Undergraduate Admissions Uncensored
Common App Essay: Size Does Matter
Posted on July 30, 2023 by Craig Meister
Every year students ask me the same question:
“How long should my Common Application essay be?”
I am never shy about providing them with the response that best summarizes how they need to approach both the Common Application essay and the Common Application in general:
“Go Big or Go Home!”
Despite what the official directions on the Common App indicate, students writing a 250-word essay – the lowest end of the range that is officially acceptable to complete this essay – have a far lower chance of convincing college admissions officers of their admissions-worthiness than students who believe in the maxim, ‘bigger is better.” The official upper limit in acceptable length on the Common App essay is 650 words.
A well-thought out and well-developed essay of any true substance is not only not possible in 250 words, it’s barely possible in 450 words. This is why none of my students have ever submitted a Common App essay consisting of fewer than 450 words. With that said, the true sweet spot in Common Application essay writing, for this current year’s prompts and prompts going back over a decade, is 500 to 650 words. This was even the case a few years ago when the Common App limited students to a mere 500 words. That experiment lasted for such a short time because colleges were getting such transparently superficial essays that they were a waste of time and effort for students and lacking in any valuable insight helpful to college admissions officers.
Think of a 500- to 650-word essay as a smooth and enjoyable flight from D.C. to Disney World. In 500 to 650 words students have the space they need to achieve proper cruising altitude: writing a strong introductory paragraph that both grabs readers’ attention and clearly states the essay’s thesis. Next, just as one wants to have an enjoyable in-flight experience with the fasten seatbelt light off and flight attendants passing out drinks and snacks, so too does a 500- to 650-word essay allow readers to relax a bit. In 500 to 650 words students are able to produce non-rushed, non-turbulent, highly valuable descriptive and specific body paragraphs that go a long way toward proving the essay’s thesis. Finally, landing a plane takes great skill, as does writing a conclusion to a college application essay. It’s not a simple rehash of the lift off (inclusive of a thesis statement); it should be complementary to it. Students who have 500 to 650 words to work with are able to smoothly touch down in a way that nicely tops off of the entire flying/essay reading experience. At the end of the day, admissions officers read your essays because they want to fly the friendly skies with you into your world. 500 to 600 words allows you to give them a proper flying experience and gives you the words necessary to differentiate your world from the world of other applicants.
In order to produce a great final draft essay, your rough drafts should be even longer than 650 words. It’s very common for my students to create first, second, and third draft essays of nearly 1,000 words. Only through consistent and high quality editing can any essay be ready for submission to colleges and universities, and starting with too few words on initial drafts is a recipe for a puny little final draft essay.
So, the big take-away ideas on the Common App Essay are these:
- Don’t do the minimum because you are officially allowed to do the minimum
- Go big or go home – your final draft should be 500 to 650 words and your first draft should be even longer
- In your final draft, ensure that paragraph transitions are smooth – just as a good pilot and great weather conditions allow a flight to be smooth from lift-off to landing
Before I share more extremely important Common App essay advice, let’s zero in on what students are going to be writing about on this year’s Common App. None of the essay prompts are easy, and all require a great deal of time, thought, and drafting before members of the Class of 2022 can confidently hit submit on their applications.
The 2023-2024 Common Application essay prompts are as follows:
Choose the option below that best helps you write an essay of no more than 650 words.
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
2. 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?
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome?
4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you?
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others.
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
Honestly, I miss the old questions that existed through the 2016-2017 iteration of the Common App. The current questions indicate that the people behind the Common App are less and less interested in reading essays from normal teenagers and more and more interested in pushing teens to appear exceptional, idiosyncratic, or downright eccentric for the purpose of entertaining application readers and putting on a show of some sort of diversity. I would be surprised if many of the admissions officers could portray themselves accurately with these prompts. But we take the world we are given; this is what students in the high school Class of 2024 applying to Common App colleges and universities have to work this admissions cycle.
Remember that it’s always better to start brainstorming sooner rather than later, and if your essay is still not where you want it after working on it for a while, make sure to check out why your essay may be really bad or downright awful . You should aim to wrap up your Common App essay no later than early August, which will give you plenty of time to draft and perfect your essays for Common Application supplements.
Remember, if you want or need help with any part of your essay brainstorming and drafting, I’m here to help you .
Important Related Links:
2023-2024 Common App essay prompts: the best and worst for you
The Stats You Need: Most Popular & Least Popular Common App Essay Prompts
Why Your College Application Essay is So Bad
Why Your College Application Essay is Awful
Ultimate College Application Essay Brainstorm
Secret to a Successful College Application Essay First Draft
The Common Application
About Craig Meister
Craig Meister is a college admissions expert who, for eighteen years, has had the great fortune of providing personalized post-secondary guidance to students and families from around the world.
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The maximum number of words you can submit for your Common App essay is 650 . It must also be a minimum of 250 words .
If your essays do not adhere to these guidelines, you will not be able to submit your essay online using the Common Application system.
Remember that the Common App essay is designed to test your ability to write clearly and concisely, so it's in your best interest to work to these word limits.
To try and hit this word limit, take a look at our sections on the Common App Format and Structure , which will help you organise the content of your essay coherently.
The information here will help you see what is missing/needs adding to, and which parts could be cut.
Our collection of Common App Essay Examples can also help you decide which information to include in your essay, and keep your word count down.
For more tips and advice on putting together your common application for college, please see:
- Common Essay Prompts
- Choosing A Common App Essay Topic
- Common App Essay Introduction
- Common App Essay Conclusion
- Editing Your Essay
7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay
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- The Common App college essay is required by most Common App schools.
- This personal essay plays a critical role in many institutions' admission decisions.
- Admissions experts' biggest tips include writing how you speak and focusing on details.
Each year, over a million high school seniors apply for college through the Common Application . This online system enables you to submit one application to multiple schools, meaning you only have to fill out everything once — including a personal statement .
The Common App essay gives colleges the opportunity to learn more about you as a person and what's important to you. You should use this space to tell your story and reveal different facets of your personality.
Here, we explain what the Common App essay entails before diving into admissions experts' biggest tips for crafting a memorable personal statement.
What Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is the main personal statement you'll submit to colleges that use the Common App and require the essay.
You can find the Common App essay prompts and instructions by navigating to the "Common App" tab on your Common App account and clicking on "Writing." You'll get to choose one of seven prompts to respond to, and your essay must be between 250 and 650 words long.
This statement gives you the chance to delve deeper into your interests, experiences, passions, and strengths. You can discuss almost anything you want, provided your topic addresses the prompt you've chosen. There are also no rules on style or how to tell your story.
You must submit the Common App essay to all colleges that require it, though some may ask you to submit one or more supplemental essays as well.
The application form provides you with a box in which to type your essay; however, it's strongly recommended that you compose your essay in Microsoft Word, Google Docs, or another word processor before copying and pasting your final draft into this box.
How Important Is the Common App Essay?
The Common App essay is a key part of your college application. According to a 2019 study by the National Association for College Admission Counseling , 56.4% of colleges surveyed considered the personal statement moderately or considerably important. Highly selective institutions tended to place more emphasis on the essay.
"The more selective the college, the more the essay matters," explained Elizabeth Benedict, a former Princeton writing instructor and the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc .
Benedict, who spoke with BestColleges about the Common App essay, has helped students around the world apply to college for over a decade.
"Applying to a hyper-selective college with mediocre or uneven grades and a fabulous essay will likely not get you into that college, [whereas] applying to a hyper-selective college with top grades and scores, outstanding extracurriculars, and a mediocre essay could sink your application," she said.
While most experts agree that a strong Common App essay won't necessarily secure you admission into a highly selective college — especially if your grades and test scores aren't up to par — a well-written statement could act as a tipping point in your favor.
According to Benedict, this often happens at small liberal arts colleges , which tend to take a more holistic admissions approach .
Experts' Top 7 Common App Essay Tips
Admissions officers, higher education administrators, education consultants, and college admissions advisors like Benedict have many tricks for approaching the Common App essay. Here are some of their biggest tips.
1. Don't Mistake a Rare Topic for an Effective Topic
Many students assume their Common App essay must revolve around a unique topic that no other applicant has ever written about, but this is a myth.
"Overuse of a topic doesn't make it a bad topic," Whitney Soule told U.S. News & World Report . Soule currently serves as Bowdoin College's dean of admissions and student aid.
"It's not just about the topic," echoes Jennifer Gayles , director of admissions at Sarah Lawrence College, "but why it's important to you and how you can showcase who you are as a student and an individual through that topic."
Choosing the right Common App essay topic can be tricky, but it's extremely important. "Students I work with run the gamut from having a good idea to having absolutely no idea what to write about," Benedict said. "Often in our brainstorming session, an idea will pop up in discussion, and I'll say, 'That's a good idea,' and the student will be surprised."
To identify potential essay topics, Benedict proposes asking yourself a series of questions. Have you experienced a turning point in your life? Are you deeply passionate about a particular subject?
Ultimately, your essay should excite and inspire you, as well as those who read it. "If an essay topic makes your heart beat fast, that's a good sign," said Benedict.
2. Pick the Best Essay Prompt for You
Not all Common App essay prompts are created equal. Of the seven prompts, some will no doubt work better for you than others.
Lisa Mortini, assistant director of admissions at New York University Abu Dhabi, asks students to think about what version of themselves they want to present to schools and to trust their instincts.
"Don't just jump on the first prompt you read and start writing," she writes in a blog post for NYU. "Ask yourself: Are you excited to talk to us about a specific achievement? Do you want to give us insight into a hardship you faced and conquered?"
In essence, work backward: Start with a topic and then see which essay prompt fits it the best.
This is the same advice given by Thea Hogarth of College Essay Advisors : "Once you have determined the story you really want to tell, you'll know which prompt will make a good fit. All of the Common App options are broad enough to accommodate almost any story."
3. Use Your Space Wisely
Students tend to go one of two ways with the Common App essay: They either write way too much and struggle to trim it down, or they write way too little and end up sounding superficial and generic.
The Common App essay word count range is 250-650 words. But just how long should your statement be? Admissions Blog advises aiming for around 500 words. And former Tufts University admissions officer Becky Leichtling concurs.
"The most common 'personal statement' length is in the ballpark of 500 words," Leichtling writes for Bright Horizons College Coach . "I consider 500 the 'sweet spot,' but don't stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 [words] that you're honestly proud of."
4. Fill Your Story With Details
Details are everything when it comes to the Common App essay, which is why so many experts suggest anchoring your essay in a single anecdote or story.
"Specific anecdotes are your friend when drafting your Common App personal statement," Shirag Shemmassian, founder of Shemmassian Academic Consulting, writes on his company's website . "Try to think of a story you often tell people that shows something about you."
Meredith Reynolds, associate director of admissions at Tufts, similarly recommends that applicants emphasize specifics in their essays. "By focusing on details, you set yourself apart," she says.
In terms of structure, Benedict advises approaching the Common App essay one step at a time. "Break down the topic to the smallest pieces you can and write a paragraph about each," she said.
In other words, discuss specific moments from your life. Relate conversations you've had. Describe how something felt or looked. It's the details in your story — not the topic itself — that will help you stand out the most.
5. Channel Your Authentic Voice
The Common App essay is unlike most essays you've written for school. Instead of analyzing a piece of literature or a historical event, you must showcase your identity. As such, the words you use should sound like they actually come from you — not a thesaurus or an English teacher.
"[Students] are used to writing academic essays and trying to impress with big words and formal-sounding constructions," Benedict said when asked about the most common mistake students make on the Common App essay. "The best essays have a conversational voice — not a stiff, academic one."
Educational consultant Ian Fisher agrees . In a blog post offering language tips for college essays, Fisher expounds on the importance of writing in a way true to how you talk in real life.
"You're going to have to fight the urge to 'impress' your admissions reader with the big words you've learned from your SAT practice," he writes.
Students should, however, avoid using any derogatory, offensive, or inappropriate language. Fisher recommends using words like "debate" instead of "fight" and "undeveloped" instead of "stupid."
Likewise, students should refrain from relying on cliches. This includes phrases such as "happily ever after," "beggars can't be choosers," and "crack of dawn." Benedict advises getting someone to "cliche-proof" your essay.
6. Get Feedback
Before submitting your Common App essay, show it to someone who will not only offer feedback but also edit and proofread your writing.
Shemmassian suggests giving your draft to "a trusted admissions counselor, English teacher, or other advisor." Meanwhile, Reynolds says you should "show your essay to two people — one who is a strong writer, and one who knows you really well."
All recommendations from experts share a common thread: Getting feedback on your Common App essay should be a top priority.
7. Don't Neglect Supplemental Essays
Lots of competitive universities require the Common App essay in addition to supplemental essays and/or short answers. If you have other essays to submit, don't spend all your time working on the Common App essay. After all, all essays can impact your admission chances.
"At the most selective colleges and universities, there are usually supplemental essays as well, and those are part of the overall package, and they are very important," Benedict said.
She also discussed how a great Common App essay combined with weak supplemental essays could reflect poorly on your application and increase your risk of getting rejected .
"I can't stress enough the importance of the supplemental essays," Benedict continued. "For the most selective universities, all of the essays taken together present a 'package' of who you are." And how you choose to put together that package is up to you.
Elizabeth Benedict is the founder and president of Don't Sweat the Essay Inc. , which has been helping students apply to college around the U.S. and all over the world for a dozen years. Elizabeth is a best-selling novelist, a prolific journalist, and an editor of many books. She has taught writing at Princeton, Columbia, MIT, Swarthmore, and the Iowa Writers' Workshop. Her clients are regularly admitted to top universities and their first-choice colleges.
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How to Shorten a College Essay to Meet the Word Limit
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
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.
Common App Essays 2023‒2024
Each year, the Common Application organization releases the prompts for the Common App essays. Often referred to as the “personal statement,” Common App essays are a central part of the college application process. Students can choose from one of seven Common App essay prompts to best showcase who they are to admissions officers.
In this guide, we’ll cover:
- All new Common App prompts for the 2023-24 admissions cycle
- What are Common App essays?
How many Common App essays are required?
- How long your Common App essays should be
- What makes a great college essay
- Each of the prompts for the Common App essays
- Some Common App essay tips
- Good college essay topics
- A timeline to help you write your Common App essay
- More Common Application resources from CollegeAdvisor
To learn how to write compelling Common App essays, read on!
New Common App Prompts for 2023-2024
Common App revisits their prompts every year. Over the past several years, Common App has opted not to release any new Common App prompts.
There will be no new Common App prompts in the upcoming admissions cycle. Instead, the prompts for the Common App essays will remain the same as those used in the 2022-23 admissions cycle.
In general, from year to year, the Common Application essay prompts remain fairly similar . In fact, the Common App essay prompts 2021 are the same as the prompts in use today. The last change took place among the Common App essay prompts 2021, which featured a new essay about gratitude.
Since there are seldom any new Common App prompts, students can use previous years’ prompts to start brainstorming and preparing.
Here are the seven Common App prompts from this year :
7 common app prompts, some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. if this sounds like you, then please share your story., 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, reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. what prompted your thinking what was the outcome, reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. how has this gratitude affected or motivated you, discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others., describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. why does it captivate you what or who do you turn to when you want to learn more, share an essay on any topic of your choice. it can be one you’ve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design..
We’ll go deeper into the Common App essay prompts and other Common App essay tips later in this guide. We’ll also discuss some Common App essay ideas, and where to find some Common App essay examples that worked . But first, let’s go over the basics of the Common App essays.
What is the Common App essay?
As you begin applying to college, you’ll likely hear a lot about Common App essays (or personal statements). Of course, you’ll complete other essays during the college application process—namely, school-specific supplemental essays. However, when someone talks about “college essays,” or “personal statements,” they are usually referring to the Common App essays.
But what is the Common App essay?
The Common Application is a platform that helps streamline the college application process. And according to Forbes , the number of students who apply to college using the Common App has surged 20% since 2019.
Using the Common App, you can apply to college more easily— over 1,000 schools accept the Common Application. This figure includes Ivies like Yale and Dartmouth , as well as public state universities like Penn State . Once you create your Common App login, you can complete your personal information for every school at once. The Common Application makes it easy to keep track of college application requirements, deadlines , letters of recommendation, and extracurriculars and awards.
Coalition Application vs. Common Application
There are many different types of college applications, of which the Common Application is only one. Though only accepted by 90 member institutions, the Coalition Application is another popular application platform that allows you to collect your application information in one place. Much of the advice on Common App essays in this guide will also apply to the Coalition Application essay.
The Common App essay
Common App requirements include a list of your extracurricular activities, your self-reported grades, and your personal information. Another key section of the Common App is the Common App essay. You will also use the Common App to submit supplemental essays for particular schools.
The Common App essay, often called the personal statement, is sent to every college that accepts the Common Application. This essay will answer one of the Common App essay prompts to showcase something that makes you who you are. The Common App essay word limit is 650 words.
Since students submit their Common App essays to every school, they should be as strong as possible. In this guide, we’ll share some Common App essay tips to help your personal statement shine. We’ll also review the Common App essay requirements and discuss some Common App essay ideas.
There are seven Common App essay prompts. So, how many Common App essays are required?
Only one Common App essay is required. This means that you’ll respond to only one of the Common App prompts.
As you begin your writing process, read through the Common App essay prompts and see which one appeals to you the most. Try brainstorming answers to different prompts or discussing them with a parent, friend, or advisor.
Again, students only need to select one of the Common App essay prompts for their Common App essays. So, you’ll only need to write one essay that meets the Common App essay word limit.
Supplemental essays and the Common Application
Many schools also require students to write supplemental essays. Most supplemental essays will be shorter —usually 200-400 words as opposed to the Common App essay word limit of 650. You’ll submit these essays through the Common App. However, we don’t generally refer to these supplemental essays as “Common App essays.”
How long should the Common App essay be?
The Common App essay word limit is 650 words maximum. However, according to the official Common App essay requirements, the lower stay Common App essay word limit is 250 words.
As you brainstorm topics for Common App essays, make sure that the story you want to tell fits into the Common App essay word limit. Once you create your Common App login, you can familiarize yourself with the Common App essay requirements, including the word limit.
Students should aim for the higher end of the Common App essay word limit range. After all, admissions officers rely on Common App essays a lot within the admissions process. Therefore, you want your personal statement to offer a comprehensive picture of who you are and what matters to you.
Making the most of the Common App essay word limit
Writing Common App essays can feel like a daunting task, especially given the word count. To make the most of the Common App essay word limit, make sure you start your writing process early. That way, you’ll have plenty of time to edit your personal statement so every word counts.
Also, don’t try to explain your whole life story in the relatively short Common App essay word limit. Instead, try to tell an anecdote that encapsulates some aspect of your personality or your upbringing. Then, connect it to broader themes, including your future goals.
What makes a great college essay?
Now, you understand the basic format of Common App essays. Maybe you’ve even made your Common App login and started brainstorming topics. Next, you might be wondering: how can I write the best Common App essay?
Most good college essays and personal statements include similar features:
- A strong story that highlights a key part of the writer’s identity
- An engaging hook
- Strong structural components
- Clear, well-crafted prose
- Flawless grammar and syntax
Though none of these tips are strict Common App essay requirements, your personal statement should meet these criteria.
Good college essays also depend on your ability to be introspective. The best college admissions essays will reveal something unique about the writer. Often, in order to tell a compelling story about who you are, writers look deeply at their upbringing, identity, and values. The best Common App essay ideas aren’t something you can find in a Common App essay tips blog. Instead, they’ll come from your own unique experiences.
If you’re getting started and can’t think of any Common App essay ideas, try brainstorming without answering one of the prompts. The most important part about the Common Application essay is that it showcases a part of your identity that the admissions team won’t glean from your GPA or scores.
In the next few sections, we’ll go over the prompts for the Common App essays. For each of the Common App essay prompts, we’ll offer Common App essay tips. We’ll discuss how you can approach the Common App essays, including some advice on structure, tone, topic choice, and more. Additionally, we’ll look at some Common App essay ideas and the Common App essay requirements.
Common App Essay #1: Share your background
The first of the Common App essays asks you to share something significant about your background. Here’s the first of the Common App prompts:
All of the Common App essays will allow for a degree of customization. As long as essays address the Common App essay prompts—and stay within the Common App essay word limit—there is no limit to possible topics. In fact, when you read Common App essay examples, you’ll see a ton of variation .
The first of the Common App essay prompts is particularly open to interpretation. For some students, this can be exciting. However, for others, the first of the Common App essay prompts might feel a little overwhelming. So, if you want a more direct question, you might be better served by one of the other prompts.
How to approach this prompt
If you have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is deeply meaningful to you, here’s the place to talk about it!
As with all prompts for the Common App essays, there’s no right answer: maybe you were raised Orthodox Jewish. Perhaps you attended a white majority school as a person of color. Or maybe you learned to play the oboe at 4 years old and have since released an oboe EP on Soundcloud. As long as you share something that your application would be incomplete without, the sky’s the limit.
In general, as you write your Common App essays, think about what topics you might cover in your supplemental essays. Try to avoid writing about the same experience twice—after all, you only have so much space on your college applications. So, pick a topic for your main Common App essay with enough depth to fill the Common App essay word limit. Ideally, this topic won’t necessarily fit into a different section of your application.
Common App Essay #2: Navigating a challenge
Let’s look at some other prompts for Common App essays. The second of the Common App essay prompts relates to how you dealt with a challenge:
Comparing the different Common App essay prompts, this question is a bit narrower than the first. Is there a challenge, setback, or failure that you learned from? If you can’t come up with an answer to this question fairly quickly, you might want to select another of the Common App prompts.
Common App essay topics for this prompt
As compared to other Common App essay prompts, this one threatens to attract more cliché responses. Many students gravitate to similar topics: losses in sports, not getting a particular role in a performance, not winning a specific award.
If you choose a challenge like these, try to ensure your essay offers a new perspective. Many other students will likely select this question from the Common App essay prompts because they experienced a similar setback. In light of this, as you compare the different Common App essay prompts, think critically about potential college essay topics. Make sure your personal statement tells the admissions office something unique about how you face challenges.
The next of the prompts for Common App essays discusses a change in perspective. Read on to learn how to think about these types of Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay #3: Questioning an idea
Has your perspective changed a lot in recent years? Have you had lengthy discussions with your parents or teachers about beliefs of theirs that you might disagree with? If so, the third option for your Common App essays might be a good one for you.
The third of the Common App essay prompts reads:
The best Common App essays often deal with subjects of personal change. These college essay topics may discuss shifts in perspective after learning something new or adjusting to different ideas and beliefs. Overall, colleges want to admit students who are intellectually curious and introspective. So, telling a story about how you developed can show that you embody those ideals.
Choosing the right idea
You don’t have to be politically active or reinvent the wheel to answer this question\ Maybe your guardian(s) is super-athletic and put you on the soccer team, but you fell in love with studio art instead. Challenging expectations is one method of challenging beliefs, so this could be a good framework to discuss your values.
To recap: a strong theme to touch on in any one of these Common App essays is a change in perspective. You can (and should!) also highlight your development in any of the Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay #4: The gratitude essay
Another prompt that students can choose for their Common App essays is the gratitude essay:
This prompt was one of the new Common App essay prompts. It was originally released as one of the Common App essay prompts 2021.
Like some of the other Common App essay prompts, this prompt is fairly open-ended. It provides a chance to reflect on the positive aspects in your life. This prompt also lets you show that you are introspective and humble.
In the Common App essay prompts 2021, this essay replaced a prompt that asked about a problem you would like to solve. The Common App essay prompts 2021 were adjusted to include this prompt in order to “bring some joy into [each student’s] application experience.”
A word of caution
There is one potential pitfall of choosing the gratitude essay over the other Common App essay prompts. This prompt lends itself to focusing too much on someone other than yourself. Remember, good college essays will always center the writer’s identity and experiences.
Even if your essay is about how much a family member has sacrificed for you, remember that you are the one applying to college. Focus more on the second part of the prompt: how has your gratitude affected or motivated you?
Remember, Common App essays are a way to communicate something important about you to the people reading your application. That’s why it’s often referred to as the personal statement—it’s about you!
Common App Essay Prompt #5: A moment of personal growth
Like the second of the Common App prompts, this next question relates to personal growth or change:
The fifth of the Common App prompts asks about an inflection point in your life: a push to grow and shift perspectives. Like the other prompts, this one depends on introspection. Indeed, a key takeaway of these Common App essay tips, is that there’s never too much self-reflection.
Compared to the other Common App prompts, this one also lets you cover something not mentioned elsewhere in your application. Certainly, it’s less likely that answers to this question will pertain solely to one extracurricular or award. In other words, this personal statement topic can be a great place to tell the admissions team something new.
Next, let’s move onto the final two Common App prompts and offer a few more Common App essay tips.
Common App Essay Prompt #6: What captivates you?
Another of the more open-ended Common App prompts, this Common Application question has endless answers. Essays could cover something as straightforward as your potential college major or as non-academic as your favorite episode of Survivor.
Let’s take a look:
The sixth of the Common App prompts asks about what excites you. This isn’t restricted to lofty academic pursuits, either. With that said, a well-composed essay will reveal something about your values or thought process through your interest.
This prompt gives you a chance to go into detail about a passion, whether it be broad or niche, academic or cultural. The best college admissions essays will highlight something that isn’t present anywhere else in the application. Where else can you explain in excruciating detail your lifelong goal of building the tallest Rube Goldberg machine?
Common App Essay #7: A topic of your choice
Now, we’ve reached the last of the Common App prompts: a topic of your choice.
With this personal statement option, remember that it still must be exactly that: a personal statement. It should be about your unique way of navigating the world.
You might think that you could just submit your award-winning English class essay about the early feminist novel The Awakening . However, unless you discuss how its 1899 societal expectations of femininity affects how you interact with your family today… reconsider. The most important of our Common App essay tips is that above all else, this essay needs to be about you .
Therefore, if you think this Common App prompt is the one for you, make sure you’ve considered every other personal statement prompt first. Don’t think of this prompt as a way to get out of talking about yourself. Instead, use this prompt to talk about a part of yourself that the other questions aren’t reaching. The Common App essay questions are constructed to help you think about your life. In other words, don’t dismiss them just because you can’t think of an answer right away.
Keeping the personal in personal statement
When thinking about answering this question, ask yourself: is this essay a “personal statement?” Does it tell the admissions committee something they don’t know about me? Does it demonstrate something unique or dynamic about my identity, upbringing, values, or perspective?
Now that we’ve gone over all of the Common App prompts, let’s go into more detail on how you can write a great college essay. We’ll discuss some Common App essay ideas and provide some brainstorming exercises to jumpstart your writing process. We’ll also review more Common App essay tips, some Common App essay requirements, and other college application requirements. Lastly, we’ll recommend more resources like Common App essay examples that you might need to tackle the Common Application.
How to Write a Great College Essay
We’ve reviewed each of the Common App essay prompts and discussed the Common App essay requirements. Next, let’s dig into some Common App essay tips. You can also apply these guidelines to your Coalition App essay and other college application requirements.
Every great Common App essay starts with a clear strategy. Again, there are no new Common App essay prompts this year—in fact, they haven’t changed since the Common App essay prompts 2021. In short, rather than waiting for any new Common App essay prompts, you can start considering college essay topics now. After all, the earlier you start working on your Common App essay, the stronger it will be.
Below, we’ve outlined our ideal process to help you write the best college admissions essays you can. Use this structure to help you craft strong Common App essays:
Looking for strong college essay topics? Start with a free-write. Choose one of the Common App essay prompts that speaks to you. Then, set a timer for ten minutes and just start writing .
It won’t be perfect, and it doesn’t have to be. The goal of this exercise isn’t to write your final personal statement—it’s to flex your writing muscles. Don’t stop, edit, or censor yourself. Instead, just try to represent your experiences in a meaningful and authentic way. At this stage, just get ideas into words without worrying about quality or the Common App essay word limit.
Once you’re finished, take a look at what you wrote. What stands out to you? Are there any elements of your free-write you might want to explore in a draft?
Determining a College Essay Topic: Reflection Exercises to Try
If you’re facing writer’s block, try choosing one of the Common App essay prompts and thinking about its central theme. For instance, for the second of the Common App essay prompts, you might choose the idea of challenges .
Then, grab a sheet of paper, set a timer, and start writing down any meaningful challenges you’ve faced. Feel free to connect them to other elements of your life, including ways you’ve grown or changed. Don’t focus on the writing—instead, just try to think about potential college essay topics. Once the timer ends, evaluate whether anything you’ve listed might be worth drafting for your Common App essays. You can also use this strategy to tackle other college supplemental essays.
Once you’ve decided on a potential topic, it’s time to outline.
Good Common App essays often start with a “hook”—an engaging opening that grabs the reader’s interest. Often, the best hooks come from personal stories. One reliable structure for Common App essays opens with a personal story, then connecting it to your identity or character. You might then return to your original anecdote in your final paragraph or line.
In your outline, include your story and your “stakes”—that is, why your story highlights something critical about who you are. Your writing skills won’t matter if your personal statement isn’t, well, personal.
As you outline, feel free to be as descriptive or minimal as you’d like. Above all, your outline should help you write a draft—don’t craft a beautiful outline if it won’t ultimately serve your writing process. Once again, you can follow the same process in your school-specific supplemental essays.
Write a draft
Don’t feel pressured to write your Common App essay sequentially. For instance, if you know exactly how to approach the anecdote but are struggling with your opening line, feel free to jump ahead. You can always return to fill in the gaps of your personal statement.
As you draft, remember the Common App essay requirements, including the Common App essay word limit of 650 words. While the Common App essay word limit gives you more space than most supplemental essays, it’s still relatively short.
Often, leaving a few days between writing sessions can give you a useful perspective. After all, Common App essays (like any good college essay) won’t appear overnight. And since the college process is so competitive, you want your essay to stand out .
Each time you open your Common App essay, take a look at what you’ve written so far. Does it make sense and flow neatly? More importantly, does it use clear language and strong storytelling to highlight something important about your identity? If the answer is yes, you’re on the right track.
Revise, revise, revise
After you complete your Common App essay draft, put it away for a day or two. Then, return to your document to start revising .
Of course, you should edit for grammar, syntax, and spelling. However, a solid revision process will take a fair amount more work. As you read over your Common App essay, take a look at every single sentence. Does it contribute to your personal statement’s overall message? Are there any places where your language is clunky or redundant? Since the Common App essay word limit isn’t high, every word counts.
When you revise, pay careful attention to the beginning and end of your Common App essay. Remember, the opening of your essay gives Admissions Officers their first impression of you.
Additionally, as you edit, return to the Common App essay prompts. While the Common App essay prompts may be weighed differently than school-specific supplements, you should still address them comprehensively. So, don’t neglect the Common App essay requirements—namely, that you answer the prompt.
Finally, make sure that your essay highlights something critical about you. Above all, make sure your essay shows admissions teams who you are. Don’t waste your time with flowery language if it doesn’t serve your point—especially given the Common App essay word limit.
Get a second pair of eyes
Once you’ve edited your draft yourself, consider asking a trusted adult to look over your Common App essay. This could be a teacher, parent, counselor, or advisor.
Often, a second reader will notice things that you won’t. They can help you identify unclear language, fix lingering typos, and ensure your story comes through as strongly as possible. This can also help you meet the Common App essay word limit.
Of course, your Common App essay should be entirely your own work. That is to say, while you can absolutely ask for outside guidance, no one else should be writing your essay for you.
Finalize and submit!
After you receive feedback, complete a final round of revisions on your own. Ask yourself: if I read this essay, would I want to meet the student who wrote it?
When you feel ready, upload your essay using your Common App login. If you need help navigating your Common App login, you can visit the Common App YouTube channel for useful tips. Since there are no new Common App prompts this year, it’s never too early to start brainstorming. Plus, abandoned Common App essay ideas might be a great fit for supplemental essays.
What are some good college essay topics?
Overall, there are plenty of good college essay topics out there. You won’t get the chance to submit multiple Common App essays, so you should choose a topic that means something to you.
Here are some Common App essay tips to help you choose a topic:
Common App Essay Tips
1. discuss a challenge that you overcame. .
Maybe you developed a love and talent for poetry despite having severe dyslexia. Or maybe you conquered your fear of public speaking when asked to give a speech about a cause that mattered to you. The challenge itself doesn’t entirely matter; it’s about what this challenge meant to you.
If you write about a challenge, keep several things in mind. First, make sure the challenge you choose matters to you—that is, it should highlight a critical element of your identity and development. At the end of the day, good Common App essays will illustrate how the writer encountered a challenge and came out the other side.
2. Write about an experience that broadened your perspective.
Common App essays can also center around meaningful experiences. For example, maybe your first meeting with your extended family in India provided a new understanding of your heritage. Or maybe a year of volunteering at a children’s hospital taught you what it meant to find joy even amid pain and suffering. Again, the possibilities are endless; just think about which experiences have made you the person you are.
If you write about an external experience, a word of caution: remember that Common App essays should always come back to the writer’s development. For instance, if you’re writing about volunteering in a clinic, don’t spend all of your time discussing the patients’ specific stories. Ultimately, your essay should center around you.
3. Highlight a key feature of your identity or upbringing.
Good Common App essays will teach the admissions team something they don’t know about a given student. Rather than focusing on an interest you highlight elsewhere, you might write your Common App essay simply about who you are.
In this context, “identity” can mean anything: race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, or religion, to name a few. Choose a part of your identity that matters to you and write about it with passion and authenticity. Additionally, to make your Common App essay more engaging, you might use an anecdote to introduce your topic.
Overall, students can write good Common App essays about a wide variety of college essay topics. Regardless of which of the Common App prompts you choose, a meaningful topic can make for a powerful personal statement. There are many ways to write strong Common App essays. Above all, be authentic and tell your story, all while staying within the Common App essay word limit.
What should you not write in a college essay?
As you choose between the Common App prompts, you might wonder what bad Common App essays look like. So, let’s dig into some Common App essay tips about what not to write.
Most important, Common App essays should show you in a positive light. So, you should not include any explicit language or discussions of illegal activity. You should also, of course, refrain from including anything that a reader might deem offensive. These are all bad topics for Common App essays.
Avoiding the overly personal
As you consider Common App essay ideas, you should also be wary of just how personal your personal statement is. For instance, writers generally avoid overly intense discussions of traumatic events and mental health topics. Indeed, while often personally meaningful, poorly-written essays about these topics can work against you. Given the rigors of life at top universities, essays should assure Admissions Officers that you can face—if not overcome—challenges.
In general, if you wouldn’t discuss it at dinner, you may want to think twice before putting it in your Common App essay. Common App essays should be personal, but not to the point of discomfort. Think about this as you choose between the Common App prompts.
You should also avoid writing Common App essays about high school drama. Doubtless changing friendships and relationships can influence your development and seem ripe for writing about. However, admissions committees likely won’t be interested.
Highlight your strengths
Your essay should also suggest that you would make a positive contribution to any college campus. In light of that, make sure your essay portrays your development in a positive light. For instance, you shouldn’t write about how you learned that you can’t rely on other people. Instead, use the Common App essay prompts to highlight how you’ll be a good community member on your future campus.
Finally, try to avoid clichés, such as the “sports injury essay” or similarly overused Common App essay topics. This doesn’t mean you can’t use these topics at all. However, if you choose to do so, make sure you spin them in an interesting way. After all, admissions teams will read thousands of Common App essays, and you want yours to stand out. Choose one of the Common App prompts that will let you do just that.
For more guidance, you can always read Common App essay examples. These can help you get a better understanding of the Common App essay requirements.
Common Application Essay Timeline
As we’ve discussed, the earlier you start thinking about your Common App essay, the easier the process will be. However, this doesn’t mean you should start drafting your essays during your sophomore year of high school. You’ll grow and change throughout high school, and you’ll likely find many great Common App essay topics along the way.
Below, we’ve outlined our ideal timeline for brainstorming, drafting, and submitting your Common App essay.
Use the timeline above in planning your writing process, from choosing one of the Common App essay prompts to pressing “submit.” You likely won’t create your Common App login until August of your senior year when you apply to college. However, you can still start preparing your responses to the Common App essay prompts early. That way, you’ll have time to write the best college admissions essays you can.
More Common App Resources from CollegeAdvisor.com
Looking for more Common App essay tips, Common App essay ideas, and other resources on the Common App prompts? CollegeAdvisor.com is here to help you tackle all of your college application requirements.
Watch this free webinar for more about the Common Application, from Common App essays to the extracurriculars list, recommendations, and other key materials. You can also check out this expert-led webinar for a deep dive into the Common Application. There, you’ll find even more advice on writing Common App essays as you apply to college. We also have a comprehensive guide to acing the Common App.
How to ace the Common App this college admissions season
For more Common App essay ideas, check out our masterclass on how to choose Common App essay topics.
CollegeAdvisor Masterclass: Brainstorming Your Common App Personal Statement Topic￼
Additionally, you can read an overview of the Common App essay for juniors written by one of our advisors. We also have plenty of Common App essay examples available on our website . Since there are no new Common App prompts since the Common App essay prompts 2021, you can use these Common App essay examples for this year’s Common App essay prompts.
Common App Essay Prompts 2023‒2024: Final Thoughts
Overall, most colleges will accept the Common Application. This makes your Common App essay one of the most critical components of your college applications.
After all, how many Common App essays are required? Just one. So, your Common App essay needs to highlight you in the best possible light. The best college admissions essays can make a huge difference in the application review process.
We hope this guide has given you the tools to write a strong Common App essay that will impress top schools. However, if you want to make the most of your Common App essays, nothing beats personalized support. When you register with CollegeAdvisor.com, you’ll be matched with a hand-picked Admissions Expert who will guide you through every step of the application process, from building your college list to drafting your Common App essay. Click here to schedule a free meeting and learn how CollegeAdvisor can help you maximize your admissions odds.
This guide was written by Rachel Kahn and Abbie Sage. Looking for more admissions support? Click here to schedule a free meeting with one of our Admissions Specialists. During your meeting, our team will discuss your profile and help you find targeted ways to increase your admissions odds at top schools. We’ll also answer any questions and discuss how CollegeAdvisor.com can support you in the college application process.
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How Long Should a College Essay Be?
High school essays tend to require a page limit, but college essays tend to require a word count.
When it comes to college application essays, many colleges and universities specify a word count. Some expect one longer essay, while others expect responses to multiple prompts using a shorter word count for each answer. However, that’s not always the case. If your institution doesn’t provide a specific word count, it’s best to keep your essay between the length established by the longer college admissions essay format: 250 to 650 words .
Word count is just one factor to consider as you craft your college admissions essay. Let’s go over other considerations, like whether a longer essay makes a difference, and whether it’s acceptable to exceed the word count.
College essays: Word count vs. page limit
High school essays tend to require a page limit, meaning that your teachers might ask you to submit a five-page paper or an eight-paper paper. However, college essays tend to require a word count.
When a college provides you with a wide word count range, it’s best to take advantage of the upper word count limit. For example, if a college asks for an essay between 250-500 words, you should aim to craft a response that’s at least 400-450 words. You don’t need to hit the maximum length, but your essay should be well over half the word count.
College essays or personal statements are an opportunity for a college admissions committee to hear directly from you. It’s valuable space. Writing the bare minimum may not send the best message to the committee, and it may not help them learn more about who you are outside of your transcripts and general application.
Learn more: Step-by-Step Guide to Applying for College
How to measure your college essay's word count
Measuring your word count depends on which program you’re using to write your essay. Microsoft Word and Google Docs are two of the most common.
Microsoft Word: The page count is typically displayed on the bottom left of your screen. You can also click “Review” and then “Word count” to find how much you’ve written.
Google Docs: Under “Tools,” click on “Word count.” You can also highlight a portion of your text before clicking “word count” so you can determine the exact word count of that section.
Should you go over the word count?
Simply put, no. Do not go over the maximum word count. If there isn’t a preferred word count, submit an essay that’s under 650 words, according to the college application platform Common App, which works with over 900 colleges in the US [ 1 ].
Admissions officers are looking for well-written essays that follow directions. Officers review thousands of essays every year. In fact, the average college received 9,071 applications in 2020 [ 2 ]. Writing either a very short or a very long essay—ignoring the directions in either case—might send the wrong impression.
You can always start by writing a longer draft and then trimming the most unnecessary parts to tighten your essay and get it down to the preferred word count. This will help you include the most important information and get your point across in a concise way.
What length should supplemental college essays be?
Supplemental essays are additional prompts that some colleges and universities ask students to answer in addition to their personal statement or college essay. It's usually an opportunity to specify your interest in that particular school: Admissions committees may ask why you want to attend or what you want to study and why.
Schools can require, on average, at least two or three supplemental essays, while others have been known to ask for over ten. Most schools will provide specific instructions about the word count for supplemental essays. As with the college essay, stay within the range or limit, and write a focused response that incorporates some knowledge about the school.
How to format your college essay
As with word count, many institutions specify any formatting requirements, such as double-spacing (vs. single-spacing) your essay, and what font size you should use. (With general online application portals, such as Common App, the program will format your essay for you.)
Because a college essay is measured by word count rather than page length, writing in a larger font and using double-spaced formatting won’t affect the overall length of your essay, though it’s best to adhere to each college’s guidelines. Check if there are any parameters you need to follow for each application you submit.
4 tips for writing an effective college essay
No matter which essay prompt you choose, it’s important to take your time crafting your response, making sure every word adds to your story. Follow these tips to help your college essay stand out.
1. Be prepared to write a few drafts.
Your college essay should go through a few drafts before you share the final version with one of your peers or a professional for additional feedback. Take advantage of the rough draft phase by overwriting. Forget about your word count for a moment and let yourself go. Doing so may help you discover something new to say, or help you expand upon your original idea.
Make editing a separate process from the actual writing. As much as possible, write and then walk away for a period of time (a few hours or even a day). Return to your essay with fresh eyes and see if you can cut the essay, reduce the number of words you’re using, or find a more succinct or focused way to approach your response.
2. Answer the question and relate it to your unique story.
Your essay should both answer the prompt and convey who you are. You don’t need a dazzling, one-of-a-kind story to get an admissions officer’s attention. Your life is unique to you—only you have had your experiences.
Make sure that whatever you choose to write about is an authentic representation of who you are. Instead of comparing your essay to someone else in your class, work to make your response the best it can be for you. And as you focus your essay, go one step further by sharing what you’ve learned or how you’ve grown as a result. That kind of reflection can build more depth into your response.
3. Get specific.
When recounting an experience, incorporate creative writing to your personal statement. Use details to describe a situation and add a bit of color. Pick strong verbs and a few specific adjectives that correctly highlight the action and scene. Let’s compare these two examples:
1) When I got a musical instrument for my birthday, I wasn’t really sure I’d like it. Still, I figured I’d play it daily because I enjoy music. I got better, and soon I made band. I like that I get to go to all the school games.
2) When my mother surprised me with a clarinet for my 15th birthday, I wondered if I’d enjoy playing it. Over the summer, when my friends gathered outside to enjoy their time off, I practiced my scales every day in my room—and slowly improved. After that hard work and sacrifice, I was excited to earn a place in the marching band.
Both paragraphs recount the same memory, but the second one creates a more memorable picture.
4. Ask for feedback.
Once you feel as though you’ve developed a final draft, don’t rush to turn it in. Instead, ask one of your favorite teachers or a trusted friend or family member to read it. Ask for constructive feedback on ways to improve. Be prepared to make changes if something is unclear or if they think there’s a better way to phrase a section. But make sure you continue to write in your voice so the college gets to know who you are instead of someone else.
When you’re feeling confident, review your work one last time for grammar and spelling. Don’t let a small error override an otherwise thoughtful, engaging essay.
You may find it helpful to brush up on your creative writing skills so you can express yourself clearly and colorfully before applying to college. On Coursera, you can enroll in Wesleyan University’s Creative Writing specialization for free. Or you can find courses that can help you gain more knowledge of the college admissions process .
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1. Common App. “ Are There Word Limits? , https://appsupport.commonapp.org/s/article/are-there-word-limits-kudeoeos." Accessed February 11, 2022.
2. US News and World Report. “ 10 Colleges That Received the Most Applications , https://www.usnews.com/education/best-colleges/the-short-list-college/articles/colleges-that-received-the-most-applications." Accessed February 11, 2022.
This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.
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How Long Should Your College Essay Be? What is the Ideal Length?
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Students often spend hours agonizing over the best topics for their college essays. While it’s natural to wonder whether your personal statement is original or compelling enough, there’s one aspect of the process that shouldn’t cause you undue stress: how many words should a college essay be? Fortunately, with a little research, you can uncover the ideal college essay length for all your applications.
Unlike high school assignments, which typically have a strict page requirement, most colleges provide a word limit or word range for their application essays. This practice helps ensure that essays are the same length regardless of font or formatting. As a rule of thumb, students should strive to get as close as possible to the upper limit of the word range without exceeding it. Keep reading to learn more about college essay length best practices.
Main College Application Essay Length vs. Supplemental Essay Length
So, how many words should a college essay be? Main application essays are generally 500-650 words. For example, the Common Application , which can be used to apply to more than 800 colleges, requires an essay ranging from 250-650 words. Similarly, the Coalition Application , which has 150 member schools, features an essay with a recommended length of 500-550 words.
While 500 words is the most common college essay length, schools may ask students to write more or less. ApplyTexas , a platform used to apply to Texas public universities and other select colleges, requests essays with requirements varying by school. For example, students applying to UT Austin will need to submit an essay of 500-700 words, along with three short-answer questions of 250-300 words.
On the other hand, the University of California (UC) schools application includes a Personal Insight section with eight prompts. Students are asked to respond to any four of the questions, with their answers topping out at 350 words.
Additionally, some schools request a few supplemental essays, which are typically shorter than a personal statement. These questions are designed to gain more information about a student’s interests and abilities, and may include topics like why you want to attend their school, your desired major, or favorite activity.
Most schools require 1-3 supplemental essays, though some may require more or none at all (see our list of top colleges without supplements ). These supplemental essays tend to be around 250 words, though some may be just as long as your main essay. For example, UPenn requires lengthy special program supplements. Students applying to the Computer and Cognitive Science: Artificial Intelligence Program for the 2019-2020 academic year were asked to write 400-650 words explaining their interest in the major.
Can You Go Over/Under the College Essay Word Count?
It’s important to adhere to the word limits dictated by the college. If you write too little, it might appear that you’re careless or unconcerned with the school’s requirements. On the other hand, overwriting can suggest that you can’t follow instructions, or can’t write concisely.
For best results, keep your essays within the word range provided. While you don’t have to hit the count exactly, you should aim to stay within a 10% difference of the upper limit, without including “fluff” or “filler content.” For example, if the school requests 500 words, try to ensure your essay is between 450 and 500 words. For the Common App, also try to stay within 550-650 words, even though the given range is 250-650. Any shorter than 500 words will simply look like you didn’t care enough, and it won’t be long enough to truly share who you are and what matters to you.
It’s best not to go over the word count, as most application portals will cut off your writing when it exceeds the top of the range.
What If a College Essay Word Count Isn’t Given?
Although most schools provide applicants with a specific word count, some offer more general guidelines. For example, a college may ask for a particular number of pages or paragraphs.
If you aren’t given a word count, try to adhere to writing best practices and conventions. Avoid writing especially short or overly long paragraphs—250 words per paragraph is generally a safe upper limit. If you’re asked to write a certain number of pages, single- or double-spaced, stick to a standard font and font size (like Times New Roman 12).
In the event that the college doesn’t offer guidelines, shoot for an essay length of 500 words.
What If You Need to Submit a Graded Paper?
While essays are the most commonly requested writing sample, some colleges ask for additional pieces of content. For example, Amherst College has an essay option that asks students to submit a graded paper for evaluation.
If the school doesn’t offer length requirements, choose a paper ranging from 3-5 pages for best results. The goal is to select a paper long enough to showcase your writing skills and unique voice, but short enough that the admissions officer doesn’t get bored.
Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.
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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, the best college essay length: how long should it be.
Figuring out your college essay can be one of the most difficult parts of applying to college. Even once you've read 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? First, 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 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 :
"You'll answer two to three prompts as part of your application. The questions you'll answer will depend on whether you're applying to a major or to our undeclared program , and if you've selected a second choice . Each response should be approximately 150 words."
As exemplified by the University of Illinois, the shortest word limits for college essays are usually around 150 words (less than half a single-spaced page). Rarely will you see a word limit higher than around 650 words (over one single-spaced page). College essays are usually pretty short: between 150 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 by such a small 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 limit, 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 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:
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 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.
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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 :
"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 and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why. (Not-so-secret tip: The "why" matters to us.)"
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?
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 . You must write an essay in response to one prompt of your choosing, but nowhere on the page is there any guidance about word count or page limit.
However, many colleges provide additional details about their expectations for application materials, including essays, on FAQ pages, which is true of the University of Chicago. On the school’s admissions Frequently Asked Questions page , they provide the following length guidelines for the supplemental essays:
“We suggest that you note any word limits for Coalition or Common Application essays; however, there are no strict word limits on the UChicago Supplement essays. For the extended essay (where you choose one of several prompts), we suggest that you aim for around 650 words. While we won't, as a rule, stop reading after 650 words, we're only human and cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention indefinitely. For the “Why UChicago?” essay, we suggest about 250-500 words. The ideas in your writing matter more than the exact number of words you use!”
So there you go! You want to be (loosely) in the realm of 650 for the extended essay, and 250-500 words for the “Why UChicago?” essay.
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!
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 145 essay examples with analysis !
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Ellen has extensive education mentorship experience and is deeply committed to helping students succeed in all areas of life. She received a BA from Harvard in Folklore and Mythology and is currently pursuing graduate studies at Columbia University.
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