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How Long Should a College Essay Be? | Word Count Tips
Published on September 29, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on August 17, 2022.
Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit. If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.
You should aim to stay under the specified limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, if you write too little, it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.
Table of contents
Word count guidelines for different application types, how to shorten your essay, how to expand your essay, frequently asked questions about college application essays.
Each university has a different suggested or required word count depending on which application portal it uses.
Some application portals will allow you to exceed the word count limit, but admissions officers have limited time and energy to read longer essays. Other application portals have a strict limit and will not allow you to exceed it.
For example, in the Common App , the portal will not allow you to submit more than 650 words. Some colleges using the Common App will allow you to submit less than 250 words, but this is too short for a well-developed essay.
For scholarship essays , diversity essays , and “Why this college?” essays , word count limits vary. Make sure to verify and respect each prompt’s limit.
Don’t worry too much about word count until the revision stage ; focusing on word count while writing may hinder your creativity. Once you have finished a draft, you can start shortening or expanding your essay if necessary.
On some application portals, you can exceed the word limit, but there are good reasons to stay within it:
- To maintain the admissions officer’s attention
- To show you can follow directions
- To demonstrate you can write concisely
Here are some strategies for shortening your essay.
Stay on the main point
It’s good to use vivid imagery, but only include relevant details. Cut any sentences with tangents or unnecessary information.
My father taught me how to strategically hold the marshmallow pierced by a twig at a safe distance from the flames to make sure it didn’t get burned, ensuring a golden brown exterior.
Typically, my father is glued to his computer since he’s a software engineer at Microsoft. But that night, he was the marshmallow master. We waited together as the pillowy sugary goodness caramelized into gooey delight. Good example: Sticks to the point On our camping trip to Yosemite, my family spent time together, away from technology and routine responsibility.
My favorite part was roasting s’mores around the campfire. My father taught me how to hold the marshmallow at a safe distance from the flames, ensuring a golden brown exterior.
These college essay examples also demonstrate how you can cut your essay down to size.
Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay. If a word doesn’t add value, cut it.
Here are some common examples of wordiness and how to fix them.
Prevent plagiarism. Run a free check.
If you’re significantly under the word count, you’re wasting the opportunity to show depth and authenticity in your essay. Admissions officers may see your short essay as a sign that you’re unable to write a detailed, insightful narrative about yourself.
Here are some strategies for expanding your essay.
Show detailed examples, and don’t tell generic stories
You should include detailed examples that can’t be replicated by another student. Use vivid imagery, the five senses, and specific objects to transport the reader into your story.
Reveal your feelings and insight
If your essay lacks vulnerability or self-reflection, share your feelings and the lessons you’ve learned.
Be creative with how you express your feelings; rather than simply writing “I’m happy,” use memorable images to help the reader clearly visualize your happiness. Similarly, for insight, include the follow-up actions from your lessons learned; instead of claiming “I became a hard worker,” explain what difficult tasks you accomplished as a result of what you learned.
Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.
You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.
If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.
If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.
If your college essay goes over the word count limit , cut any sentences with tangents or irrelevant details. Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay.
There is no set number of paragraphs in a college admissions essay . College admissions essays can diverge from the traditional five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in English class. Just make sure to stay under the specified word count .
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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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How Long Should a College Essay Be?
by Story2 Staff , on Jul 22, 2021 11:39:34 AM
When you’re starting to write a college essay, you might find yourself wondering about the word count. How long or short should it be? Are word count limits suggested, or required? What happens if you go over the limit? Read on for answers to all of these questions, and more!
College essay word count limits
Most colleges do provide a word count limit or range. If there’s a limit, you should generally aim to get close to the limit, and if there’s a range, you should aim to fall within the range. Avoid going over the limit, as your essay may be cut off, or under the range. You don’t want to give readers the impression that you can’t follow instructions — that’s a surefire way to start things off on a bad foot, before they’ve read a single word of your essay!
But what if there’s no limit or range provided? In those cases, we recommend sticking to the standard 400-600 words. That will give you enough room to make your case!
The primary essay for your college application, often called a personal statement, is typically around 400-600 words. The Common App personal statement — which is used as the primary application essay by more than 800 colleges — must be 250-650 words. Some schools don’t use the Common App, but their primary essays usually fall within the same range. The University of California system, for example, requires 4 essays with a maximum of 350 words.
No matter where you’re applying, we recommend aiming for the higher end of the given limit or range, in order to properly showcase who you are as a person and student.
Supplements & scholarship essays
Most schools require supplemental essays in addition to the personal statement. Supplemental and scholarship essays vary in length depending on the requirements of the school, but they are often shorter than the personal statement or primary essay, especially if multiple supplemental essays are required.
Some schools require quite a few supplemental essays, each with very different word count limits. For example, Georgetown requires 4 supplemental essays, ranging from 250 to 700 words, and Stanford requires a whopping 11 , ranging anywhere from 10 to 250 words. The lower the word count limit, the more closely you should stick to it, unless you’re absolutely sure you can answer the prompt completely and successfully in fewer words.
Overall, it’s best to stay within the word count limit or range — it’s provided for a reason! Writing too much will likely result in your essay being cut off, and writing too little may cause readers to think that you aren’t truly interested in their school. If no range is given, remember to stick to 400-600 words. This will give you enough space to demonstrate your interest and help readers learn about you!
Want to see some real examples of essays written by students just like you? Check out our guide to personal statements and scholarship essays !
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Use the Maximum Word Count in College Essays
Use the real estate you’re given in college essays.
If the maximum word count for a college admissions essays is 650 words, applicants should not write 500 words. They should write 650 words — or pretty close to it. When you’re a real estate developer in Manhattan and you’re allowed to build twenty-five stories, you don’t build ten stories and dedicate the rest of the space for the native pigeons of Manhattan. You build up — twenty-five stories up. The pigeons have enough space. And yet even though it seems only logical that college applicants should use all of the real estate they’re allotted to make their case in essays, to tell their story, to distinguish themselves in a competitive pool, you’d be amazed how many students write essays that don’t come anywhere near the maximum word count.
Use the Maximum Word Count in Every College Essay
Capitalizing on the maximum word count of college essays doesn’t just apply to the Common Application Personal Statement, which allows applicants to write 650 words. This applies to every supplemental essay as well. If Dartmouth asks you to write 300 words, don’t give them 250 words because you think empty space looks nice. You’re not an interior designer! When Dartmouth admissions officers come across an essay that doesn’t come close to their max word count, they’re likely to think, “This kid doesn’t love our school enough to put in the work to write an essay specifically for us. She probably wants to go elsewhere.” And if that thought happens to cross the mind of an admissions officer, the odds are good that same admissions officer is unlikely to offer the student a spot in the incoming class. This of course doesn’t just apply to Dartmouth. It applies to every highly selective institution in America.
Yes, Use the Maximum Word Count in the Short Answers Too
We can’t stress enough the importance of taking advantage of the real estate an applicant is afforded in essays to make his or her case. But don’t think that an essay means only boxes that allow for 100 words or more. Many schools ask short answer questions too. Maybe they’re called short-takes. Hint, hint. Go up to the maximum word or character count in these opportunities too — and opportunities is the right word because that’s precisely what they are. These short-takes too are opportunities to present a window into your world, to distinguish yourself from other talented applicants to an elite institution.
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Categories: College Essays
Tags: College Admissions Essays , College Essays , University Admissions Essays , Use the Maximum Word Count in College Essays , Word Count in College Essays
For William and Mary, the word limit is 650 words, but in the prompt they say, “We know nobody fits neatly into 500 words or less…” Should I aim for 650 or 500 words? Thank you!
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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 .
Your Guide to College Entrance Exams
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- 11 Good Study Habits to Develop
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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7 Expert Tips for the Common App Essay
Editor & Writer
Share this Article
- 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.
BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.
Ready to Start Your Journey?
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.
Feature Image: FG Trade / E+ / Getty Images
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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.
What’s a Good Word Count for a College Application Essay?
Writing a college application essay can be difficult and stressful. You want an admissions counselor to see your essay as a standout piece that makes him want to pick you over all other applicants. You want your words to make a positive impression, but you also don’t want to drone on and on for days.
You want to know that when you look at the word counter you're in a good range, but what is a good range?
Generally speaking, 350-500 words works well. This is long enough to develop ideas, but short enough the keep someone’s interest.
How can you be thorough, interesting, and detailed but not too wordy with this limited word count? Crafting the perfect essay requires some careful thought and planning.
Let’s explore some ways to write a phenomenal college essay that is just the perfect length.
1. Look at College Essay Examples
Search Google for college essay examples. There are dozens of sites to help you find some high-quality essays. Here are a few to get you started: Johns Hopkins University essays , College Board essay , and Hamilton University essays .
It will help to search for examples that answer prompts similar to those you are trying to answer for your own essays. Write notes about how these types of questions are answered effectively.
Reflect on the writer’s style: What works well with each essay? What is the writer doing to keep your attention and to provide interesting insight into her personality?
You can also search for some examples of not-so-great essays and learn by reflecting on what you would do differently.
2. Stick with Guidelines if They are Given
This is not the time to go rogue with your writing guidelines. If a college says to write a one-page essay, do it. (If you're wondering how many words per page to write, generally one page is 250 words.)
If a college says to write 1000 words, do it. (And how many pages is 1000 words? About 4.) College admissions counselors will notice if they ask for 4 pages and you provide 2 pages. Or 6 pages. Give them what they are asking for.
Not following directions provided by colleges is one of the easiest ways to have your work ignored and your application rejected. It sucks to put in a ton of work and not have it looked over simply because you didn’t pay attention to one or two small details in the directions or didn’t follow guidelines.
3. Be Thoughtful and Detailed—Not “Wordy”
This is your chance to paint a complete picture of yourself and your personality. You also need to be sure that you have enough content to fully and clearly answer the prompt you've been given without adding a lot of fluff. You want to shine. But be careful to not go overboard.
Tell an interesting story that shows who you are and what you value. Offer meaningful examples. The keyword: meaningful.
Avoid repetition and unnecessary words. Don’t give a laundry list of accomplishments. One specific, well-developed example that means a lot is way more valuable than ten examples that just skim the surface.
4. Use Vivid and Clear Language
Don’t bore or confuse your reader. If you are bored reading your essay, so is the admissions counselor. If you aren’t sure if your essay is boring, get some feedback from others. Ask your parents, teachers, and peers to read your essay.
Have them tell you which parts make them smile, laugh, reflect, or think. Ask them to honestly tell you where they are bored, confused, or completely lost. Revise accordingly and get rid of the boring or confusing parts. No one wants to read those.
As you are writing your college essay, remember to count your words, but also make sure that every word counts. Choose meaningful, interesting stories to tell, and avoid repetition and fluff. With hard work (and a lot of revision), you will have your pick of universities to choose from!
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Common App Essay: Size Does Matter
Posted on March 1, 2023 by Craig
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 our clients 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 completely lacking 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 sight off and flight attendants passing out drinks and snacks, so to 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 (thesis); 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 puts the cherry on top 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 our clients 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 Class of 2022 who will apply 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
Craig Meister is a college admissions coach and educational consultant. He previously held university admissions and high school college and career counseling positions in Baltimore, West Palm Beach, and Rio de Janeiro.
Filed Under: Advice & Analysis , Common Application , Essays Tagged With: Applications
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