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Master the Five-Paragraph Essay
The five-paragraph essay is one of the most common composition assignments out there, whether for high school or college students. It is a classic assignment because it presents an arena in which writers can demonstrate their command of language and punctuation, as well as their logic and rhetorical skills. These skills are useful not only for classroom assignments and college application essays, but even in the business world, as employees have to write memorandums and reports, which draw on the same skills.
Mastering the five-paragraph essay is doable, and here are some tips.
Components of a Good Essay
The five-paragraph essay lives up to its name, because is has five paragraphs, as follows: an introductory paragraph that includes a thesis, three body paragraphs, each which includes support and development, and one concluding paragraph.
Its structure sometimes generates other names for the same essay, including three-tier essay, one-three-one, or a hamburger essay. Whether you are writing a cause-and-effect essay, a persuasive essay, an argumentative essay or a compare-and-contrast essay, you should use this same structure and the following specifics.
Keys to Introductory Paragraphs
Any introductory paragraph contains from three to five sentences and sets up the tone and structure for the whole essay. The first sentence should be a so-called hook sentence and grabs the reader. Examples of hook sentences include a quote, a joke, a rhetorical question or a shocking fact. This is the sentence that will keep your readers reading. Draw them in.
What Makes a Thesis Statement
The last sentence should be your thesis statement, which is the argument you are going to make in the essay. It is the sentence that contains the main point of the essay, or what you are trying to prove. It should be your strongest claim in the whole essay, telling the reader what the paper is about. You should be able to look back at it to keep your argument focused. The other sentences in this paragraph should be general information that links the first sentence and the thesis.
Content of Supporting Paragraphs
Each of the next three paragraphs follows the same general structure of the introductory paragraph. That is, they have one introduction sentence, evidence and arguments in three to five sentences, and a conclusion. Each one of them should define and defend your thesis sentence in the introduction.
The first body paragraph should be dedicated to proving your most powerful point. The second body paragraph can contain your weakest point, because the third body paragraph can, and should, support another strong argument.
Concluding Paragraph Tips
Your concluding paragraph is important, and can be difficult. Ideally, you can begin by restating your thesis. Then you can recall or restate all three to five of your supporting arguments. You should summarize each main point. If you have made similar arguments multiple times, join those together in one sentence.
Essentially, in the concluding or fifth paragraph, you should restate what your preceding paragraphs were about and draw a conclusion. It should answer the question: So what? Even if the answer seems obvious to you, write it down so that your reader can continue to easily follow your thinking process, and hopefully, agree with you.
A Note on Compare and Contrast
Let’s look a little more closely at the compare-and-contrast essay, which is a very common assignment. It can be a confusing one due to the terms used. Comparing two items is to show how they are alike. Contrasting two items is to show how they are different. One way to approach this essay is to make a grid for yourself that compares or contrasts two items before you start writing. Then, write about those characteristics. Do not try to write about both. The name of the essay is actually misleading.
Keep these pointers in mind when you need to write a five-paragraph essay, and your end result will be clear in its argument, leading your reader to the right conclusion. Often, that conclusion is to agree with you, and who doesn’t like to be right?
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10 Great Essay Writing Tips
Knowing how to write a college essay is a useful skill for anyone who plans to go to college. Most colleges and universities ask you to submit a writing sample with your application. As a student, you’ll also write essays in your courses. Impress your professors with your knowledge and skill by using these great essay writing tips.
Prepare to Answer the Question
Most college essays ask you to answer a question or synthesize information you learned in class. Review notes you have from lectures, read the recommended texts and make sure you understand the topic. You should refer to these sources in your essay.
Plan Your Essay
Many students see planning as a waste of time, but it actually saves you time. Take a few minutes to think about the topic and what you want to say about it. You can write an outline, draw a chart or use a graphic organizer to arrange your ideas. This gives you a chance to spot problems in your ideas before you spend time writing out the paragraphs.
Choose a Writing Method That Feels Comfortable
You might have to type your essay before turning it in, but that doesn’t mean you have to write it that way. Some people find it easy to write out their ideas by hand. Others prefer typing in a word processor where they can erase and rewrite as needed. Find the one that works best for you and stick with it.
View It as a Conversation
Writing is a form of communication, so think of your essay as a conversation between you and the reader. Think about your response to the source material and the topic. Decide what you want to tell the reader about the topic. Then, stay focused on your response as you write.
Provide the Context in the Introduction
If you look at an example of an essay introduction, you’ll see that the best essays give the reader a context. Think of how you introduce two people to each other. You share the details you think they will find most interesting. Do this in your essay by stating what it’s about and then telling readers what the issue is.
Explain What Needs to be Explained
Sometimes you have to explain concepts or define words to help the reader understand your viewpoint. You also have to explain the reasoning behind your ideas. For example, it’s not enough to write that your greatest achievement is running an ultra marathon. You might need to define ultra marathon and explain why finishing the race is such an accomplishment.
Answer All the Questions
After you finish writing the first draft of your essay, make sure you’ve answered all the questions you were supposed to answer. For example, essays in compare and contrast format should show the similarities and differences between ideas, objects or events. If you’re writing about a significant achievement, describe what you did and how it affected you.
Stay Focused as You Write
Writing requires concentration. Find a place where you have few distractions and give yourself time to write without interruptions. Don’t wait until the night before the essay is due to start working on it.
Read the Essay Aloud to Proofread
When you finish writing your essay, read it aloud. You can do this by yourself or ask someone to listen to you read it. You’ll notice places where the ideas don’t make sense, and your listener can give you feedback about your ideas.
Avoid Filling the Page with Words
A great essay does more than follow an essay layout. It has something to say. Sometimes students panic and write everything they know about a topic or summarize everything in the source material. Your job as a writer is to show why this information is important.
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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, the best college essay length: how long should it be.
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!
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 down anyways.
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.
Don't let this sinister hand stop you from writing everything you have to say!
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:
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.
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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 Wellesley supplemental essay prompt :
"When choosing a college community, you are choosing a place where you believe that you can live, learn, and flourish. Generations of inspiring women have thrived in the Wellesley community, and we want to know what aspects of this community inspire you to consider Wellesley. We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but the "Wellesley 100" is a good place to start. Visit The Wellesley 100 and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why. (Not-so-secret tip: The "why" matters to us.)"
There's no page or word limit here, but it does say to respond "in two well-developed paragraphs." This gives you an idea of what's reasonable. "Well-developed" certainly means the paragraphs can be long, but even two long paragraphs shouldn't exceed 500 words or so. 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.
But what's the proper coffee-to-paragraph ratio?
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 six "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!
"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!
Hey, writing about yourself can even be fun!
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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How Long Should a College Essay Be?
High school essays tend to require a page limit, but college essays tend to require a word count.
When it comes to college application essays, many colleges and universities specify a word count. Some expect one longer essay, while others expect responses to multiple prompts using a shorter word count for each answer. However, that’s not always the case. If your institution doesn’t provide a specific word count, it’s best to keep your essay between the length established by the longer college admissions essay format: 250 to 650 words .
Word count is just one factor to consider as you craft your college admissions essay. Let’s go over other considerations, like whether a longer essay makes a difference, and whether it’s acceptable to exceed the word count.
College essays: Word count vs. page limit
High school essays tend to require a page limit, meaning that your teachers might ask you to submit a five-page paper or an eight-paper paper. However, college 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 the maximum length, but your essay should be well over half the word count.
College essays or personal statements are an opportunity for a college admissions committee to hear directly from you. It’s valuable space. Writing the bare minimum may not send the best message to the committee, and it may not help them learn more about who you are outside of your transcripts and general application.
Learn more: Step-by-Step Guide to Applying for College
How to measure your college essay's word count
Measuring your word count depends on which program you’re using to write your essay. Microsoft Word and Google Docs are two of the most common.
Microsoft Word: The page count is typically displayed on the bottom left of your screen. You can also click “Review” and then “Word count” to find how much you’ve written.
Google Docs: Under “Tools,” click on “Word count.” You can also highlight a portion of your text before clicking “word count” so you can determine the exact word count of that section.
Should you go over the word count?
Simply put, no. Do not go over the maximum word count. If there isn’t a preferred word count, submit an essay that’s under 650 words, according to the college application platform Common App, which works with over 900 colleges in the US [ 1 ].
Admissions officers are looking for well-written essays that follow directions. Officers review thousands of essays every year. In fact, the average college received 9,071 applications in 2020 [ 2 ]. Writing either a very short or a very long essay—ignoring the directions in either case—might send the wrong impression.
You can always start by writing a longer draft and then trimming the most unnecessary parts to tighten your essay and get it down to the preferred word count. This will help you include the most important information and get your point across in a concise way.
What length should supplemental college essays be?
Supplemental essays are additional prompts that some colleges and universities ask students to answer in addition to their personal statement or college essay. It's usually an opportunity to specify your interest in that particular school: Admissions committees may ask why you want to attend or what you want to study and why.
Schools can require, on average, at least two or three supplemental essays, while others have been known to ask for over ten. Most schools will provide specific instructions about the word count for supplemental essays. As with the college essay, stay within the range or limit, and write a focused response that incorporates some knowledge about the school.
How to format your college essay
As with word count, many institutions specify any formatting requirements, such as double-spacing (vs. single-spacing) your essay, and what font size you should use. (With general online application portals, such as Common App, the program will format your essay for you.)
Because a college essay is measured by word count rather than page length, writing in a larger font and using double-spaced formatting won’t affect the overall length of your essay, though it’s best to adhere to each college’s guidelines. Check if there are any parameters you need to follow for each application you submit.
4 tips for writing an effective college essay
No matter which essay prompt you choose, it’s important to take your time crafting your response, making sure every word adds to your story. Follow these tips to help your college essay stand out.
1. Be prepared to write a few drafts.
Your college essay should go through a few drafts before you share the final version with one of your peers or a professional for additional feedback. Take advantage of the rough draft phase by overwriting. Forget about your word count for a moment and let yourself go. Doing so may help you discover something new to say, or help you expand upon your original idea.
Make editing a separate process from the actual writing. As much as possible, write and then walk away for a period of time (a few hours or even a day). Return to your essay with fresh eyes and see if you can cut the essay, reduce the number of words you’re using, or find a more succinct or focused way to approach your response.
2. Answer the question and relate it to your unique story.
Your essay should both answer the prompt and convey who you are. You don’t need a dazzling, one-of-a-kind story to get an admissions officer’s attention. Your life is unique to you—only you have had your experiences.
Make sure that whatever you choose to write about is an authentic representation of who you are. Instead of comparing your essay to someone else in your class, work to make your response the best it can be for you. And as you focus your essay, go one step further by sharing what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown as a result. That kind of reflection can build more depth into your response.
3. Get specific.
When recounting an experience, incorporate creative writing to your personal statement. Use details to describe a situation and add a bit of color. Pick strong verbs and a few specific adjectives that correctly highlight the action and scene. Let’s compare these two examples:
1) When I got a musical instrument for my birthday, I wasn’t really sure I’d like it. Still, I figured I’d play it daily because I enjoy music. I got better, and soon I made band. I like that I get to go to all the school games.
2) When my mother surprised me with a clarinet for my 15th birthday, I wondered if I’d enjoy playing it. Over the summer, when my friends gathered outside to enjoy their time off, I practiced my scales every day in my room—and slowly improved. After that hard work and sacrifice, I was excited to earn a place in the marching band.
Both paragraphs recount the same memory, but the second one creates a more memorable picture.
4. Ask for feedback.
Once you feel as though you’ve developed a final draft, don’t rush to turn it in. Instead, ask one of your favorite teachers or a trusted friend or family member to read it. Ask for constructive feedback on ways to improve. Be prepared to make changes if something is unclear or if they think there’s a better way to phrase a section. But make sure you continue to write in your voice so the college gets to know who you are instead of someone else.
When you’re feeling confident, review your work one last time for grammar and spelling. Don’t let a small error override an otherwise thoughtful, engaging essay.
You may find it helpful to brush up on your creative writing skills so you can express yourself clearly and colorfully before applying to college. On Coursera, you can enroll in Wesleyan University’s Creative Writing specialization for free. Or you can find courses that can help you gain more knowledge of the college admissions process .
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1. Common App. “ Are There Word Limits? , https://appsupport.commonapp.org/s/article/are-there-word-limits-kudeoeos." Accessed February 11, 2022.
2. US News and World Report. “ 10 Colleges That Received the Most Applications , https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/colleges-that-received-the-most-applications." Accessed February 11, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.
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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 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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How Long Should a College Essay Be? | Word Count Tips
Published on September 29, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . 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. However, if you write too little, it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.
Table of contents
Word count guidelines for different application types, how to shorten your essay, how to expand your essay, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
Each university has a different suggested or required word count depending on which application portal it uses.
Some application portals will allow you to exceed the word count limit, but admissions officers have limited time and energy to read longer essays. Other application portals have a strict limit and will not allow you to exceed it.
For example, in the Common App , the portal will not allow you to submit more than 650 words. Some colleges using the Common App will allow you to submit less than 250 words, but this is too short for a well-developed essay.
For scholarship essays , diversity essays , and “Why this college?” essays , word count limits vary. Make sure to verify and respect each prompt’s limit.
Don’t worry too much about word count until the revision stage ; focusing on word count while writing may hinder your creativity. Once you have finished a draft, you can start shortening or expanding your essay if necessary.
Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.
On some application portals, you can exceed the word limit, but there are good reasons to stay within it:
- To maintain the admissions officer’s attention
- To show you can follow directions
- To demonstrate you can write concisely
Here are some strategies for shortening your essay.
Stay on the main point
It’s good to use vivid imagery, but only include relevant details. Cut any sentences with tangents or unnecessary information.
My father taught me how to strategically hold the marshmallow pierced by a twig at a safe distance from the flames to make sure it didn’t get burned, ensuring a golden brown exterior.
Typically, my father is glued to his computer since he’s a software engineer at Microsoft. But that night, he was the marshmallow master. We waited together as the pillowy sugary goodness caramelized into gooey delight. Good example: Sticks to the point On our camping trip to Yosemite, my family spent time together, away from technology and routine responsibility.
My favorite part was roasting s’mores around the campfire. My father taught me how to hold the marshmallow at a safe distance from the flames, ensuring a golden brown exterior.
These college essay examples also demonstrate how you can cut your essay down to size.
Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay. If a word doesn’t add value, cut it.
Here are some common examples of wordiness and how to fix them.
Use a paraphrasing tool
If you want to save time, you can make use of a paraphrasing tool . Within the tool you can select the “short” mode to rewrite your essay in less words. Just copy your text in the tool and within 1 click you’ll have shortened your essay.
If you’re significantly under the word count, you’re wasting the opportunity to show depth and authenticity in your essay. Admissions officers may see your short essay as a sign that you’re unable to write a detailed, insightful narrative about yourself.
Here are some strategies for expanding your essay.
Show detailed examples, and don’t tell generic stories
You should include detailed examples that can’t be replicated by another student. Use vivid imagery, the five senses, and specific objects to transport the reader into your story.
Reveal your feelings and insight
If your essay lacks vulnerability or self-reflection, share your feelings and the lessons you’ve learned.
Be creative with how you express your feelings; rather than simply writing “I’m happy,” use memorable images to help the reader clearly visualize your happiness. Similarly, for insight, include the follow-up actions from your lessons learned; instead of claiming “I became a hard worker,” explain what difficult tasks you accomplished as a result of what you learned.
If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.
- Writing process
- Transition words
- Passive voice
- How to end an email
- Ms, mrs, miss
- How to start an email
- I hope this email finds you well
- Hope you are doing well
Parts of speech
- Personal pronouns
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.
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 your college essay goes over the word count limit , cut any sentences with tangents or irrelevant details. Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay.
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.
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 .
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12 Strategies to Writing the Perfect College Essay
College admission committees sift through thousands of college essays each year. Here’s how to make yours stand out.
When it comes to deciding who they will admit into their programs, colleges consider many criteria, including high school grades, extracurricular activities, and ACT and SAT scores. But in recent years, more colleges are no longer considering test scores.
Instead, many (including Harvard through 2026) are opting for “test-blind” admission policies that give more weight to other elements in a college application. This policy change is seen as fairer to students who don’t have the means or access to testing, or who suffer from test anxiety.
So, what does this mean for you?
Simply that your college essay, traditionally a requirement of any college application, is more important than ever.
A college essay is your unique opportunity to introduce yourself to admissions committees who must comb through thousands of applications each year. It is your chance to stand out as someone worthy of a seat in that classroom.
A well-written and thoughtful essay—reflecting who you are and what you believe—can go a long way to separating your application from the slew of forgettable ones that admissions officers read. Indeed, officers may rely on them even more now that many colleges are not considering test scores.
Below we’ll discuss a few strategies you can use to help your essay stand out from the pack. We’ll touch on how to start your essay, what you should write for your college essay, and elements that make for a great college essay.
More than any other consideration, you should choose a topic or point of view that is consistent with who you truly are.
Readers can sense when writers are inauthentic.
Inauthenticity could mean the use of overly flowery language that no one would ever use in conversation, or it could mean choosing an inconsequential topic that reveals very little about who you are.
Use your own voice, sense of humor, and a natural way of speaking.
Whatever subject you choose, make sure it’s something that’s genuinely important to you and not a subject you’ve chosen just to impress. You can write about a specific experience, hobby, or personality quirk that illustrates your strengths, but also feel free to write about your weaknesses.
Honesty about traits, situations, or a childhood background that you are working to improve may resonate with the reader more strongly than a glib victory speech.
Grab the Reader From the Start
You’ll be competing with so many other applicants for an admission officer’s attention.
Therefore, start your essay with an opening sentence or paragraph that immediately seizes the imagination. This might be a bold statement, a thoughtful quote, a question you pose, or a descriptive scene.
Starting your essay in a powerful way with a clear thesis statement can often help you along in the writing process. If your task is to tell a good story, a bold beginning can be a natural prelude to getting there, serving as a roadmap, engaging the reader from the start, and presenting the purpose of your writing.
Focus on Deeper Themes
Some essay writers think they will impress committees by loading an essay with facts, figures, and descriptions of activities, like wins in sports or descriptions of volunteer work. But that’s not the point.
College admissions officers are interested in learning more about who you are as a person and what makes you tick.
They want to know what has brought you to this stage in life. They want to read about realizations you may have come to through adversity as well as your successes, not just about how many games you won while on the soccer team or how many people you served at a soup kitchen.
Let the reader know how winning the soccer game helped you develop as a person, friend, family member, or leader. Make a connection with your soup kitchen volunteerism and how it may have inspired your educational journey and future aspirations. What did you discover about yourself?
Show Don’t Tell
As you expand on whatever theme you’ve decided to explore in your essay, remember to show, don’t tell.
The most engaging writing “shows” by setting scenes and providing anecdotes, rather than just providing a list of accomplishments and activities.
Reciting a list of activities is also boring. An admissions officer will want to know about the arc of your emotional journey too.
Try Doing Something Different
If you want your essay to stand out, think about approaching your subject from an entirely new perspective. While many students might choose to write about their wins, for instance, what if you wrote an essay about what you learned from all your losses?
If you are an especially talented writer, you might play with the element of surprise by crafting an essay that leaves the response to a question to the very last sentence.
You may want to stay away from well-worn themes entirely, like a sports-related obstacle or success, volunteer stories, immigration stories, moving, a summary of personal achievements or overcoming obstacles.
However, such themes are popular for a reason. They represent the totality of most people’s lives coming out of high school. Therefore, it may be less important to stay away from these topics than to take a fresh approach.
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Write With the Reader in Mind
Writing for the reader means building a clear and logical argument in which one thought flows naturally from another.
Use transitions between paragraphs.
Think about any information you may have left out that the reader may need to know. Are there ideas you have included that do not help illustrate your theme?
Be sure you can answer questions such as: Does what you have written make sense? Is the essay organized? Does the opening grab the reader? Is there a strong ending? Have you given enough background information? Is it wordy?
Write Several Drafts
Set your essay aside for a few days and come back to it after you’ve had some time to forget what you’ve written. Often, you’ll discover you have a whole new perspective that enhances your ability to make revisions.
Start writing months before your essay is due to give yourself enough time to write multiple drafts. A good time to start could be as early as the summer before your senior year when homework and extracurricular activities take up less time.
Read It Aloud
Writer’s tip : Reading your essay aloud can instantly uncover passages that sound clumsy, long-winded, or false.
If you’ve mentioned an activity, story, or anecdote in some other part of your application, don’t repeat it again in your essay.
Your essay should tell college admissions officers something new. Whatever you write in your essay should be in philosophical alignment with the rest of your application.
Also, be sure you’ve answered whatever question or prompt may have been posed to you at the outset.
Ask Others to Read Your Essay
Be sure the people you ask to read your essay represent different demographic groups—a teacher, a parent, even a younger sister or brother.
Ask each reader what they took from the essay and listen closely to what they have to say. If anyone expresses confusion, revise until the confusion is cleared up.
Pay Attention to Form
Although there are often no strict word limits for college essays, most essays are shorter rather than longer. Common App, which students can use to submit to multiple colleges, suggests that essays stay at about 650 words.
“While we won’t as a rule stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you’d hoped it would,” the Common App website states.
In reviewing other technical aspects of your essay, be sure that the font is readable, that the margins are properly spaced, that any dialogue is set off properly, and that there is enough spacing at the top. Your essay should look clean and inviting to readers.
End Your Essay With a “Kicker”
In journalism, a kicker is the last punchy line, paragraph, or section that brings everything together.
It provides a lasting impression that leaves the reader satisfied and impressed by the points you have artfully woven throughout your piece.
So, here’s our kicker: Be concise and coherent, engage in honest self-reflection, and include vivid details and anecdotes that deftly illustrate your point.
While writing a fantastic essay may not guarantee you get selected, it can tip the balance in your favor if admissions officers are considering a candidate with a similar GPA and background.
Write, revise, revise again, and good luck!
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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.
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?
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?
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.
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?
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.
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.
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 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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July 8, 2023
College Essay Length: Go to the Maximum Word Count
Previously Published on September 24, 2017:
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.
When you’re a real estate developer in Manhattan, and you’re allowed to build twenty-five stories, you don’t construct ten stories and dedicate the rest of the space for the native pigeons of Manhattan. You build up —twenty-five levels. The pigeons have the skies.
And yet even though it seems only logical that college applicants should use all of the allotted real estate to make their case in essays, to tell their stories, to distinguish themselves in super competitive applicant pools, it never ceases to amaze us how many students write essays that don’t come anywhere near the maximum word count. Instead, they leave the space on the table to the disservice of their candidacies.
Students Should Go to the Word Limit in Every College Essay
It’s not as though students only make the mistake of leaving words on the table in their Common Application Personal Statement . They also often do so in their equally as critical supplemental essays.
If Brown University asks applicants to write a 200-250-word essay on how students would take advantage of the Open Curriculum, as the Ivy League school does on its 2022-2023 application, students should not offer them 200 words. College applicants are not interior designers — blank space does not look lovely. They should submit 250-word essays.
When Brown admissions officers come across an essay that doesn’t come close to the school’s maximum word count, they’re likely to think, “This student doesn’t love our school enough to put in the work to write an essay just for us. She probably wants to go elsewhere.”
And if that thought crosses the mind of an admissions officer, the odds are strong that the same admissions officer is unlikely to offer that student a spot in the incoming class. And, of course, this doesn’t just apply to Brown — it applies to every highly selective institution in America.
Students Should Use the Maximum Word or Character Count in Short Answers Too
We can’t stress enough the importance of taking advantage of the real estate an applicant is afforded in essays to make their case. But don’t be fooled that an essay only means boxes on The Common Application that allow students to include 100 words or more.
After all, many top schools pose short answer questions too. Maybe they’re called short-takes. On the 2022-2023 application, the University of Southern California , for instance, asks applicants to name their favorite movie of all time, their dream job, favorite trip, and favorite snack, among others.
Students should go up to the maximum character count in these opportunities too — and opportunities is the apropos word because they’re opportunities to wow admissions officers, present a window into a student’s world and distinguish themselves from other talented applicants. In short, students should not just name their favorite movie — they should say why concisely.
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