Before we begin, you should always abide by the college essay word count. Following the word count means you’ll follow the rules on campus. It’s the little things that count.
If you are applying to colleges using the Common Application (Common App), you will have to limit your college essay to 650 words. That’s just over one page of single-spaced type.
- For an essay that’s meant to give admissions officers insight into you, how you would contribute to a college campus, and what sets you apart from other applicants, 650 words doesn’t seem like much.
Even if you aren’t filling out the Common App, most college essays set word limits around 500-750 words.
In the rare case there is no established word limit, most experts recommend not exceeding 900 words for a college essay.
How can you make the most of 650 (or so) words? Follow the tips below to write an impressive, effective Common App essay that sticks to the word limit.
1. Narrow down the topic.
The best way to write a concise, effective essay is to select a topic that’s as specific as possible.
- For example, it would be difficult to thoroughly cover all of your high school volunteer experience in 650 words.
If you attempted to do so, you would likely be forced to leave out all kinds of information. You wouldn’t have enough words to give a close, personal look at your own experiences and how they have shaped you.
If you narrowed this topic down, you might choose to focus on the volunteer work you did with one specific organization. While this is an improvement, it’s still a fairly broad topic.
You could narrow down the topic even more by choosing one specific project, like volunteering at a nursing home.
- Even better would be an essay centered on a particular relationship you formed with a resident in the nursing home, or a favorite afternoon spent with this resident.
As you work on selecting this topic, narrow it down as much as possible.
The more specific the topic, the more likely you will be able to produce a thorough, well-written, and powerful essay.
2. Plan the essay.
The Common App essay word count shouldn’t be a surprise.
Taking time to plan the essay before writing can also help you make the most of your word limit.
As you plan, you should focus on what is essential to include in the essay, cutting information that isn’t necessary or doesn’t add anything important.
To do so, you have to understand the purpose of the college essay:
- To help admissions officers get to know you (beyond the information already included in the application)
- To demonstrate what you might contribute to a college campus
- To set you apart from similarly qualified applicants
You should focus on including information that accomplishes these purposes.
- For instance, you can avoid including too much information that is found elsewhere in the application or that likely applies to most college applicants.
Planning in advance will also help you write an organized, focused essay. This way, you’ll avoid rambling and wasting words as you write your draft.
3. Keep the introduction brief.
This is usually where students go over the Common App essay word limit.
To make sure there are plenty of words left for the “meat” of the essay, it’s important to keep the introduction relatively short.
An effective introduction for a college essay should be engaging, interesting, and brief.
- You don’t need to go into detail about everything you will discuss in the essay.
- Instead, you should provide a brief preview that leaves the admissions officer wanting to know more.
An introduction that’s somewhat intriguing or mysterious can be very effective in a college essay, and this is best achieved with a short, powerful introduction.
The introduction shouldn’t be more than 5-6 sentences unless you have a reason for including key information. Historically, students tend to cram the introduction with too much background detail.
In order to avoid including too much background detail, highlight the critical sentences in your introduction — these are the sentences that create the meaning and essence of the introduction. Evaluate the sentences you didn’t highlight; can you delete them?
As a general rule, if your introduction comprises over 24% of your entire college essay word count, it might be too long.
4. Focus on what’s important.
Regardless of the topic of the essay, it should be largely focused on you. For example, most essays should explain:
- How the essay’s topic has impacted your life
- How the essay’s topic has shaped you as a person
- Why this topic is so significant to you
- What this topic says about you/how it’s linked to your goals and passions
The majority of the 650 words should be devoted to developing these ideas because this is what is most important to admissions officers.
As an example, let’s take a look at one of the prompts for the Common Application.
Prompt #2 for 2018-2019 reads:
The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
If you addressed this prompt, a portion of the essay would be spent describing a “challenge, setback or failure” you have faced.
But the majority of the essay should be devoted to explaining how you overcame the obstacle and what you learned from the experience.
- The essay should demonstrate positive qualities you possess, like determination, resilience, and humility.
No matter what prompt you choose, you can generally follow these guidelines.
The most significant number of words should be reserved for reflection on how your life has been influenced or changed, what you have learned, or why this topic matters to you.
This is a good exercise to ensure you’re focusing on what’s important:
- Highlight all the critical sentences in your essay — topic sentences, supporting sentences, storytelling sentences.
- Evaluate the sentences you did not highlight. What are the purposes of these sentences? Are you repeating things? Can you delete these sentences without diluting the meaning of the essay?
Think of words, phrases, and sentences as $100 bills. You want to spend them wisely.
5. Be concise.
Sticking to such a tight word limit requires concise writing. Concise writing avoids unnecessary words and sentences. It’s succinct and to the point.
This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t include details or make interesting use of language. However, word choice should be deliberate. Avoid extraneous words such as:
You can also steer clear of using too many adverbs, and repetition. For example, “The reason for _____________ is because…” is repetitive. You don’t need to say “reason” and “because” in the same sentence, because one implies the other.
Avoiding repetition, unnecessary words, and excessive adverbs can help you write concisely and stick to the word limit.
Also, take a look at phrases, quotes, and aphorisms you use. You don’t want to use phrases and quotes that other authors have written.
You want as many words as possible to have been originally written by you. Anything else takes the focus off your voice.
Last, avoid cliches. Plain and simple.
6. Reread and revise.
By following the first five tips, you should be able to meet the word limit while still producing an effective piece of writing.
If, however, the essay still exceeds the word limit, you will need to reread and revise.
- You can do this yourself, but you can also enlist friends, family members, or teachers to assist you. Unnecessary details or sentences can be cut, but the focus will likely be on cutting unneeded words.
Look for words that aren’t strictly necessary or don’t add anything of merit to the essay.
- For example, let’s look at the above sentence. If we needed to trim some words from this article, we could delete, “to the essay” from the end of the sentence, making the sentence: “Look for words that aren’t strictly necessary or don’t add anything of merit.”
You already know that we’re talking about an essay, so those last three words aren’t essential.
We could also cut the adjective “strictly” if needed. We’ve shortened the article by four words already.
If you read carefully through your essay and trim non-essential words, reaching the word limit should be a painless process (And if you’ve followed Steps 1-5, there shouldn’t be too many extra words to cut).
Remember our third piece of advice: Students usually exceed the Common App word limit in their introductions. Trim the introduction and then move down.
Recap: Following the Common App Essay Word Limit
To make the most of the word limit, you should:
- Choose a topic that’s as specific as possible.
- Thoroughly plan the essay before drafting.
- Keep the introduction short.
- Focus on what matters to admissions officers.
- Be concise by avoiding repetition, excessive adverbs, and unnecessary words.
- Read and revise, trimming non-essential words if needed.
Following these tips will help you write an engaging and impressive college essay, all while sticking to the word limit.