The college application essay is one of the most important components of applying to college. Application essays require a lot of time and effort, so you want to make sure you don’t make easy-to-overlook mistakes such as going over your college application word count.
Unfortunately, many students leave their admissions essay as the last step of their application process after studying for the SAT and learning how to request letters of recommendation. High school students don’t have the time, energy, experience, or organizational skills to prioritize their essay word count and word limits when writing their draft and receiving personal statement editing, recommendation letter editing, or cover letter editing, depending on your admissions documents.
The good news is that being over the word limit in your admissions essay is not the end of the world. You’ve managed to output a lot of writing for your college essay. That’s a good starting point for revisions. All quality and successful admissions essays go through the revision process, and a big part of the revision process includes reducing word count.
This article will explore the following topics:
- How flexible is the college essay word limit?
- Can you go over/under the college essay word count?
- Why staying under application essay word limits is so hard
- How to shorten the length of your admissions essay
- Get help to cut down your college essay word count
- FAQ about how to shorten your essay length: Advice from editing experts
How flexible is the college essay word limit?
Your essay must stay within the required word limit whether you’re applying directly to your university or through the Common Application, which has become synonymous with the college application process.
The Common App specifies the word limit required for each essay. Even though this has changed over the years–from 650 to 500 words in the past–the current Common App essay word count is somewhere between 250 to 650 words.
Can you go over the essay word limit?
You must be careful about staying within the word limit for each application. Look at the essay prompts closely. Unless specified, never go over the word limit for a college application essay.
It might be impossible to go over the essay word limit
Some universities may allow you to mail in a copy of your admissions essay, but most will use online applications with text fields that may cut off your essay if it goes over the maximum word count.
Admissions officers may just stop reading or toss out your essay
Admissions officers are busier than Santa’s elves during the winter holiday season. They read dozens if not hundreds of essays per day, and most of those will be rejected. If you fail your application, make sure it’s due to the content or something else; failing due to a simple word limit mistake would be a waste!
Following directions is a key component of being a student
If you told someone to do something and you were in the position to enforce it, would you accept the wrong result if 100 other people were waiting and did it right? Of course not. Therefore, the least you can do is to follow any instructions regarding college essay word limits to show admissions officers you will be a competent student at their school.
Can you go under the essay word limit?
While going over the word limit is a clear and decisive issue, it’s a bit trickier to determine how short your college application essay should be.
Pay attention to minimum word limits and word ranges
Some essay prompts will have a suggested minimum– for example, 500 to 650 words. As mentioned above, online text input fields may cut you off at the maximum word count. Some may even have some red text reminding you to input at least 500 words. But you should always double-check these word count guidelines.
The essay is your opportunity to shine
Why would you be so lazy as to only write the minimum amount for your personal statement? This is a great opportunity for you to stand above and apart from other applicants, and choosing your words wisely while presenting your story fully is important.
Add some concrete examples
Examples of events and actions can help you meet the correct word count range. This also reduces redundancy in your writing while reinforcing and supporting your main points. College admissions officers love to hear about your unique experiences.
Why do students find essay word limits difficult?
Why staying under essay word limits is so hard
We now know several reasons why keeping your college essay length in the correct word range so you don’t violate any word limit is important. But why is staying under essay word limits so hard?
The essay has no structure or organization
The most effective things are stated simply. And the most effective college admissions essays organize, structure, and communicate efficiently. That doesn’t mean your personal statement will be short; it means that each point should be concise.
For example, split your writing into clear paragraphs. Organize your essay into separate sections for your academic, leadership, volunteer, and personal experiences. Be sure to add a section on extracurricular activities. Make your structure clear to the reader so that word count will only be a minor consideration.
The essay does not focus on the essay prompt
If you are having difficulty cutting your word count, look for sentences or even entire paragraphs that are not relevant to the essay prompt. Adding unnecessary information is an easy trap to fall into. Your anecdotes or stories might be interesting and funny, but do they help illustrate why you want to attend UC or Stanford?
The essay lacks proper vocabulary and verb usage
This tip is more subtle but can really help you reduce essay length and word count. When writing, always use the most appropriate verb, preferably one verb only. It will drastically reduce your word count overall. This is because when you choose the wrong verb, you often must add more words to clarify.
Average/Wordy: “I hit the ball so hard it went over the fence.”
Exceptional/Concise: “I smashed the ball over the fence.”
The verb “hit” is a solely descriptive action verb. It provides no context about the degree to which you hit the ball, which is why “so hard” or other adverbs are naturally added to regular verbs to provide extra information. Changing the verb completely to something more engaging like “smashed” provides all the context you need. And you just saved 4 out of 11 words!
The essay uses a traditional introduction/conclusion structure
Many students applying to college fall into the trap of trying to fit their essay into a traditional structure consisting of an introduction, body, and conclusion.
With only 650 words, you can recover your word count by skipping the formal rigid essay structure. Instead, dive right into your essay. Your content and experiences are the most important components of your application essay, and you need every word.
Tips to reduce the length of your application essay
Here are some simple tips to cut down the length of your essay. Start with some broad admissions essay tips first and move on to the easier grammar and proofreading-related steps below.
Here’s how to find if your admissions essay has a lot of adverbs: Look for “ly” words around your verbs. Often, these types of adverbs are just filler words and a reflection of spoken conversational English rather than accomplishing anything meaningful. Go through your essay and decide if each adverb is truly necessary.
Unnecessary adverbs: “ate quickly”, “ran quickly”
Stronger verbs: “devoured”, “rushed”
Here is a list of common adverbs you can remove to reduce your essay’s word count:
Remove filler words
Filler words are another crutch or may just be used out of habit. Go through your essay right now with “ctrl + f” or “cmd + f” for Mac users and delete every instance of actually and very. We promise they add nothing important to your writing.
Filler words: “I found myself actually surprised about how much I learned”
No filler words: “I was surprised at how much I learned”
The word “actually” is pretty much useless. You must clearly state that you were surprised. Further, “finding yourself” is a conversational filler that comes off as unprofessional.
Avoid using too many prepositional phrases
Prepositions are common linking words such as of, to, for, by, from, in, and on. These are highly dependent on the context of your personal statement, especially when you reference narrative elements in your past. Go through your essay carefully and make changes to reword your sentences and cut down your essay word count.
Too many prepositional phrases: “I struggled to work in a team in order to get a good grade in the group project”
Fewer prepositional phrases: “I struggled with the team aspect of the group project”
There’s no need to verbalize that you worked in a team or to mention the grad aspect. Furthermore, these prepositional phrases add extra length to your sentences, which will not help you meet the essay word count.
Be clear and concise. Cut down your word count.
Be direct and decisive in your writing
Students are often told to avoid overgeneralizing groups of people or ideas but that they should also be precise in their English writing. This can lead to the author failing to commit to a concept and coming off as unsure or weak.
An overreliance on modifier words such as adjectives and adverbs is often the culprit.
Too many modifiers: “Although my high school grades were sometimes slightly less than average, I was able to outperform many of my classmates, who often struggled to improve.”
Stronger verbs and adjectives: “Although my high school grades were inconsistent, I later outperformed my classmates, who struggled to improve.”
You can see how the improved version appears more matter-of-fact, consistent, and even confident despite the admission of lower grades.
Don’t be a narrator
Do not waste time restating the common app essay prompt or telling the reader what you will discuss next. This would be fine for an informative article (like the one you’re reading now), but not for an application essay. Eliminating these structural road markers will greatly cut down your word count.
Too much narration: “I will start by discussing my leadership experiences…” or “The next important part of my academic background was my….”
Less narration: “I gained leadership experience when…” or “One of my academic achievements was…”
Consider college essay editors for extra help
Get help from a professional college essay editor
The college admissions and application essay landscape is very competitive, and this has led students to seek an edge. One reason why application essay editing services are so popular is due to their speed and quality. They free up students to prepare more college applications and focus on the content of their personal statements instead of drilling down things like grammar and essay word limits.
One of the best things applicants can do is write as many college admissions essays as possible without worrying at all about grammar or word count. Organize your essays by the essay prompt category (e.g. “Why X university?” or “Tell us about an obstacle you overcame”).
Then, send ONE type of each essay to a reputable proofreading company that offers college essay editing services. When you get your changes back, apply them to all essays of that category. This minimizes the cost but gets you the most benefits.
FAQ: How to shorten your admissions essay
Advice from our editing experts
Can a college essay be longer than 650 words?
- The standard word count for the Common app essay is 650 words. Rule 1) Follow any explicit word limit guidelines. Rule 2) Always go under the limit as opposed to over the word limit.
Can you use contractions and abbreviations in college essays?
- Yes. For college application essays, use contractions and abbreviations.
Do citations count towards the college essay word limit?
- Every word in the text field or on your page counts towards the essay word limit. Avoid using citations in a college essay as it is not an academic paper.
Does the title count towards the college essay word limit?
- Do not restate the essay prompt or add a title to your essay. If you are submitting a separate MS Word document, add the title or essay prompt (along with your name) as the .doc name.
How many pages is 650 words?
- A 650-word college application essay will be under 1 page.
How do you shorten long sentences?
- Start by 1) eliminating helper verbs and adverbs, 2) removing redundancy, 3) remove filler words such as “very” and “actually,” and 4) make sure every sentence supports the overall point of the paragraph.
How many paragraphs is a 650-word essay?
- A 500-word essay is 3 to 4 paragraphs. A 650-word essay is 4-5 paragraphs. Your essay should be less than 1 page single or double-spaced.