How Long is a College Essay? 7 Answers

I once asked a professor how long she wanted a homework essay to be after I noticed the guidelines didn’t specify.

Her response: “As long as it needs to be.”

That didn’t feel very helpful at the time.

But in hindsight, I get what she meant. The point of an essay isn’t to simply meet word count. In fact, as I’ll clarify later, it’s one of the last things you should worry about.

That said, for most of your college essays, word count is something you’ll have to take into account (eventually).

And it’s understandable that how long your college essays(s) should be could feel confusing at times, since different applications and supplemental essays take pretty different approaches, and sometimes word count is a hard rule, whereas at other times it’s more of a guideline.

To get some clarity, read on.

College Essay Word Count Limits (for Different Applications)

You have various ways you might be applying to college. Each of those can take a slightly different approach to word count.

Common App

If you’re using the Common Application (and since over 900 colleges use it, that seems fairly likely), your personal statement has a hard limit of 650 words. Do you have to use all of that word count? No. But it can be useful to be pretty close—remember that this is one of the primary means a school has to get a sense of who you are and what values, qualities, and skills you’d bring to campus (and if it’s a school without supplemental essays, maybe the only way). Most students that I’ve worked with write more than 650 on their early drafts, then cut down toward the end of the writing process (more on that later).

Coalition App

The Coalition Application currently has a recommended range of 500-650 words. Over 150 schools take the Coalition App, and the Coalition itself is centered around offering good financial aid to students. There are also some great schools (like UT Austin, U of Washington, and Rutgers) that take the Coalition App but not the Common App—be sure you take some time to understand which schools you’re applying to accept what applications. 

University of California (UCs)

Some public college systems accept the Common App or Coalition (for example, many schools in the SUNY or CUNY systems take one or both; UT Austin takes the Coalition App, UT Dallas takes the Common App), but the University of California (UC) system has its own application process.

To apply to the UCs, you’ll have to complete 4 (of 8 possible) prompts, each with a 350 word limit. Because these are fairly short, I’d recommend using most of not all of those 350 words. For more on the UCs, check out our guide here.

Individual School Apps

Some individual schools (Georgetown and MIT, for example) have their own applications. For any school that has its own application, be sure to read the prompts and word counts carefully, as some are rules, and some are guidelines. Georgetown has guidelines like “approximately 1 page,” while MIT has strict limits (some 150, most 250) for its various prompts.

TIME SAVER: If you’re applying to a school with its own application, and also a bunch of other schools (especially if they have supplements, for example, on the Common App), I’d recommend checking our guide on building what we call a “super” essay (one that works for a bunch of different prompts).

Word Counts for Supplemental Essays

A lot of schools require supplemental essays on topics like “Why us” or “Community” or “Why Your Major.” Most of the time, these will be shorter than your personal statement (with some exceptions—Cornell and UPenn, for example, require “Why us” essays that are roughly the same length as your main essay).

The word counts will vary a bunch from school to school. Most of the time, these will be hard limits. In those cases, you’ll probably want to be pretty close to word count limit, without going over (as a general guideline, the lower the word count, the more likely you’ll have to max it out). 

If a school doesn’t give you a limit, I’d generally aim for somewhere in the 400-600 range. For example, the University of Chicago doesn’t give a limit for its “Why us” or what we jokingly call its “show us your rad brain” prompts. For the “Why us,” you’re probably good at around 550 (though that’s not a hard limit). For the extended essay, you can aim around 650. You can go longer for both, but you have to earn it.

For free guides to the supplemental essays to a bunch of schools, check this out.

Word Counts for Scholarship Essays

A lot of what I just mentioned regarding supplemental essays applies here, so rather than repeat myself, I’ll simply nudge you to double check your word count limits, and keep in mind if they are hard caps or rough guidelines.

For a free guide on things like where to find scholarships, and what colleges are looking for in essays, jump over here.

An Important Note Concerning Word Count and Drafting

Please don’t worry about word count until basically your final draft (within reason*).

Ultimately, you’ll usually have to pay attention to word count, as most prompts will have a hard limit past which your text will simply be cut off.

But worrying about word count early in the process is one of the biggest mistakes I see students make. Doing so just limits what students explore in early drafts, and many often end up having to rewrite more to eventually get to what they would have gotten to if they hadn’t worried about word count in the first place.

So save word count worries for when all your content and structure and phrasing are pretty much set. The “delete” key is pretty easy to use.

*by “within reason,” I mean that if your first few drafts of a 650 word limit essay are 800 or 900 words, no worries. You’ll have to cut, but that’s much easier than having to write more. But if your first draft is 2000 words, that’s gonna be tougher. Still doable. But tougher.

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