How to Stick to the Word Count on College Essays

Hand holding pen writing in journal to represent sticking to word count on college essays - image by Magoosh

You have a lot to think about when writing your college essay: brainstorming a topic, writing it well, and proofreading and editing it until it represents your best work. And of course, you can’t forget about sticking to the word count.

Keeping your essay short can be challenging. It’s supposed to showcase your best self, set you apart from other candidates, and give some extra insight into your individuality and personality. And you have to accomplish all of this in a limited amount of space?

Don’t worry—sticking to the word count while writing an excellent college essay is certainly possible. We’ll show you how!

What is the word count for college essays?

First, you might be wondering: What is the word count for college essays? The answer varies, but let’s take a look at some general guidelines.

Most college applicants will end up writing the Common App essay. Currently, the Common App asks you to write an essay ranging from 250-650 words. 650 words is just over one page of single-spaced type. When you fill out the application online, it won’t allow you to submit an essay with less than 250 or more than 650 words. So, sticking to the word count is not optional.

If you don’t write the Common App essay, or if you write additional essays, note that most college essays set word limits around 500-750 words. In the rare case that no word limit is specified, most experts recommend staying under 800 words.

Remember that the person reading your essay has read a lot of other essays, so be kind. Say what you need to say as concisely as possible. Here’s how:

Tips to Stick to the Word Count on College Essays

1. “Zoom In” On Your Topic

The best college essays focus on a specific topic. For instance, you might write about a single moment or event that profoundly impacted you, or a small but meaningful aspect of your life.

When you get specific, you’re able to provide details that are unique to you and your experiences, crafting an essay that no one else could write. Plus, you narrow the scope of your essay, which helps you stay within the word count.

Think about it like “zooming in” with a camera. Maybe you have a broad idea to start with, like family. But you can’t pack all of your thoughts, feelings, and experiences about family into 650 words. If you tried to, your essay would probably feel scattered and unorganized. It wouldn’t give a close, personal look at you or your life.

That means you need to zoom in some more. Let’s take a closer look. Maybe there’s a specific aspect of your family you want to highlight, like the way your family has taught you to speak your mind and stand for your beliefs. This is good, but it’s still pretty broad.

Let’s zoom in again. Get more specific. How has your family taught you to speak your mind? Is there a particular memory that stands out? Now, you decide to write about the spirited debates your family loves to have around the dinner table—and how those debates have shaped you as a person.

Now, that’s a topic you might be able to thoroughly cover in 650 words. And it’s going to be a lot more reflective, meaningful, and personal than a generic essay about “family.”

2. Outline First, Then Write

Once you’ve narrowed the scope of your essay, you’re almost ready to write. One of the most powerful strategies to help you stick to the word count is to create a plan or outline. Map out your essay before you start writing. If you have a plan, you’re less likely to ramble, go off on tangents, and ultimately waste words.

Think about the main purpose of your essay. What do you want the reader (college admissions officers) to know about you when they’re finished? What’s the point you’re trying to make?

As you plan or outline your essay, create a narrative:

  • What is the beginning, middle, and end of the story you’re telling?
  • What is your character arc?
  • Who were you at the beginning? How were you challenged, influenced, or inspired? What did you learn or how did you grow as a result? Who are you now?

Focus on including information that accomplishes your main purposes and moves your narrative along. If it’s unrelated to any of your key points, you can probably cut it. And if it’s information that’s found somewhere else in your application, you don’t need to include it in your plan.

Having a clear, concise, and focused plan for your essay will help you convey your message without exceeding the word limit.

3. Keep the Introduction Short

The most important part of your essay is the body. That means your introduction doesn’t need to be extremely long. Save your words for the “meat” of the essay, where you’ll really dig into your narrative.

An effective introduction is engaging, interesting, and brief. It provides a glimpse or a preview into what you’ll discuss, but not too much. You want to leave the admissions officer wanting to read more.

In general, an introduction only needs three key parts:

  1. Hook/grabber (an interesting sentence that immediately engages the reader)
  2. Necessary background information (keyword: necessary)
  3. Thesis statement or thematic statement (a clear statement summarizing your overall point)

Because college essays are more creative, you don’t have to follow this pattern exactly. But it gives you an idea of why a solid introduction can be short and sweet. Many students make the mistake of including too much unnecessary background in their introduction. Try to limit your intro to 4-6 sentences, unless there’s other essential information you must include.

If your intro is longer than six sentences, go back and underline or highlight sentences that are essential to the meaning of your essay. Then, review the sentences you didn’t highlight. Can you cut them entirely, or at least shorten them? Can this piece of info wait until the body of your essay?

4. Focus on the Important Stuff

We already mentioned that you want to focus on information that advances your narrative and relates to your main point. You also want to devote most of your word count to reflection and introspection.

When an admissions officer reads your essay, they’re most interested in reading your analysis of your life experiences. Think about questions like:

  • What did this event mean to you?
  • Why is it significant?
  • How has it shaped your life?
  • How did you learn or grow from this experience?
  • What does the information in this essay convey about you as a person, the way you think, or what you believe in and value?

If you write an essay about a challenge in your life, for example, you want to describe the challenge itself only briefly. The majority of your essay should focus on how you overcame the challenge and what you learned from the experience. It should demonstrate positive qualities that the experience revealed or helped you develop, like resilience, determination, and courage.

So, if it looks like you’re going to exceed the word count, reread. How many of these sentences are telling your story? How many are reflecting on your story? If you have to cut something, cut nonessential storytelling pieces. Include specific details that bring your story to life and tell it clearly without taking up too much space.

5. Eliminate Repetition

Have you included any repetitive words or phrases? Do any of your sentences basically mean the same thing? Reread your essay for repetition, and cut it.

Here’s an example:

It was the hardest decision I had ever made in my life. I wanted to avoid embarrassment, but I also wanted to do what was right. Making matters worse, I was torn between my two best friends. I never expected to face such a tough decision.

The first and last sentences of the paragraph above basically say, “It was a hard decision.” The writer doesn’t need both of them. If you can find sentences in your essay that don’t add any new information, then it’s safe to delete them.

6. Avoid Using Unnecessary Words

Similarly, sticking to a tight word limit requires you to write concisely. Concise writing is succinct and to the point. It avoids unnecessary words and sentences. To write concisely, think of each word as a $100 bill. You want to spend them wisely.

Of course, you don’t want to sound like a robot. Writing concisely doesn’t mean that you need to cut interesting details or doses of personality. Choose your words deliberately, and avoid words that don’t add meaning, like:

  • Actually
  • Really
  • Very
  • Basically
  • Just
  • Totally
  • Completely
  • Absolutely
  • Definitely
  • Probably
  • Maybe
  • Rather
  • Quite
  • Somewhat
  • Somehow

In some circumstances, some of these words might add meaning. But if you’re struggling to stay within the word limit, these words should be some of the first to go. Does the sentence make sense without it? If yes, cut it. In using the $100 bill analogy above, where can you save money? What unnecessary expenses could your essay live without?

Avoid Using Unnecessary Words: Let’s Practice!

Let’s look at my first paragraph above:

Similarly, sticking to a tight word limit requires you to write concisely. Concise writing is succinct and to the point. It avoids unnecessary words and sentences. To write concisely, think of each word as a $100 bill. You want to spend them wisely.

I’m not trying to stick to a 650-word limit, but what if I was? What could I cut? Here are some ideas:

  • The word “Similarly” doesn’t add any information. I could just say, “Sticking to a tight word limit requires you to write concisely.”
  • In the third sentence, I could delete “To write concisely.” You already know that the topic of this paragraph is concise writing. It would still make sense to say, “Think of each word as a $100 bill.”
  • In the final sentence, I could say, “Spend them wisely” instead of, “You want to spend them wisely.” Deleting those two words doesn’t change the meaning of the sentence. In fact, it makes the sentence clearer and more direct.

Now, let’s look at my third paragraph:

In some circumstances, some of these words might add meaning. But if you’re struggling to stay within the word limit, these words should be some of the first to go. Does the sentence make sense without it? If yes, cut it. In using the $100 bill analogy above, where can you save money? What unnecessary expenses could your essay live without?

If I had to cut something, what could I cut? Here are some suggestions:

  1. In the first sentence, I could shorten “In some circumstances” to “Sometimes.” It means the same thing and saves me two words.
  2. In the second sentence, I could delete “some of,” making the sentence, “But if you’re struggling to stay within the word limit, these words should be the first to go.” “Some of” doesn’t add meaning, and deleting it makes the sentence stronger. Plus, I said “some of” in the previous sentence too, so it sounds repetitive.
  3. I could delete “above” from the question, “In using the $100 bill analogy above, where can you save money?” You probably know the analogy is above. And even if you don’t know, it’s not essential information.
  4. The final sentence asks, “What unnecessary expenses could your essay live without?” I could delete “unnecessary” because it has the same meaning as “could live without.”

Hopefully, this gives you an idea of how to cut unnecessary words from your essay! As a writer, it’s easy to get attached to the words you’ve chosen. But when it comes to word counts, you must be prepared to trim the fat and delete any words that don’t add meaning.

You should also shorten sentences and phrases whenever possible. For instance, instead of saying, “I wondered if I had made the right decision,” write, “Had I made the right decision?” With the question mark, “I wondered” is implied. Shorter sentences save you words, and they’re often clearer, stronger, and more direct.

7. Ask for Help

If you’ve tried all of these ideas and exercises, but your essay is still too long, ask for help! Ask a friend, parent, teacher, or other trusted adult to read the essay.

Do they see any sentences, phrases, or words that you can cut?

Sometimes, getting an extra pair of eyes on your essay makes a huge difference. An outside perspective is always clearer.

Final Thoughts: How to Stick to the Word Count on College Essays

You might have a lot to say in your college essay, but you have to say it within the required word count. Use strategies like:

  1. Narrowing down your topic
  2. Mapping out your essay beforehand
  3. Focusing on information that supports your main point and advances your narrative
  4. Cutting repetition
  5. Cutting unnecessary words and phrases
  6. Shortening sentences whenever possible
  7. Asking for a fresh perspective

Believe it or not, using these strategies will also make your essay more engaging and powerful. Not only will you stick to the word count on your college essays, but you’ll also write a clear, concise, and memorable essay for the admissions officers.

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  • Jason Patel

    Jason Patel is the founder of Transizion, a college counseling and career services company that provides mentorship and consulting on college applications, college essays, resumes, cover letters, interviews, and finding jobs and internships. Jason’s work has been cited in The Washington Post, BBC, NBC News, Forbes, Fast Company, Bustle, Inc., Fox Business, and other great outlets. Transizion donates a portion of profits to underserved students and veterans in of college prep and career development assistance. Jason is a Brazilian Jiujitsu martial artist, outdoorsman, and avid reader. You can find more content on his blog and YouTube channel.

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