How Long Should Your Personal Statement Be?

Making sure your personal statement is the “right” length

What’s the right length for your personal statement? Is there a “right” length? In this article, you’ll find both simple and somewhat more nuanced answers to those questions, as well as tips on how to structure your personal statement in ways that take advantage of the “right” length.

How Long Should a Personal Statement Be?

The simple answer is, for the Common App main statement, 650 words max; for the Coalition App, 500-650; for the UC PIQs, 350 max.

The better answer is … a little more complex. Hence the quotes around “right” in the intro.

For each of the above, you don’t have to use every single available word. So don’t just stretch things—that generally leads to weaker writing. (You already know this. When a teacher once asked you to write a 1,500-word essay, and you got to around 1,300 and then just added fluff phrasing to pad out the word count, it didn’t make your writing better. Also, just a heads up: Your teachers know you do this. In college, padding word count will hurt you. A buddy of mine found that out the hard way at Harvard. Don’t be like him. At least with the “learning the hard way” part.)

That said, you will, in our experience, virtually always end up with a better essay by having your early drafts over word count (within reason), then as you revise (more on that below), cutting the fat and refining phrasing to get under the maximum.

One nice thing about using the applications mentioned above is that, because you can use the Common App or Coalition platform to apply to hundreds of different schools, it’s extremely likely that you only need to write one personal statement. (Unless you’re applying to schools that use their own applications, like MIT or Georgetown—check out those links for guides to their prompts. But you can likely still reuse large elements of your Common App personal statement in those applications.)

Important side note regarding that last paragraph: Please don’t actually try to apply to hundreds of different schools. There’s no single number that works for every student, but 10 is likely fine.

While the personal statement’s length doesn’t vary from school to school, the supplements required by different schools do vary. And for many schools, in particular the most highly selective schools, you’ll have to write a bunch of supplemental essays. For those, we have a bunch of free guides you can check out. (For example, Stanford, and Harvard, and Yale)

How Long Should a Personal Statement Be When There Isn’t a Limit?

This is a fairly common question, but it doesn’t really have an answer … because there aren’t really any colleges that require a personal statement that don’t offer some kind of word-count limit. At least, none that I can think of.

That said, some colleges do have major supplemental essays with no hard limit. For example, the University of Chicago doesn’t specify a hard word count for either of its prompts (a “Why us?” and its Extended Essay, with a bunch of fun possible prompts to choose from).

For large supplements like UChicago’s Extended Essay that don’t offer a hard word count, we’d generally recommend aiming to keep it under 650 (same as the main personal statement). You can go over, but you’ll have to justify doing so with some really strong writing.

Tips for Writing Your Personal Statement

If you want a more in-depth version, check out this step-by-step guide. For now, here’s the brief version:

  • Brainstorm your content

    Here are three exercises to get you started:

  • Decide on how to structure your content

    We recommend two approaches to structure, depending on whether you feel you’ve faced significant challenges and want to write about them (and to clarify, you definitely do not need to write about challenges in a personal statement—though that’s a super common misconception): 

  • Outline

    Really? Outline?

    Yes.

  • Draft

    In your first draft, don’t worry about a fancy opening or ending, and don’t worry (within reason) about length. For example, if you’re writing a Common App personal statement, and your first draft ends up being 800 or 900 words, you’re fine. You’ll have to cut eventually. But cutting is the easiest part of writing—it mostly involves just using the “delete” key. 

    Don’t let word count stop you from exploring early on. It’s exploration, experimentation, and revision that lead to strong writing. Not word counts.

  • Revise

  • Revise some more

  • Probably some more

  • You get the idea

How does the “right” length for a personal statement play into that approach?

For a montage, you’ll probably have somewhere between 4-7 paragraphs, each exploring different values through different moments and experiences. And you’ll probably want to split that word count fairly evenly across those paragraphs, so somewhere around 90-160 words per paragraph (with some leeway).

For a narrative, you’ll want to split the word count fairly evenly between three separate sections of content (though to clarify, each “section” will probably have more than one paragraph): Challenges + Effects, What I Did About It, What I Learned. So about 215 words per section, give or take. (For an in-depth explanation of those sections, see the guides linked above.)

Examples of Winning Personal Statements

Montage Example

My Twitter bio reads: angry brown girl, feminist, singer, meme-lover. You will notice live-tweets of my feminist Pride and Prejudice thoughts, analyses of Hamilton’s power for musical representation, and political memes. Just as my posts bring together seemingly disparate topics, I believe there is a vibrancy that exists at the multidimensional place where my interests intersect. 

Growing up as a debater and musician, it was easy to see the two as distinct entities where I had to make unequivocal choices. At the start of my junior year, I decided not to participate in the musical in order to work for Emerge California, an organization that helps Democratic women run for office. There I learned about data science, gender distributions in public office, and how to work with the evil printer. I also halted my voice and piano lessons to focus on building my student-led non-profit, Agents of Change. As someone who has diverted my energy into community activism, I can attest to the power of grassroots movements. It has been so rewarding to measure the impact that my team has had on my community. But even so, I felt that I was losing touch with the music that was such a profound part of me. 

I found a new way of being when I started combining my artsy and political sides. I took an intensive class on protest music, where I learned how political movements have been shaped by the music of their time. While in the class, we were asked to compose our own songs. I am not a songwriter, but I am an activist, and I embraced the opportunity to turn music into an outlet for my political beliefs. As a first-generation American, I am dedicated to raising awareness about refugee rights and immigration. My songs about the Syrian Refugee Crisis let me find a way to bring the two sides of me together and gave me a rush that neither music nor politics by themselves would have provided. 

This introduction led me to apply to the Telluride Association Protest Poetics program, where I dove deeper into my own identity. I wrote songs about police brutality and the ways that as a non-black person of color I am implicated in instances of subliminal racism. Over the course of the program, as I became more familiar with the visual, literary, and performance art we analyzed, I slowly started to realize that, though I confront colorism, jokes about Indian culture, and intra-community violence in some form every day, my proximity to whiteness still gives me immense amounts of privilege. I have come to know that this means I have a responsibility to both be at the forefront of movements, and conscious of not stepping over the voices of other intersectional identities. I hope that the music I choose to perform and the way I live my life can amplify, not overwrite, any of the struggles that others deal with daily. 

Last year, I had another opportunity to use music to pay homage to an issue I care deeply about. In my South Asian community, mental health is an issue that is often papered over. When a member of my school community committed suicide, I was asked to sing “Amazing Grace” for the school to both unify and honor the student. Though I thought that I had really understood the power of music, holding that space for my entire school had a profound resonance that I still don’t fully understand. 

My voice is an instrument for change — whether it be through me raising my hand to contribute to a discussion in a classroom, speaking out against gun violence at a rally, or singing at an event of solidarity. I know that someday my voice, in conjunction with many other unique voices and perspectives, will make a difference.

— — —

Analysis

We think there are 4 key qualities that strong personal statements possess: Values, Insight, Vulnerability, and Craft (probably in roughly that order of importance). You can check out that link for more detail and, once you’re done with your personal statement, put it through the Great College Essay Test. Let’s talk through how the essay above checks those boxes.

Values: Tons of ’em. She does a great job weaving values through every paragraph, and using detail and action to illustrate how those values have manifested in her life. Equality/social justice/representation, community/engagement, music, art, politics, mental health …

It’s useful to notice that rather than following the standard dictum “show, don’t tell,” she does a nice job showing, then telling. We’d recommend that latter approach, as it plays into craft (more on that below), but also ensures your readers on the admission committee (who may be reading pretty quickly) don’t miss your point.

Insight: One way to think of insight is to frame it as your response to the question “So what?” Why do these moments and experiences matter to you? How have they molded you? And how have they shaped what you value and why you value it? That last question is one of the easier ways to start weaving insights into your essay—what are the lessons you’ve learned about the values you’re demonstrating?

Lines like, “As someone who has diverted my energy into community activism, I can attest to the power of grassroots movements,” or, “I slowly started to realize that, though I confront colorism, jokes about Indian culture, and intra-community violence in some form every day, my proximity to whiteness still gives me immense amounts of privilege. I have come to know that this means I have a responsibility to both be at the forefront of movements, and conscious of not stepping over the voices of other intersectional identities,” do a great job showing how she’s worked to develop skills of reflection. And there’s actually some nice insight in acknowledging that there are things that “I still don’t fully understand.”

Vulnerability: There are many ways to be vulnerable in a personal statement. One way the essay above uses is to offer up some of the things that matter to us, things that we hold close to our sense of self. Because when we do so, we’re risking having someone tell us we’re wrong. When this author takes that risk, and is willing to share where she’s found meaning, I feel closer to her.

Craft: That first line functions as a nice, quick hook—as soon as I read it, I’m curious where we’re heading next—in addition to thematically setting up the essay. She has some good variation of phrasing and sentence structure. And she’s clearly spent a good amount of time (as in, 5+ drafts) revising and refining. (Keep in mind that one thing you’re showing your readers is that you’re ready to write at the college level—meaning turning in a first or second draft probably isn’t putting your best foot forward … )

And since this post is about personal statement length, let’s look at how the author above apportioned her word count in a way that helps her show the admission officers who she is and what the skills, qualities, and values are that she’ll bring to a campus: 

Notice that the intro is pretty quick—it uses just over 50 words to give us a clear sense of focus and direction and voice. That allows the author to dedicate more like 100-150 words to each body paragraph, showing a different side of who she is and what she values. It wouldn’t necessarily be bad to have a longer intro, but keep in mind that it’s the moments and experiences in the body that demonstrate your values and insights that will tend to have the biggest impact on the reader.

And while she didn’t use every single one of the 650-word maximum, she came pretty close (636).

Narrative Example

My eyes flutter open and I see blinding lights. I feel an overwhelming nausea, grab the bucket next to me and throw up. I lay my head down in exhaustion and feel a cast around my head. I had just gotten surgery on my left ear to have bilateral cochlear implants for profound deafness. This was the start of my journey.

I was the kid who had to spend hours after school rebuilding my speech and language skills with a speech therapist, the one who always wore my hair down so no one would notice the implants, the one at the swimming parties who would pretend I had to go to the bathroom just so no one would see me take them off. And every night I had to remember to charge my batteries, so I could hear the next day. 

On top of all this, I was also shy. In school, I sat in the back of the class so no one would notice me. When my teachers forgot to turn on my microphone in class, I wouldn’t say anything because I was afraid to bring attention to myself. After school, I had to review my classmates’ notes because I couldn’t simultaneously write and hear everything the teacher said. I remember so strongly a feeling of unfairness that I was literally the only student in my school who had to deal with these issues. 

There was one place where I was an equal and didn’t feel like I was constantly catching up: my ballet classes. There, I was more outgoing and didn’t constantly feel pressured to speak–dance was a language that didn’t require talking. Though dance became an escape, it still wasn’t enough to balance out my need to fit in.

In order to overcome my nearly constant frustration, I decided I needed to connect to my deafness. I started an internship with a speech pathologist and for the first time interacted with other people with hearing loss: kids of all ages, each with their own struggles. During junior year, I did an independent study and learned more about the effects of deafness on language development. 

When I heard about Leadership Opportunities for Teens (LOFT), a program that promotes leadership skills and self-advocacy with teenagers like me, I joined. There, I had an epiphany. During a discussion with other participants from all over the country, several of them spoke of being bullied, and I realized for the first time how supportive my own academic environment had been. Whereas other students dealt with taunting and physical abuse, I was in a school with accommodating teachers and students who were curious about my experience. The only person who had been contributing to my shyness and fear was myself. And from my dance experiences, I knew I was capable of more. 

Armed with my new knowledge of the science of deafness and a little hope, I began advocating for myself. Instead of feeling overwhelmed, I began to feel proud of my abilities to keep up with my hearing peers. Gradually, I found myself feeling more relaxed in school and empowered to try new things I had never done before, like running, volleyball, and cheer. I even began introducing myself to strangers. Now, as a senior, I find myself in leadership positions like yearbook editor and a freshmen mentor. And every time a teacher forgets to turn on the microphone, I raise my hand in front of the entire class and remind the teacher to please turn it on. And she does.

I’ve spent my whole life dealing with my hearing loss and the obstacles it threw in my path. Looking back at the moment where I woke up from surgery, I don’t think of the nauseating side effects; I see it as a blessing that gave me the gift to hear and a challenge to overcome obstacles that have made me braver.

— — —

Analysis

Same game as above: Values, Insight, Vulnerability, Craft.

Values: Again, we see a bunch of values throughout the essay, especially in the actions she takes to work through her challenges: art/dance, community/engagement, autonomy, independence, self-awareness/perspective, exploration, growth, bravery …

And, as with the first essay, notice that she does a nice job of both showing and telling—her actions help us see what values she’s developed through her experiences, but she also takes the time to directly mention those values at times (e.g., “made me braver.”)

Insight: She does a nice job answering “so what” by reflecting on how these experiences have shaped her, for example, through how she came to understand that while dance was a useful escape, it wasn’t an answer to her problems, or through how she came to understand the support she had, and using that to consciously make different, braver choices that would lead to her growth.

Vulnerability: There are vulnerable elements throughout the essay, but in particular, notice how she offers up details early on (like her worries, fears, and anxieties) that are probably a little scary to share. But again, doing so makes me feel closer to her and the story she’s offering.

Craft: There’s a nice, quick hook that draws us in by giving us a quick sense of mystery through the images and sensations, then resolves it without leaving us wondering for too long. She does a nice job varying phrasing and structure, and uses clear transitions to give us a sense of place and connection. And, as with the montage essay above, she has clearly spent a good deal of time revising and refining.

Length/word count: This essay does a nice job of apportioning word count in the way we talked about above—about one-third for Challenges + Effects, one-third for What I Did About It, and one-third for What I Learned (some of which is sprinkled throughout the essay, but the bulk of which comes toward the end). Splitting the word count that way allowed her to create a nice narrative arc that takes advantage of every one of the 650 words available to her.

Check out these other personal statement resources:

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