you save money?” You probably know the analogy is above. And even if you don’t know, it’s not essential information.
  • The final sentence asks, “What unnecessary expenses could your essay live without?” I could delete “unnecessary” because it has the same meaning as “could live without.”

Hopefully, this gives you an idea of how to cut unnecessary words from your essay! As a writer, it’s easy to get attached to the words you’ve chosen. But when it comes to word counts, you must be prepared to trim the fat and delete any words that don’t add meaning.

You should also shorten sentences and phrases whenever possible. For instance, instead of saying, “I wondered if I had made the right decision,” write, “Had I made the right decision?” With the question mark, “I wondered” is implied. Shorter sentences save you words, and they’re often clearer, stronger, and more direct.

7. Ask for Help

If you’ve tried all of these ideas and exercises, but your essay is still too long, ask for help! Ask a friend, parent, teacher, or other trusted adult to read the essay.

Do they see any sentences, phrases, or words that you can cut?

Sometimes, getting an extra pair of eyes on your essay makes a huge difference. An outside perspective is always clearer.

Final Thoughts: How to Stick to the Word Count on College Essays

You might have a lot to say in your college essay, but you have to say it within the required word count. Use strategies like:

  • Narrowing down your topic
  • Mapping out your essay beforehand
  • Focusing on information that supports your main point and advances your narrative
  • Cutting repetition
  • Cutting unnecessary words and phrases
  • Shortening sentences whenever possible
  • Asking for a fresh perspective

Believe it or not, using these strategies will also make your essay more engaging and powerful. Not only will you stick to the word count on your college essays, but you’ll also write a clear, concise, and memorable essay for the admissions officers.

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Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion , a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance. Jason is a Brazilian Jiujitsu martial artist, outdoorsman, and avid reader. You can find more content on his blog and YouTube channel.

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September 27, 2023

Word and Character Limits in College Essays

Word And Charater Limits In College Essays

Previously Published on September 2, 2011:

With every college essay comes a word limit. Some essays are 35 words, others 650 words. Some are 100 characters, others two pages. But for each of these essays, irrespective of the word count, there is one guiding principle that college applicants should follow: stick to the word count — don’t write more, don’t write less.

Essays Are Real Estate for Applicants to Make Their Case

Each essay — no matter its length — offers applicants real estate to make their case for admission. Some schools, of course, offer more real estate than others. For the 2023-2024 college admissions cycle, for example, Harvard University has five 250-word essays . Meanwhile, Brown University has three essays and four short answers: 200-250 words for the three essays, three words for the first short answer, 100 words for two short answers, and 50 words for the final short answer.

Applicants Should Write to the Maximum Word Count in Essays

So, when a school asks applicants to write a 200-250-word essay, how many words should they write? That’s an  easy  one: 250. When a school offers students the chance to write optional essays, should they write them?  You bet ! No  optional  essay in highly selective college admissions should ever be considered optional. Instead, it’s a chance for students to make their case. And applicants should always write to the maximum word count in all college essays .

A Word Count Test

To conclude, we’ve got a test for this year’s applicants. Applicants to Duke University ‘s Class of 2028 are required to answer one 250-word essay, and they’re given five optional essay options of which they can write up to two. So, how many essays should this year’s Duke applicants write? You guessed it — three! And how long should each of their essays be? You guessed it again — 250 words! Not more, not less.

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What’s a Good Word Count for a College Application Essay?

Writing a college application essay can be difficult and stressful. You want an admissions counselor to see your essay as a standout piece that makes him want to pick you over all other applicants. You want your words to make a positive impression, but you also don’t want to drone on and on for days.

You want to know that when you look at the word counter you're in a good range, but what is a good range?

Reading college essay examples can help you get a sense of what a good essay looks like.

Generally speaking, 350-500 words works well. This is long enough to develop ideas, but short enough the keep someone’s interest.

How can you be thorough, interesting, and detailed but not too wordy with this limited word count? Crafting the perfect essay requires some careful thought and planning.

Let’s explore some ways to write a phenomenal college essay that is just the perfect length.

1. Look at College Essay Examples

Search Google for college essay examples. There are dozens of sites to help you find some high-quality essays. Here are a few to get you started: Johns Hopkins University essays , College Board essay , and Hamilton University essays .

It will help to search for examples that answer prompts similar to those you are trying to answer for your own essays. Write notes about how these types of questions are answered effectively.

Reflect on the writer’s style: What works well with each essay? What is the writer doing to keep your attention and to provide interesting insight into her personality?

You can also search for some examples of not-so-great essays and learn by reflecting on what you would do differently.

2. Stick with Guidelines if They are Given

This is not the time to go rogue with your writing guidelines. If a college says to write a one-page essay, do it. (If you're wondering how many words per page to write, generally one page is 250 words.)

If a college says to write 1000 words, do it. (And how many pages is 1000 words? About 4.) College admissions counselors will notice if they ask for 4 pages and you provide 2 pages. Or 6 pages. Give them what they are asking for.

Not following directions provided by colleges is one of the easiest ways to have your work ignored and your application rejected. It sucks to put in a ton of work and not have it looked over simply because you didn’t pay attention to one or two small details in the directions or didn’t follow guidelines.

3. Be Thoughtful and Detailed—Not “Wordy”

This is your chance to paint a complete picture of yourself and your personality. You also need to be sure that you have enough content to fully and clearly answer the prompt you've been given without adding a lot of fluff. You want to shine. But be careful to not go overboard.

Aim for 350-500 words for your college essay. Make every word count.

Tell an interesting story that shows who you are and what you value. Offer meaningful examples. The keyword: meaningful.

Avoid repetition and unnecessary words. Don’t give a laundry list of accomplishments. One specific, well-developed example that means a lot is way more valuable than ten examples that just skim the surface.

4. Use Vivid and Clear Language

Don’t bore or confuse your reader. If you are bored reading your essay, so is the admissions counselor. If you aren’t sure if your essay is boring, get some feedback from others. Ask your parents, teachers, and peers to read your essay.

Have them tell you which parts make them smile, laugh, reflect, or think. Ask them to honestly tell you where they are bored, confused, or completely lost. Revise accordingly and get rid of the boring or confusing parts. No one wants to read those.

As you are writing your college essay, remember to count your words, but also make sure that every word counts. Choose meaningful, interesting stories to tell, and avoid repetition and fluff. With hard work (and a lot of revision), you will have your pick of universities to choose from!

How to Write Essay Titles and Headers

Don’t overlook the title and section headers when putting together your next writing assignment. Follow these pointers for keeping your writing organized and effective.

101 Standout Argumentative Essay Topic Ideas

Need a topic for your upcoming argumentative essay? We've got 100 helpful prompts to help you get kickstarted on your next writing assignment.

Writing a Standout College Admissions Essay

Your personal statement is arguably the most important part of your college application. Follow these guidelines for an exceptional admissions essay.

How long should my essay be?

The average length of a personal essay for college is 400─600 words. Always read the prompt. Follow the instructions provided in the application.

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The Length Requirements for the Common Application Essay in 2020-21

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Students applying to colleges that use the Common Application will typically need to respond to one of seven essay prompts . For the 2020-21 application cycle, the length limit for the essay is 650 words. That limit includes the essay title, notes, and any other text that you include in the essay text box.

Fast Facts: The Common Application Length Requirements

  • Your essay needs to be between 250 and 650 words long.
  • You can't go over the limit—the online form will cut you off at 650 words.
  • The length includes the title, notes, and any other text you include in the online form.
  • Use your 650 words to tell a focused story and help the admissions folks get to know you.

History of the Common Application Length Limit

For years the Common Application had no length limit, and applicants and counselors frequently debated whether a tight 450-word essay was a wiser approach than a detailed 900-word piece. In 2011, that decision was taken away as the Common Application moved to a relatively short 500-word limit. With the August 2013 release of CA4 (the current version of the Common Application), the guidelines changed once again. CA4 set the limit at 650 words with a minimum of 250 words. And unlike earlier versions of the Common Application, the length limit is now enforced by the application form. No longer can applicants attach an essay that goes over the limit. Instead, applicants will need to enter the essay into a text box that counts words and prevents entering anything beyond 650 words.

What Can You ​Accomplish in 650 Words?

Even if you take advantage of the full length available to you, keep in mind that 650 words is not a long essay. It's roughly the equivalent of a two-page, double-spaced essay. It's about the same length as this article on essay length. Most essays tend to be between three and eight paragraphs depending on the applicant's writing style and essay strategy (essays with dialogue, of course, might have far more paragraphs).

As you plan your essay, you definitely want to keep the length requirement in mind. Many applicants attempt to do too much with their essays and then struggle to edit them down to 650 words. Realize the purpose of the personal statement is not to tell your life story or to give an exhaustive overview of all of your accomplishments. Let your list of extracurricular activities, academic record, letters of recommendation, and supplemental essays and materials show your range of accomplishments. The personal statement is not the place for long lists or catalogs of achievement.

To write an engaging and effective 650 word or shorter essay, you need to have a sharp focus. Narrate a single event, or illuminate a single passion or talent. Whichever essay prompt you choose, make sure you zero in on a specific example that you narrate in an engaging and thoughtful way. Allow enough space for self reflection so that whatever your topic is you spend at least some time talking about its significance to you.

Again, use the essay to narrate an engaging story. Make sure it highlights something you care about deeply, and be sure to provide a window into your interests or personality that isn't already obvious from the rest of your application.

A Final Word About Essay Length

With the primary Common Application essay, you will need to come in at 650 words or fewer. However, you will find that most supplemental essays on the Common Application have different length guidelines, and colleges that don't use the Common Application will have differing length requirements. No matter what the circumstances, make sure you follow the guidelines. If an essay should be 350 words, don't write 370. Learn more about some of the issues related to essay length in this article:  College Application Essay Length Limits .

Finally, keep in mind that what you say and how you say it is far more important than whether you have 550 words or 650 words. Be sure to attend to your essay's style , and in most cases you're going to want to avoid these ten bad essay topics . If you've said all you have to say in 500 words, don't try to pad your essay to make it longer. Regardless of length, and even if yours is a transfer essay , the best writing will tell a compelling story, provide insight to your character and interests, and are written with crisp and engaging prose.

  • Ideal College Application Essay Length
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  • How to Ace Your University of Wisconsin Personal Statements
  • Should an Application Essay Be Single-Spaced or Double-Spaced?
  • Common Application Essay Option 2 Tips: Learning from Failure
  • Common Application Essay on a Meaningful Place
  • Tips for Writing an Essay on an Event That Led to Personal Growth
  • 2020-21 Common Application Essay Option 4—Solving a Problem
  • Common Application Essay Option 3 Tips: Challenging a Belief
  • Private School Application Essay Tips
  • Addressing Diversity in a College Application Essay
  • 5 Tips for a College Admissions Essay on an Important Issue
  • Tips for an Admissions Essay on an Influential Person

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Your chance of acceptance, your chancing factors, extracurriculars, word count for college essays.

Hello, fellow applicants! As I'm working on my Common App essay, I just wanted to know if there's a specific word count I should stick to for these college essays? Do different colleges have different requirements? Any guidance would be great!

Hey there! The Common App essay indeed has a word limit, which is set at a maximum of 650 words. This limit holds true for nearly all schools using the Common App platform. That being said, it's always a good idea to double-check each college's specific requirements, as they might have additional supplemental essays with varying word counts.

As for the essay itself, remember that quality is more important than quantity. You don't necessarily have to use all 650 words; a concise and impactful essay can be just as (or even more) effective. Strive to share a meaningful story or message that highlights your unique attributes and experiences, while staying within the word limit. Good luck with your essay and college applications!

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CollegeVine’s Q&A seeks to offer informed perspectives on commonly asked admissions questions. Every answer is refined and validated by our team of admissions experts to ensure it resonates with trusted knowledge in the field.

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VIDEO

  1. How I was ALWAYS Under the Word Count for EVERY University Essay

  2. How to Increase Word Count of your Essay (Magic Trick)

  3. How to Grade an Essay Quickly

  4. writing a 2,000 WORD ESSAY in 4 HOURS

  5. How to write a 1000 word essay in 1 hour and YOU CAN TOO!

  6. writing a 2,500 word essay EVERY week at university

COMMENTS

  1. How Long Should a College Essay Be?

    Revised on June 1, 2023. Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit. If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words. You should aim to stay under the specified limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely.

  2. The Best College Essay Length: How Long Should It Be?

    In the simplest terms, your college essay should be pretty close to, but not exceeding, the word limit in length. Think within 50 words as the lower bound, with the word limit as the upper bound. So for a 500-word limit essay, try to get somewhere between 450-500 words. If they give you a range, stay within that range.

  3. How Long Should Your College Essay Be? What Is the Ideal Length?

    Personal statements are generally 500-650 words. For example, the Common Application, which can be used to apply to more than 800 colleges, requires an essay ranging from 250-650 words. Similarly, the Coalition Application, which has 150 member schools, features an essay with a recommended length of 500-650 words.

  4. How Long Should a College Essay Be?

    However, college application essays tend to require a word count. When a college provides you with a wide word count range, it's best to take advantage of the upper word count limit. For example, if a college asks for an essay between 250-500 words, you should aim to craft a response that's at least 400-450 words. You don't need to hit ...

  5. How Long Should a College Essay Be?

    College Essay Length: Go to the Maximum Word Count. College applicants should use the real estate offered in college essays to make their case — all of it! If the maximum word count for a college admissions essay is 650 words, applicants should not write 500 words. They should write 650 words — or pretty close to it.

  6. How Long is an Essay? Guidelines for Different Types of Essay

    Essay length guidelines. Type of essay. Average word count range. Essay content. High school essay. 300-1000 words. In high school you are often asked to write a 5-paragraph essay, composed of an introduction, three body paragraphs, and a conclusion. College admission essay. 200-650 words.

  7. How Long Should Your College Application Essay Be?

    Updated on December 30, 2019. The 2019-20 version of the Common Application has an essay length limit of 650 words and a minimum length of 250 words. This limit has remained unchanged for the past several years. Learn how important this word limit is and how to make the most of your 650 words.

  8. How long should a college essay be?

    The Common App's personal essay has had the same maximum word count for years: you get 250-650 words for the entire essay. While you don't have to hit this limit exactly, the Common App portal will not accept anything longer than 650 words. Any part of the college essay beyond the 650 words will simply not paste in.

  9. Unveiling the Mystery: Navigating College Essay Word Counts

    1. Write and Re-write. Don't worry about how many words you have in the first draft; just let your ideas run. During the revision process, carefully cut out any words that aren't needed while keeping the main idea. You can improve your story without making it too long by redrafting.

  10. The Perfect College Essay Length: Tips and Recommendations

    The Ideal Length for Your Paper. The number of words required for a college application essay may vary anywhere from 250 to 650, with some schools mandating a certain minimum or maximum number of words for their applicants' essays. Nonetheless, while the word count is significant, the substance of the paper is what counts in this context.

  11. How Long Should College Essays Be?

    Consider aiming for a range where the maximum word count is the upper bound and roughly 50 words less than that is the lower bound. For instance, if the word limit is 500, your essay should ideally be between 450 and 500 words. ... most college essays fall between 150 and 650 words in length. This range is practical, considering admissions ...

  12. Tips for Writing an Effective Application Essay

    Want to know how to draft an essay for your college application? Here are some tips to keep in mind when writing. Tips for Essay Writing. A typical college application essay, also known as a personal statement, is 400-600 words. Although that may seem short, writing about yourself can be challenging.

  13. How to Format a College Essay: Step-by-Step Guide

    The most popular college application systems, like the Common Application and Coalition Application, will give you a maximum of 650 words for your main personal statement, and typically less than that for school-specific supplemental essays. Other systems will usually specify the maximum word count—the UC PIQs are 350 max, for example. If ...

  14. What's a good word count for college essays?

    Hey there! It's great that you're considering word count while working on your college essays. Most colleges have a word limit for their required essays, like the Common Application essay, which has a limit of 650 words. Generally, it's a good idea to aim for around 500 to 650 words, as it provides enough space for you to share your thoughts and experiences in a meaningful way.

  15. What's a good word count for a college essay?

    Generally, most colleges require a main personal statement, which is typically around 250-650 words. This range is set by the Common Application and the Coalition Application, which are platforms used by many colleges for their application process. It's important to keep your essay within this word count, as going too far over or under the ...

  16. What is a good word count for a college essay?

    Generally, most colleges have a word limit for their essays. For instance, the Common Application has a maximum word count of 650 words. Staying within this limit is essential, as the platform will cut off anything that goes beyond the set limit. If your essay is looking lengthy, consider revisiting your content to see if there's anything that ...

  17. How do I stay under the word count on my college application essay?

    Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay. You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely.

  18. How to Stick to the Word Count on College Essays

    Tips to Stick to the Word Count on College Essays. 1. "Zoom In" On Your Topic. The best college essays focus on a specific topic. For instance, you might write about a single moment or event that profoundly impacted you, or a small but meaningful aspect of your life.

  19. Word and Character Limits in College Essays

    Previously Published on September 2, 2011: With every college essay comes a word limit. Some essays are 35 words, others 650 words. Some are 100 characters, others two pages. But for each of these essays, irrespective of the word count, there is one guiding principle that college applicants should follow: stick to the word count — don't ...

  20. What's a Good Word Count for a College Application Essay?

    If a college says to write a one-page essay, do it. (If you're wondering how many words per page to write, generally one page is 250 words.) If a college says to write 1000 words, do it. (And how many pages is 1000 words? About 4.) College admissions counselors will notice if they ask for 4 pages and you provide 2 pages. Or 6 pages.

  21. How long should my essay be?

    The average length of a personal essay for college is 400─600 words. Always read the prompt. Follow the instructions provided in the application.

  22. What's the target word count for a strong college essay?

    Hi there! Ah, the elusive 'perfect' length for a college essay—I get this question a lot. The most common length for a main college essay, like the one for the Common Application, is approximately 500-650 words. This range is broad enough to develop your ideas thoroughly but concise enough to hold the admissions officers' attention. Think of it as telling a story: you need a clear beginning ...

  23. The 2020-21 Length Limit for the Common Application Essay

    Allen Grove. Updated on November 29, 2019. Students applying to colleges that use the Common Application will typically need to respond to one of seven essay prompts. For the 2020-21 application cycle, the length limit for the essay is 650 words. That limit includes the essay title, notes, and any other text that you include in the essay text box.

  24. Word count for college essays?

    Hey there! The Common App essay indeed has a word limit, which is set at a maximum of 650 words. This limit holds true for nearly all schools using the Common App platform. That being said, it's always a good idea to double-check each college's specific requirements, as they might have additional supplemental essays with varying word counts.