How Long Should an Average College Essay Be?

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Applying to college can be stressful, especially when figuring out what to write in college essays. Perhaps you’ve read the various prompts and selected a topic but are wondering whether your writing piece will stand out to admissions officers. And how does it affect your admission chances if you write too little or too much? Fear not because we are here to guide you on how long should an average college essay be.

What is the Purpose of College Application Essays?What is the Purpose of College Application Essays?

College application essays allow admissions teams to get to know you outside of the classroom. They’re interested in obtaining a different perspective on you that isn’t related to your test scores, academic achievements, and extracurricular activities. It’s how you can set yourself apart from other candidates with similar academic profiles, so don’t hesitate to tell a personal, specific, and unique story.

How Long Should College Essays Be?

How Long Should College Essays Be?

Perhaps you’re used to turning in writing assignments on a page-limit basis. For example, you might have submitted a 10-page history paper in the past. Although some colleges have page limits for their essays, most typically use a word limit. This is because universities want to ensure that all the essays they receive from applicants have a standard length, regardless of font or formatting.

As for how long should college essays be? Depending on the school, your essay should be close to the word limit it provides in the prompt or instructions. You should ensure that you don’t exceed the word limit. If there is a 500-word limit on an essay, try to aim for anywhere between 450-500 words. Once you’re given a range, stay within that range.

Let’s now take a look at some examples of college essay prompts and their average stated word count:

UPENN Required Supplemental Essay Prompts:

  • Write a short thank-you note to someone you have not yet thanked and would like to acknowledge. (We encourage you to share this note with that person, if possible, and reflect on the experience!) (150-200 words, only required for first year applicants)
  • How will you explore community at Penn? Consider how Penn will help shape your perspective, and how your experiences and perspective will help shape Penn. (150-200 words)

Duke University Required Supplemental Essay Prompt:

What is your sense of Duke as a university and a community, and why do you consider it a good match for you? If there’s something in particular about our offerings that attracts you, feel free to share that as well (250 words).

Cornell University Required Supplemental Essay Prompt:

In the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, Ezra Cornell wrote, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” For over 150 years, Cornell University has remained deeply committed to Ezra’s vision. Explain how your life experiences will help inform your contributions to a learning community devoted to “… any person … any study.” We encourage you to think broadly about your life experiences, including how local (e.g., family, school, neighborhood) or global communities you’ve been part of have helped shape your perspective. (350 word limit)

As you can probably tell, college essay length ranges from 150 to 650 words if we also consider the personal statement. After all, admissions officers have to read a lot of them in a short period.

Common College Application Essays

Common College Application Essays

It’s essential to understand the difference between various college essay types and formats so that you can submit writing samples that exhibit your best ideas and writing. Here’s what you should know about common college application essays:

Personal Statement

Your personal statement is the most common kind of essay you’ll come across, presenting several prompts and requiring you to write a longer essay (800-500 words). This is the essay where you talk about your identity, experiences, and goals. As the longest essay in your college application, the personal statement typically needs more work and editing if you wish to tell a compelling and focused story.

School-Specific College Essays

Other than your personal statement, most schools ask applicants to write supplemental essays based on their institution, values, culture, and much more. Some examples include:

  • Dartmouth essay
  • Stanford essay
  • Harvard essay
  • UPenn supplemental essay
  • Why UChicago essay
  • Why NYU essay

Many school-specific college essay prompts ask questions like ‘why this college’ or ‘why this major’ and expect an answer with an average word count between 150-350 words.

How to Format Your College Essay?

How to Format Your College Essay?

In this section, we’ll explain some general college essay formatting guidelines and conventional college essay structures.

General Formatting Guidelines

How you format an essay depends on whether you’re attaching a document or submitting it in a text box. Before we consider the best practices for both, let’s delve into some general formatting strategies:

  • Stay within the word count.
  • Don’t add a title unless asked for one because it takes up unnecessary space and reduces your word count.
  • Double space or indent when separating paragraphs.

In the case that you’re attaching a document:

  • Use 1-inch margins.
  • Double-space your lines or make them 1.5-spaced.
  • Save as a PDF to prevent any formatting issues related to Microsoft Word. Some older versions are incompatible with the newer formatting.
  • Use a standard size and font, such as 12-point Times New Roman.
  • Pay special attention to the stated word limit because, unlike with text boxes, you won’t automatically be cut off.

If you’re submitting your essay in a text box:

  • Ensure your paragraphs are clearly separated since a textbox can undo double spacing and indents.
  • Avoid bold and italics, as formatting isn’t typically transferred over in text boxes.
  • If essays are meant to be a certain shape, such as a balloon, proceed with caution. Text boxes are unlikely to respect this formatting, and this technique may also seem gimmicky, so be careful.

Can You Go Over the Word Limit in College Essay?

Can You Go Over the Word Limit in College Essay?

If you need one or two extra words to deliver the perfect conclusion, you will likely get away with exceeding the word limit. Small amounts are okay, and some schools even tell you that going over the word limit by a few words is fine. However, we don’t recommend doing this unless it’s explicitly stated by a college for the following reasons:

  • You may not be able to exceed the word limit because the extra words might get cut off when you copy-paste it into a text back. This means you’ll have to rewrite parts of it anyway.
  • In the case that admissions counselors notice that you’ve exceeded the word limit with even a few sentences, they may stop reading your essay after that. This is not an ideal situation for you at all.
  • A big aspect of the college application process revolves around following directions. For example, you have to follow directions to send supplemental materials, get your letters of recommendation, upload your essays, send your test scores, and much more. As an excellent general rule, follow whatever instructions you’re given by the colleges you’re applying to. It’s always better to be safe than sorry!

Can You Go Under Word Limit in College Essay?

Can You Go Under Word Limit in College Essay?

If you’re able to get your point across considerably under the word limit, it shouldn’t be a problem. Conciseness isn’t a bad writing strategy if you are cogent, clear, and get your point across. Still, most colleges already have a short college application essay length.

Perhaps you have a 500-word essay limit and you’ve written 300 words. Ask yourself whether you can elaborate or support one of your points more.

Make a teacher, friend, or parent read your essay and give you feedback on what you can improve or whether you should add more detail. Additionally, if a college gives you a word range, ensure that you at least hit the range’s bottom end. A given range of 500-400 words means that you need to write a minimum of 400 words. The less you write, the more it’ll look like you have nothing to say, which won’t leave a positive impression on admissions officers.

3 Tips for Writing a College Application Essay

3 Tips for Writing a College Application Essay

Here’s what you can do to write a stellar college application essay that stands out and improves your chances of securing admission into your dream university:

Be Yourself

The best way to be authentic in your essay is by choosing a point of view or prompt that aligns with who you truly are. Most readers can tell when a writer is inauthentic, and admissions officers are no exception to this rule. Inauthenticity can entail delivering overly flowery language that no one uses in daily conversations or picking a topic that barely sheds light on your personality or life.

Don’t avoid using your natural way of speaking and mixing it with your sense of humor. You can relay what strikes a chord with you if you choose a topic that’s genuinely important to you and not one that will just impress the readers. Consider writing about a hobby, a specific experience, a personality quirk that showcases your strengths, or even habits that illustrate your weaknesses.

When you’re honest about a childhood background, situations, or traits you’re working hard to improve, admissions teams are likelier to relate to you and be impressed.

Write Multiple Drafts

Once you write your essay’s first draft, set it aside for a few days and then return to it. In that time, you won’t remember the details of what you’ve written and may come back with a new perspective. This is a great way to enhance your ability to make effective revisions.

We also recommend starting your essay months before it is due so you have enough time to write several drafts and ultimately end up with one you are extremely proud of. Starting as early as the summer before high school’s senior year is in your best interest. Since extracurriculars and homework take less of your time in the summer, you can focus on your essay without distractions.

Try Writing Something Unique

Let’s be honest; if you want your essay to stand out, you will have to approach it from a fresh and unique perspective. Sure, most students choose to write about their wins, but how about narrating how you overcame your losses and the way they affected you?

In contrast, experienced writers can also play with the element of surprise by crafting a writing sample that only answers the main question at the end of the essay. Avoid overused themes, like moving, volunteer stories, success or sports-related obstacles, immigration stories, etc.

Wrapping Things Up: How Long Should an Average College Essay Be?

Now that you know that the question ‘how long should an essay be for a college application’ doesn’t really have a set answer, it’s time to focus on researching and figuring out the specific requirements for your target universities. Ensure you spend ample time crafting a captivating and personal essay that impresses the admissions team. Typically, the perfect college essay length is quite straightforward; it’s best to stay at or right under the stated word limit.

Picture of Professor Conquer
Professor Conquer

Professor Conquer started Conquer Your Exam in 2018 to help students feel more confident and better prepared for their tough tests. Prof excelled in high school, graduating top of his class and receiving admissions into several Ivy League and top 15 schools. He has helped many students through the years tutoring and mentoring K-12, consulting seniors through the college admissions process, and writing extensive how-to guides for school.

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