Figuring out your college essay can be one of the most difficult parts of applying to college. Even once you’ve 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? 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 to 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: “Explain your interest in the major you selected and describe how you have recently explored or developed this interest inside and/or outside the classroom. You may also explain how this major relates to your future career goals. If you're applying to the Division of General Studies, explain your academic interests and strengths or your future career goals. You may include any majors or areas of study you're currently considering. Limit your response to 300 to 400 words.”
See, it’s right in the prompt—they even gave you a word range to stay within!
The shortest word limits for college essays are usually around 250 words (less than half a single-spaced page). Rarely will you see a word limit higher than around 600 words (over one single-spaced page). College essays are usually pretty short: between 200 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 a teeny tiny bitty 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 essay 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 obviously 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 a 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.
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: “The required Wellesley ‘Writing Supplement,’ asks you to respond to the following topic in two well-developed paragraphs. 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 (www.wellesley.edu/admission/100) and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why.”
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. They are required, and you must choose one, but nowhere on the page is there any guidance about word count or page limit.
However, some googling about UChicago essay prompts led me to a post about the essays on the UChicago admissions blog. That post says at the end, “We ask simply that your essay is somewhere in the realm of 500-650 words, or about 1-2 pages single or double spaced (and we’re flexible—don’t take this as license to write a 14-page tome, but know that we won’t stop reading at 651 words if you need an extra verb).”
So there you go! You want to be (loosely) in the realm of 500-650 words.
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 133 essay examples with analysis!
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Every so often when I’m writing the GRE essays, I’ll think: Should I really be writing so much?
I tend to get carried away. And when that happens, it would be great to know if all this extra writing is actually helping me score better or hurting my AWA score. Of course, I want to impress the essay graders, but I want to do it the right way.
Students often ask me, how long their GRE essays should be because there is no concrete information out there about the “perfect” length of a GRE essay, and even if there is, much of that data is conflicting.
Some say essays aren’t graded mostly on length but the higher grades for a longer essay is a mere correlation between essay length and grades.
When it comes to the Analytical Writing section, essay length is very important, so if you are planning to get a perfect score, you might as well do it right.
But before we come down to the ideal length for an essay, let’s first crush this shocking myth that has been around for sometime:
Myth #1: Longer essays are the only way!
On the GRE, essay length is not only one of the factors taken into consideration. You have to check a host of other factors, if you are looking to get a perfect score. All the following factors affect your overall AWA score:
Clarity in Ideas – This is the most basic of all considerations. What are you trying to say? What’s your main point? This should be very clear by the time the grader finishes off reading the essay. Substance and content of your essay matters more than any other factor. Also, every logically supporting reason or example that you make use of should ultimately connect to this main idea. If it isn’t explicit, you are losing points!
Structure – The way an article is formatted, has a massive impact upon its readability. It’s important to break up your essay into paragraphs so the essay graders can easily scan it.
The general structure is to start with an introductory paragraph followed by 3-4 body paragraphs and finish off with a conclusion paragraph. So, make sure there are at least 5-6 paragraphs in your essay.
Sentence Variety – Consecutive sentences with the same structure and length can sound monotonous and lifeless. Instead of sounding repetitive and boring, use sentence style skillfully.
You should vary the sentence flow and the rhythm by switching between short and long sentences. You should also make use of transitional and signal words to vary sentence openings.
Vocabulary – Another myth about GRE essays is that the usage of GRE words in the essay has a correlation with the essay score. Not really! As long as you use proper grammar and defend your point intelligently and use precise vocabulary to convey meaning effectively, you should be alright. It is not needed that you use heavy vocabulary or GRE words.
Language and Grammar – Though ETS says you may have minor errors in the essay copy that do not interfere with overall meaning and coherence, the time you make your first error, the grader will notice it and this can have a negative impact on your AWA score. So, make sure your essay is as spotless as possible, and eliminate all errors before submitting.
Reasoning – You should include as many logically compelling reasons as you can to support your stance.
One of the most important aspects about a compelling essay is its ability to convince the reader by means of sound logical reasoning. So, you should be able to connect your ideas properly to the central theme or idea of the essay, and convince the reader to agree to your point of view. If the essay doesn’t sound logical or reasonable, you will pay the penalty, no matter how long the essay is.
By no means am I saying that essay length isn’t important. I am only saying that essay length on the GRE isn’t the only thing you should be concerned about. I am also saying that essay length is just one of the factors out of many others that influence your AWA score.
Myth #2: ETS uses e-Rater software which grades essays on their content length
This is the most egregious of the myths, and it’s been around for a long time.
Recently, I read a post on Quora which asks “Do humans readers grade my GRE essays?” The top answer said, “They don’t.” His/her point was that a computer software called ‘e-rater’ scans your essay based on preset rules (natural language processing algorithms) and prints out a score, using a 6-point holistic scale.
That’s just not true.
In fact, E.T.S. claims this grading software is used today, along with human raters, to grade GRE and TOEFL examinations, and without human raters in various practice tests.
I want you to understand that if ETS were to use an automated essay grader to evaluate your essay then don’t you think gaming a software would be too easy? You must keep in mind that there is a human reader who will also grade your essay along with the e-rater, and both their scores are averaged to obtain the final AWA score. So, even if you try and game the software, the human reader will give you the actual score you deserve, which will bring down the average. So, there is no point in trying to game the e-rater. Instead, you should try other tactics, such as using impressive AWA quotes, or writing coherent paragraphs, which will naturally raise your score.
So to sum things up, both of these myths should be shunned in favor of a more strategic approach to essay length. Longer is not necessarily better. Shorter is not necessarily better. And human readers do actually read your essays.
So what’s the ideal length?
I see students wondering about this all the time and I am sure you are here to find out the same.
ETS has written about the ideal length nowhere, and still remains tight lipped on this. Also, there is no word limit as such. But there seems to be a pattern that appears on GRE sample essays that come along with the ETS official guide to the GRE.
When closely observed, there is a significant increase in the number of words from a 5.0 graded essay and a 6.0 graded essay.
Longer is usually better
To analyze further on this topic, we have done a bit of research, and found out an interesting relation between essay length and the final score. If you look at the statistics below, you will have to concur with me. Longer essays usually score better on every essay topic.
If you are a long-essay fan and insist to pen a high scoring AWA essay on the GRE, you should write anywhere between 500-600 words. Don’t ask me why. The research shows that’s how it is, and if it true for a sample of 500 students, it must be true on a larger scale as well.
A column chart with average word count for essays from 500 students
As you can see, the longer the essay, the higher the grades. Notice that a 5+ point essay has length exceeding 500 words. Another interesting fact is, it seems as if 600 is an upper limit for word count. If you go beyond 600 words, you can see how the scores go down. This isn’t surprising, though. Almost no student on this planet can write a perfect 800 word essay under pressure in 30 minutes. If someone is shooting for a high word count, they are surely sacrificing on quality. So, it’s safe to say that 500-600 is what you should be looking at.
Now It’s Your Turn
In the end, I warn you against getting stuck up on essay length. If you focus on word count only, then you would be scribbling gibberish and unnecessary sentences hoping to get a perfect 6.0 score. The essay substance and content matters more than the essay’s length.
There’s no magic number on word count that’s going to get you the perfect AWA score. At the same time, the statistics from the above analysis proves that longer essays tend to get higher scores.
If you’re still looking for word count, an essay that has around 500 – 600 words with around 5 paragraphs, and quality content, seems to be the ideal GRE essay length.
How long are your regular essays? What differences have you noticed between a long essay and short ones? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.