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How Long Does A College Essay Have To Be

Figuring out your college essay can be one of the most difficult parts of applying to college. Even once you’ve 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? 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 to 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: “Explain your interest in the major you selected and describe how you have recently explored or developed this interest inside and/or outside the classroom. You may also explain how this major relates to your future career goals. If you're applying to the Division of General Studies, explain your academic interests and strengths or your future career goals. You may include any majors or areas of study you're currently considering. Limit your response to 300 to 400 words.”

See, it’s right in the prompt—they even gave you a word range to stay within!

The shortest word limits for college essays are usually around 250 words (less than half a single-spaced page). Rarely will you see a word limit higher than around 600 words (over one single-spaced page). College essays are usually pretty short: between 200 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 a teeny tiny bitty 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 essay 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 obviously 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:

 

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 a 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.

 

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: “The required Wellesley ‘Writing Supplement,’ asks you to respond to the following topic in two well-developed paragraphs. 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 (www.wellesley.edu/admission/100) and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why.”

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?

 

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 six “Extended Essay” prompts. They are required, and you must choose one, but nowhere on the page is there any guidance about word count or page limit.

However, some googling about UChicago essay prompts led me to a post about the essays on the UChicago admissions blog. That post says at the end, “We ask simply that your essay is somewhere in the realm of 500-650 words, or about 1-2 pages single or double spaced (and we’re flexible—don’t take this as license to write a 14-page tome, but know that we won’t stop reading at 651 words if you need an extra verb).”

So there you go! You want to be (loosely) in the realm of 500-650 words.

 

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!

 

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 133 essay examples with analysis! 

 

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points? We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download it for free now:

 

Unlike every other aspect of the application, you control your essay. Make sure that the glimpse you give the admission committee into your character, background, and writing ability is the very best possible. Here are seven tips to help you focus and make the most of your application essay.

In our experience, the main worry that applicants have is that their essay won’t stand out. This is a legitimate concern as you will likely compete with numerous applicants who have backgrounds similar to yours. Therefore, follow these tips to ensure that your essay shines in the competitive admissions process.

1. Analyze the prompt thoroughly

Take three minutes to think about the prompt. If needed, divide the prompt into phrases and look at each aspect. Why would the admissions officers ask this prompt? What do you think they want to know? How does that information relate to your ability to excel in college? Next, leave the prompt for a while and then return to it. Do you see something new? 

With so many other things in your schedule, this process can initially seem like a waste of time. However, it will save you a lot of time in the long run. If you later realize that you misread the prompt, you might need to start the writing process from scratch. 

2. Organize your writing

Like the first item, this isn’t something that should take a lot of time. This is another step that can initially seem completely skippable, but organizing your writing can save you considerable stress and frustration. A good writing plan can streamline or even eliminate the need to do any significant rewrites.

Brainstorm your anecdotes. Create a rough outline, including approximately how long each paragraph needs to be in order to complete the essay within the word count limits. Finally, figure out when you’re going to write. A paragraph a day? The whole thing next weekend? Creating a schedule, even if you need to modify it later, gets your brain in motion. 

3. Show instead of telling

When selecting anecdotes for your essay, pick vivid ones that you can tell succinctly. If a story would require 450 words of a 600 word essay, then you’re not going to have a lot of space to express self-reflection and analysis of the situation. Remember that the admissions officers are more interested in your perspective of what happened than the events themselves.

In addition, keep in mind that the admissions officers don’t know you personally, and that’s why they’re reading your essay. They want to get to know you, and the essay is your first introduction. Because of this, don’t tell them that you’re passionate about public service. Show them through strong examples. Help the admissions officers envision each example as if they’re experiencing the situation alongside you. 

4. Know your vocab

Your admissions essay should reflect command of college-level vocabulary. One of the most common mistakes that we see in essays is using advanced vocabulary almost correctly. Even among synonyms, there are shades of meaning. If you’re using a thesaurus, look online for examples of that word in action. Will it still fit into your sentence?

Avoid overdoing it. Advanced vocabulary should be the spice of the essay to give it flavor, so you’ll use plain language most of the time. Essays that are riddled with advanced vocabulary can seem pompous or even inadvertently comical to the reader. 

5. Write succinctly

Can you say what you need to say in fewer words? Can you substitute an advanced vocabulary word for a phrase? Writing concisely expresses to the admissions officers that can organize your thoughts and that you respect their time. 

6. Combine like ideas into more sophisticated sentence structures

The vast majority of the sentences in your essay should be compound, complex, or a combination of both (compound-complex sentences). Save simple sentences for instances when you need to create impact.

7. Seek qualified second opinions

You should absolutely ask others to take a look at your essay before you submit it. As we work on things, we become blind to mistakes that will be glaringly apparent to others. However, limit the number of people you ask to two or three. Asking too many people for feedback will only confuse you and result in a lower quality essay as you revise the essay according to each person’s advice. Therefore, look to individuals who have background and expertise in the college admissions process.

 

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