How long should a college essay be?

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.

Word count guidelines for different application types

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.

Application portal Word count Strict limit?
Common App 250–650
  • Yes
Coalition App 500–650
  • No
UC App Four 350-word essays
  • Yes

For scholarship and supplemental 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.

How to shorten your essay

For 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.

Bad example: Too many tangents
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. I love s’mores because they remind me of The Sandlot. “You’re killin’ me Smalls!” What a great movie.

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.

Typically, my father is glued to his computer. But that night, he was the marshmallow master. We waited together as the pillowy sugary goodness caramelized into gooey delight.

Eliminate wordiness

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.

Problem Solution
Repetition and redundancy We had done a lot of advance planning for our science project. We had done a lot of planning for our science project.
Inflated phrases I didn’t know whether or not I should tell the truth. I didn’t know whether I should tell the truth.
Phrasal verbs When I was a child, I came up with an imaginary friend named Roger to get away from my parents’ fighting. When I was a child, I invented an imaginary friend named Roger to escape my parents’ fighting.
Unnecessary “of” phrases The mother of my friend was Marissa, who was a member of our church. My friend’s mother Marissa was a fellow church member.
False subjects “There is/there are” There are many large-scale farms in America, but there is a local sustainable farm preserved by my family. America has many large-scale farms, but my family preserves a local sustainable one.
Unnecessary qualifiers I pretty much just wanted a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone from Baskin Robbins. I wanted a mint chocolate chip ice cream cone from Baskin Robbins.
Passive voice Most of the German chocolate cake was eaten by me. I ate most of the German chocolate cake.
Unnecessary helping verbs I am going to be attending my school’s annual carnival. I will attend my school’s annual carnival.

How to expand 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.

  • Bad example
  • Good example
My mom cooks the best beef stew. The sweet smell of caramelized onions and braised beef wafts from the kitchen. My mother attends to the stew as if it’s one of her patients at the hospital, checking every five to 10 minutes on its current state.
The shepherd’s pie reminded me of familiar flavors. Reminding me of the warm, comforting blanket from my childhood, the shepherd’s pie tasted like home.
His hands were cracked and rough. His hands were cracked and rough like alligator skin.

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.

  • Bad example
  • Good example
After my best friend Doug moved away, it was really hard. Before, we used to always talk about video games, barter snacks during lunch, and share secrets. But now, I’m solo. Before my best friend Doug moved away, we used to do everything together. We would spend countless bus rides discussing and strategizing Halo sessions. At lunch break, we would barter Oreos and Cheez-Its while confiding in each other about whom we wanted to ask to the school dance. But now, I’m Solo, like Han without Chewbacca.
My mother’s death was difficult. My father’s grief made it difficult for him to take care of me and my brothers, so I took care of them. After my mom passed, my grief was overwhelming, but my father’s was even deeper. At 13, I cooked, cleaned, and took care of my two younger brothers. Although the household responsibilities were tiring, I liked一and needed一the stability and purpose I derived from the new routine.

Frequently asked questions about college application essays

How long should a college essay be?

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.

How can I expand my college 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.

How can I shorten my college essay?

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.

Is this article helpful?
Kirsten Courault

Kirsten studied political economy at U.C. Berkeley and has seven years of experience as a writer, editor, and English teacher. She cherishes helping students unearth their unique stories for college admissions essays.

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1 comment

Kirsten Courault
Kirsten Courault (Scribbr Team)
September 29, 2021 at 1:15 PM

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