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College Essays


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 it down anyway.

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.


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:

Writing Sample

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 Western Washington University prompt :

“Describe one or more activities you have been involved in that have been particularly meaningful. What does your involvement say about the communities, identities or causes that are important to you?”

While there’s no page or word limit listed here, further down on page the ‘essay tips’ section explains that “ most essay responses are about 500 words, ” though “this is only a recommendation, not a firm limit.” This gives you an idea of what’s reasonable. A little longer or shorter than 500 words would be appropriate here. 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?

Treasure Hunt

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 seven "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!

What's Next?

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 !

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

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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Ideal College Application Essay Length

Can you go over the Common App length limit? How long should your essay be?

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The 2019-20 version of the  Common Application has an essay length limit of 650 words and a minimum length of 250 words. This limit has remained unchanged for the past several years. Learn how important this word limit is and how to make the most of your 650 words.

Key Takeaways: Common Application Essay Length

  • Your Common Application essay must be between 250 words and 650 words.
  • Don't assume shorter is better. A college requires an essay because they want to learn more about you.
  • Never go over the limit. Show that you can follow instructions and that you know how to edit.

How Strict Is the Limit?

Many wonder whether they can go over the limit, even if only by a few words. What if you feel that you need more space to communicate all of your ideas clearly?

650 words is not a lot of space in which to convey your personality, passions, and writing ability to the people in admissions offices—and the title and any explanatory notes are also included in this limit. The holistic admissions processes of most schools prove that colleges really do want to get to know the person behind your test scores and grades . Since the essay is one of the best places for showcasing who you are, is it worth it to go over?

Most experts recommend adhering to the limit. The Common Application will even prompt its applicants if they exceed the word count to prevent them from going over. Most admissions officers have stated that, while they will read all essays in their entirety, they are less inclined to feel that essays over 650 accomplish what they set out to do. In short: any of the prompts can and should be answered in 650 words or fewer.

Choosing the Right Length

If everything from 250 to 650 words is fair game, what length is best? Some counselors advise students to keep their essays on the shorter end, but not all colleges place the most value in succinctness.

The personal essay is the most powerful tool at your disposal for showing readers your personality without meeting them. If you've chosen a focus that reveals something meaningful about you, you're probably going to need more than 250 words to create a thoughtful, introspective, and effective essay. However, it isn't essential to hit the 650 mark, either.

From the Admissions Desk

"There is no need to meet the full word count [650] if the essay captures what the student would like to share. Visually, you want to make sure the essay looks complete and robust. As a general rule, I would suggest the essay be between 500-650 words."

–Valerie Marchand Welsh Director of College Counseling, The Baldwin School Former Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania

Each of the Common App essay prompts creates different writing challenges, but no matter which option you choose, your essay should be detailed and analytical, and it should provide a window into some important dimension of your interests, values, or personality. Ask yourself: Will the admissions officers know me better after reading my essay? Chances are, an essay in the 500- to 650-word range will accomplish this task better than a shorter essay

In general, the length of an essay does not determine its effectiveness. If you have answered the prompt in its entirety and feel proud of your work, there is no need to stress about any particular word count. Do not pad your essay with filler content and tautologies to stretch it out, and on the flip side, don't leave important sections out in the interest of keeping the essay brief.

Why You Shouldn't Go Over the Essay Length Limit

Some colleges will allow you to exceed the limit set by the Common Application, but you should avoid writing more than 650 words in all cases for the following reasons:

  • College students adhere to guidelines : If a professor assigns a five-page paper, they don't want a 10-page paper and you don't have 55 minutes to take 50-minute exams. The message that you send to a college when you write a powerful essay in 650 words or fewer, even when they accept longer submissions, is that you can succeed under any conditions.
  • Essays that are too long can leave a negative impression: Essays over 650 may make you appear over-confident. The word counts have been established by experts for a reason and writing more than you are allowed might make it seem like you think what you have to say is more important than other applicants, who have to follow the rules. Avoid seeming self-important by stopping yourself from going overboard.
  • Good writers know how to edit and cut : Any college writing professor would tell you that most essays become stronger when they are trimmed. There are almost always words, sentences, and even entire paragraphs that don't contribute to an essay and can be omitted. As you revise any essay you write, ask yourself which parts help you to make your point and which get in the way—everything else can go. Use these 9 style tips to tighten up your language.

College admissions officers will read essays that are too long but may consider them to be rambling, unfocused, or poorly-edited. Remember that your essay is one of many and your readers will wonder why yours is longer when it doesn't need to be.

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College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.

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Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools.

For college applicants, the essay is the place to showcase their writing skills and let their unique voice shine through.

"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.

Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.

This can feel like a lot of pressure.

"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."

That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test optional in recent years, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.

But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.

"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against college admissions policies that consider an applicant's race. The ruling, though, does not prohibit students from writing essays on how their race has affected them, which experts say could significantly affect how students approach this portion of their applications.

Essay-writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, unique, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.

From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college application essay.

Getting Started on the College Essay

How long should a college essay be, how to pick a college essay topic, writing the college essay, how the affirmative action ruling could change college essays, editing and submitting the college essay.

A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.

Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .

Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools. Students can submit that application to multiple schools.

Another option is the Coalition Application, an application platform accepted by more than 130 schools. Students applying through this application choose from one of six essay prompts to complete and include with their application.

In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.

Students should budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.

"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says.

Though the Common App notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words. The Coalition Application website says its essays should be between 500 and 650 words.

"While we won't, as a rule, stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.

The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.

The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.

There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics, Barron says.

The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.

Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. These are the types of essays that typically stand out to admissions officers, experts say. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.

Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay – a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.

What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.

"Think of the college essay as a meaningful glimpse of who you are beyond your other application materials," Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. "After reading your essay, the reader won't fully know you – at least not entirely. Your objective is to evoke the reader's curiosity and make them eager to get to know you."

If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics, they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Klein Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What are the things you think I do well?" Or, "What are my quirks?"

The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say.

Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing, though of course everyone's writing process differs.

The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."

If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.

Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:

"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."

"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."

The key to a good college essay is striking a balance between being creative and not overdoing it, Huguet says. He advises students to keep it simple.

"The college essay is not a fiction writing contest," Huguet says. "Admissions committees are not evaluating you on your potential as the next writer of the Great American Novel."

He adds that students should write in the voice they use to discuss meaningful topics with someone they trust. It's also wise to avoid hyperbole, as that can lose the readers' trust, as well as extraneous adverbs and adjectives, Huguet says.

"Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning in unique ways," he says. "It means, on the one hand, that you don’t have to come up with a plan for world peace, but it also means thinking small enough to identify details in your life that belong only to you."

The Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action has left some students feeling in limbo with how to approach their essays. Some are unsure whether to include racial identifiers while others feel pressure to exclude it, says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company.

"For instance, some of our Asian students have been concerned that referencing their culture or race in their essay could negatively impact them (even moreso than before)," Rim wrote in an email. He noted that many students he works with had already begun crafting their essays before the ruling came. "Some of our other students have felt pressure to disclose their race or share a story of discrimination or struggle because they expect those stories to be received better by admissions officers."

Some of the uneasiness stems from what feels like a contradictory message from the court, Rim says. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., said the ruling shouldn't be construed "as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." But he added that colleges may consider race only if it's tied to an applicant’s individual experiences or qualities, such as demonstrating courage against discrimination.

Personal essays shouldn't serve as a way for universities to ask students about their race as a means to admit them on such basis, Roberts added.

Rim says he expects there to be a lot of confusion from parents and students as they navigate that line when writing their essay. He says his guidance will vary with each student depending on their specific situation.

"For a student from an immigrant family, sharing their racial and cultural background may be integral to understanding their identity and values and therefore should be included in the essay," he says. "On the other hand, a student who has never meaningfully considered ways in which their race has shaped their life experience and worldview should not push themselves to do so in their essay simply because they believe it will better their chances."

While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.

"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."

When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Huguet says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do. Doing so is like explaining a joke to someone who's already laughed at it, he says.

"Let’s say, for example, that the whole point of a certain applicant’s essay is to let admissions officers know that she thinks outside the box. If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, 'And so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,' she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet," Huguet says. "Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the conclusions you want them to."

After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees. Some providers may offer scholarships or other financial aid for their services.

The availability and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.

Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.

Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay. Huguet says it's typically wise to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to seeking feedback on essays. Too many perspectives can become counterproductive, he says.

"While it can be valuable to have different perspectives, it's best to seek out individuals who are experts in the writing process," he says. "Instructors or professors can be helpful, particularly if they possess subject expertise and can provide guidance on refining arguments, structure and overall coherence."

Proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.

And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else write your essay is not.

When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.

Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."

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How Long Should Your College Essays Be?

how long should be your college essay

Cait Williams is a Content Writer at Scholarships360. Cait recently graduated from Ohio University with a degree in Journalism and Strategic Communications. During her time at OU, was active in the outdoor recreation community.

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how long should be your college essay

Bill Jack has over a decade of experience in college admissions and financial aid. Since 2008, he has worked at Colby College, Wesleyan University, University of Maine at Farmington, and Bates College.

how long should be your college essay

Maria Geiger is Director of Content at Scholarships360. She is a former online educational technology instructor and adjunct writing instructor. In addition to education reform, Maria’s interests include viewpoint diversity, blended/flipped learning, digital communication, and integrating media/web tools into the curriculum to better facilitate student engagement. Maria earned both a B.A. and an M.A. in English Literature from Monmouth University, an M. Ed. in Education from Monmouth University, and a Virtual Online Teaching Certificate (VOLT) from the University of Pennsylvania.

How Long Should Your College Essays Be?

For the most part, colleges tell you exactly how long your college essays should be, but what happens when they don’t? In this article, we will go over the reason behind word limits and what to do if a college you’re applying to does not provide a word limit.  

Why is there a word limit? 

Because most colleges receive such a large volume of essays, they don’t have time to read through multi page essays from every student.  If you’re having trouble staying within a given word limit, you might begin to feel frustrated. Maybe you are asking yourself, “why is there a word limit?” Rest assured that colleges don’t just come up with these word counts randomly. They know how long it should take for the average student to answer the given questions.    

Additionally, having a word count can be beneficial to you, even if you don’t initially realize it. Without a word limit, you might find yourself feeling anxious that you didn’t say enough or that you said too much. A word count can help you gauge how much detail you should go into and help reassure you that you said what you wanted to say within the guidelines. 

How to draft your essay with a word count 

Word count is a limitation to factor into your college applications, but it shouldn’t be what dictates how you answer essay questions. Write the first draft of your essay without a word limitation. Simply write down what it is you would like to convey and how. This will give you a good starting point from which you can tailor your essay to be either longer or shorter.  

You can use some of the questions below if you find that your essay is getting too long or too short.  

Is your essay too short? 

  • Did you mention all necessary details and clearly convey your message?  
  • Is there an added point that you would like to make that could strengthen the core of your essay? 
  • Is there another essay question that you could answer in addition to the one you just answered? 

Having an answer that you struggle to make long enough isn’t always a bad thing. If you can get your point across in fewer words, while not compromising the core of your essay, that’s okay. However, you should certainly check back through your answer a few times. The last thing you want to do is submit an answer that is too short and doesn’t fully answer the question asked.  

Don’t miss: How to end a scholarship essay

Avoid “fluffy filler”

You might feel tempted to use a lot of filler words in order to hit a certain word count, but this isn’t the best strategy. College admissions officers want to read engaging responses to get to know you. With such limited space to show off who you are, it’s important to take advantage of the space you have. If you’ve entirely answered the essay and are short on words, try incorporating an added point that ties well to your essay. 

Is your essay too long?  

  • Are there any details that could be omitted without changing the core of your essay?  
  • Is there anything you said that could be inferred and doesn’t need to be explicitly said? 
  • Did you use any filler words or is there wording that you could change to be more concise?  

Having an answer that is too long means you probably very thoroughly explained your answer, which is a good thing. But it also might mean that you went off track a bit and mentioned some things that weren’t necessary.  

Scan back through your article and try to be as concise as possible with your writing. If you can’t find anywhere to make cuts, have a family member or friend read through it for you and offer an outside perspective.  

Okay, but what happens if your essay really is too long, and you absolutely cannot cut it down… 

What happens if you exceed the word limit?  

If you exceed or come in just below the word limit by a few words and you’re sending your essay through a PDF or attached file, it’s not the worst thing. College admissions officers probably won’t notice that they had to read ten, or potentially even twenty extra words. The same goes for if you are below the word count.  

However, if you have to answer the essay question within a textbox, or a provided space, you may be unable to submit your answer unless it falls somewhere within the word count. So, keep that in mind as you move forward. You may not have any other choice but to revise your answer to make it fit the word count.  

Related: Tips for a successful college application

Additional resources

We have plenty of resources to help you with essay writing, so before you start writing. Learn some tips on writing 250 word essays as well as 500 word essays. Maybe you need help starting your essay? Learn how to  start a scholarship essay (with examples!)  One of the hardest things to do is write about one’s self. We can help you there too! Learn how to write an essay about yourself and wow whoever reads your essay! 

Key Takeaways

  • Word counts aren’t meant to be an added challenge to the college application process 
  • Before writing your essay, verify if you will be sending it via PDF, Word document, or if you will need to type it directly into a designated space 
  • Write the first draft of your essay without a word count in mind and then critique your essay from there 
  • If possible, give yourself a few different times to sit down and write various versions of your essay  

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How long should a college essay be?

Bonus Material : PrepMaven’s 30 College Essays That Worked

If you’re a high school student preparing to apply to top schools, you might already know that one of the most important parts of the application process is your college admissions essay. Because the personal essay is so crucial, you’ll want to make sure you perfect it before sending it out to admissions committees. 

We’ve helped thousands of students gain admission into selective colleges through college essay coaching, and in this blog post we’ll guide you through how the length of your essay affects your chances of admission. 

By using this guide alongside our other college application essay guides on brainstorming and formatting , you can perfect your college application essay and maximize your chance of acceptance. 

Another great starting point is our collection of 30 real, proven sample essays that worked to secure top-tier admissions for our past students, which you can download free below. 

Download Thirty College Essays that Worked

Jump to section:

What is the word limit on the Common App Personal Statement? How long should your final essay be? How long should your first draft be? How do you cut to get to the word count? How do you add more to get to the word count? Next steps

What is the word limit on the Common App Personal Statement?

The Common App’s personal essay has had the same maximum word count for years: you get 250-650 words for the entire essay. While you don’t have to hit this limit exactly, the Common App portal will not accept anything longer than 650 words. Any part of the college essay beyond the 650 words will simply not paste in.

Though the Common App is by far the most common college application essay, accepted by the majority of universities, there are a few other personal essay word limits you should be familiar with. 

how long should be your college essay

The University of California system is the most important other one to know: it asks you to respond to four “Personal Insight Questions,” each of which has a maximum of 350 words. 

Other college application essays you’ll write, like supplemental essays, will vary widely in length, though will often cap you at somewhere between 150 and 250 words. Of course, you’ll have to ensure you double-check each essay question’s specific maximum and minimum word count. 

How long should your final essay be?

how long should be your college essay

We can’t stress this enough: the best common application essay responses are at or near the maximum word count . The personal essay is your chance to tell the admissions committee about what makes you unique, and it should actually feel difficult to condense your personality and interests into a mere 650 words. 

With very rare exception, the most successful college admissions essays are between 600 and 650 words. If your personal essay comes out shorter than that, you’re simply not maximizing the opportunity provided to you. In other words, you need to really sit down and think about what could be expanded, what else you could say to make a strong impression on admissions officers. 

Below, we’ll talk about the different stages of the drafting process. Even though the personal statement should end up close to 650 words, that does not mean your first draft should be at the same length. We’ll also offer some advice on how to both shorten and expand your admissions essay.

This advice is backed by decades of experience in crafting successful college application essays, but it is general advice. If you want personalized essay coaching on your specific essays, there’s no better way to get it than by reaching out to us here and getting connected with one of our expert college essay counselors. 

And be sure to read over these real sample essays and note how long each one is: you’ll notice most of the best essays come close to the word count. 

How long should your first draft be?

how long should be your college essay

The easiest way to set yourself up for a college admissions essay that hits the word count is to start long. The truth is that it’s easier to shorten an essay than to add to it. The best way to ensure you don’t find yourself under the word count for your final essay is to start with a first draft that exceeds the word count. 

When we work with students, we advise them to start with a first draft of 850 or more words. We know: that sounds like a lot of writing, but this approach has a ton of benefits for the final product. For one thing, writing more than you have to at first lets you warm up and sharpen your writing skills. 

For another, it pushes you to get all of your ideas on paper. There may be ideas that you don’t initially want to include in your admissions essay: maybe you think they’re unresponsive to the essay question, or maybe you think they wouldn’t interest college admissions officers. 

how long should be your college essay

But the only way to actually know if these ideas will work is to get them on paper. Writing a long first draft ensures you don’t leave any potentially good ideas behind. One of the best things you can do for the first draft of your admissions essay is to get all your ideas on paper, then have someone–like, say, one of our phenomenal admissions essay counselors–read your first draft and tell you what’s worth keeping. 

The truth is that most students will need to cut lots of the things from their first draft of the college admissions essay. If you start your first draft at or near the word count, that’ll make it harder to hit that sweet spot of just under 650 words. 

Your essay’s length might look something like this through the drafting process: 

  • Draft 1: around 850 words
  • Draft 2: around 750 words
  • Draft 3: around 650 words
  • Draft 4 and on: just below 650 words. 

Of course, this is just a sample: your own process might be faster or slower, but the gradual shortening of the essay through the drafting process is nearly universal. 

In a nutshell: start with a long first draft, and cut from there as you redraft. 

How do you cut to get to the word count?

So, let’s say you’ve written the first draft of your college admissions essay and gotten to around 900 words. Well done! But now how do you get it down under the maximum word count? How do you decide what deserves to get cut from the essay, and what absolutely has to make its way to college admission officers?

how long should be your college essay

You can think of this process as consisting of three stages:

Start by identifying what is central to your essay. What moments or reflections are absolutely crucial for you to tell your story? Anything not totally necessary to your essay should be on the chopping block. Remember: it is far better to go into detail on a few ideas than to talk about lots of things but without specificity. 

This is the chopping stage: in essence, you eliminate entire moments/sections/paragraphs from your essay. You’re deciding that these elements of your essay simply don’t need to be there. This stage, which is one of the most important in the editing process, should reduce your word count significantly. 

Next, you trim. If you’re certain that all of the content you have in your draft needs to be there for your college admissions essay to work but the draft is still above the word count, you need to trim your existing ideas down to size. 

When we trim essays, we’re not generally removing any of the content. Instead, we’re tactically cutting two words here, a word there. This is precise fine-tuning: can you flip the sentence structure to save yourself two words without losing the flow? Can you cut a helping verb without messing with the grammar of the sentence?

The trimming stage can take a long time, but you’ll be surprised how much you can shorten an essay even if you’re working just one to two words at a time. 

how long should be your college essay

Of course, there’s nothing worse than cutting something that might have wowed an admission committee, or taking out precisely the wrong word in an effort to shorten a sentence. The best way to avoid those mistakes is with an experienced second-opinion: our essay coaches have been through this process themselves, and will be happy to help you avoid any crucial mistakes in these drafting stages. 

If you look at the below essays, you might want to think about all the work that went into ensuring none of this brilliant content got cut out along the way. 

How do you add more to get to the word count?

Ideally, you won’t have this problem: if you follow our initial drafting advice, you’ll be worried about cutting, not adding. 

But if you’re already in the later drafting stages and are struggling with getting up to the maximum word count, there are a few things you can do without adding new content. 

The biggest is simply to add more detail! This is, at the end of the day, what makes a strong college admissions essay: the specific, vivid details from your own life. It’s basically the time-tested adage of “show don’t tell.” 

Instead of saying, for example, “I was nervous as I prepared to perform in the school play,” you’d be better off writing something like, “As I waited my turn to take the stage, I felt my knees grow weak. Was I going to make a fool of myself out there? Had I really rehearsed my role enough?” And so on: it’s the same basic information, but more detailed, more interesting, and longer. 

how long should be your college essay

Ultimately, all suggestions on adding to reach a word count will circle around this same basic idea: more detail. But again, we recommend sidestepping this whole problem by beginning with long drafts overflowing with specific details and content. 

If you’re preparing to write your college essay, your next steps are pretty straightforward. First, make sure you’re well-prepared by reading our guides on brainstorming and essay formatting. Then, read over a few sample essays from the 30 real college essays we’ve collected below. Then: write that long first draft!

We know, we know: it’s easy to say “Write a first draft of 850+ words,” but it can be a lot harder to actually do it. That’s why we’ve got a brilliant team of college essay tutors, all of whom have been accepted to elite universities and all of whom are ready to help you craft the perfect application essay as soon as you reach out. 


Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.

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how long should be your college essay

How to Format and Structure Your College Essay

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College essays are an entirely new type of writing for high school seniors. For that reason, many students are confused about proper formatting and essay structure. Should you double-space or single-space? Do you need a title? What kind of narrative style is best-suited for your topic?

In this post, we’ll be going over proper college essay format, traditional and unconventional essay structures (plus sample essays!), and which structure might work best for you. 

General College Essay Formatting Guidelines

How you format your essay will depend on whether you’re submitting in a text box, or attaching a document. We’ll go over the different best practices for both, but regardless of how you’re submitting, here are some general formatting tips:

  • There’s no need for a title; it takes up unnecessary space and eats into your word count
  • Stay within the word count as much as possible (+/- 10% of the upper limit). For further discussion on college essay length, see our post How Long Should Your College Essay Be?
  • Indent or double space to separate paragraphs clearly

If you’re submitting in a text box:

  • Avoid italics and bold, since formatting often doesn’t transfer over in text boxes
  • Be careful with essays meant to be a certain shape (like a balloon); text boxes will likely not respect that formatting. Beyond that, this technique can also seem gimmicky, so proceed with caution
  • Make sure that paragraphs are clearly separated, as text boxes can also undo indents and double spacing

If you’re attaching a document:

  • Use a standard font and size like Times New Roman, 12 point
  • Make your lines 1.5-spaced or double-spaced
  • Use 1-inch margins
  • Save as a PDF since it can’t be edited. This also prevents any formatting issues that come with Microsoft Word, since older versions are sometimes incompatible with the newer formatting
  • Number each page with your last name in the header or footer (like “Smith 1”)
  • Pay extra attention to any word limits, as you won’t be cut off automatically, unlike with most text boxes

Conventional College Essay Structures

Now that we’ve gone over the logistical aspects of your essay, let’s talk about how you should structure your writing. There are three traditional college essay structures. They are:

  • In-the-moment narrative
  • Narrative told over an extended period of time
  • Series of anecdotes, or montage

Let’s go over what each one is exactly, and take a look at some real essays using these structures.

1. In-the-moment narrative

This is where you tell the story one moment at a time, sharing the events as they occur. In the moment narrative is a powerful essay format, as your reader experiences the events, your thoughts, and your emotions with you . This structure is ideal for a specific experience involving extensive internal dialogue, emotions, and reflections.

Here’s an example:

The morning of the Model United Nation conference, I walked into Committee feeling confident about my research. We were simulating the Nuremberg Trials – a series of post-World War II proceedings for war crimes – and my portfolio was of the Soviet Judge Major General Iona Nikitchenko. Until that day, the infamous Nazi regime had only been a chapter in my history textbook; however, the conference’s unveiling of each defendant’s crimes brought those horrors to life. The previous night, I had organized my research, proofread my position paper and gone over Judge Nikitchenko’s pertinent statements. I aimed to find the perfect balance between his stance and my own.

As I walked into committee anticipating a battle of wits, my director abruptly called out to me. “I’m afraid we’ve received a late confirmation from another delegate who will be representing Judge Nikitchenko. You, on the other hand, are now the defense attorney, Otto Stahmer.” Everyone around me buzzed around the room in excitement, coordinating with their allies and developing strategies against their enemies, oblivious to the bomb that had just dropped on me. I felt frozen in my tracks, and it seemed that only rage against the careless delegate who had confirmed her presence so late could pull me out of my trance. After having spent a month painstakingly crafting my verdicts and gathering evidence against the Nazis, I now needed to reverse my stance only three hours before the first session.

Gradually, anger gave way to utter panic. My research was fundamental to my performance, and without it, I knew I could add little to the Trials. But confident in my ability, my director optimistically recommended constructing an impromptu defense. Nervously, I began my research anew. Despite feeling hopeless, as I read through the prosecution’s arguments, I uncovered substantial loopholes. I noticed a lack of conclusive evidence against the defendants and certain inconsistencies in testimonies. My discovery energized me, inspiring me to revisit the historical overview in my conference “Background Guide” and to search the web for other relevant articles. Some Nazi prisoners had been treated as “guilty” before their court dates. While I had brushed this information under the carpet while developing my position as a judge, it now became the focus of my defense. I began scratching out a new argument, centered on the premise that the allied countries had violated the fundamental rule that, a defendant was “not guilty” until proven otherwise.

At the end of the three hours, I felt better prepared. The first session began, and with bravado, I raised my placard to speak. Microphone in hand, I turned to face my audience. “Greetings delegates. I, Otto Stahmer would like to…….” I suddenly blanked. Utter dread permeated my body as I tried to recall my thoughts in vain. “Defence Attorney, Stahmer we’ll come back to you,” my Committee Director broke the silence as I tottered back to my seat, flushed with embarrassment. Despite my shame, I was undeterred. I needed to vindicate my director’s faith in me. I pulled out my notes, refocused, and began outlining my arguments in a more clear and direct manner. Thereafter, I spoke articulately, confidently putting forth my points. I was overjoyed when Secretariat members congratulated me on my fine performance.

Going into the conference, I believed that preparation was the key to success. I wouldn’t say I disagree with that statement now, but I believe adaptability is equally important. My ability to problem-solve in the face of an unforeseen challenge proved advantageous in the art of diplomacy. Not only did this experience transform me into a confident and eloquent delegate at that conference, but it also helped me become a more flexible and creative thinker in a variety of other capacities. Now that I know I can adapt under pressure, I look forward to engaging in activities that will push me to be even quicker on my feet.

This essay is an excellent example of in-the-moment narration. The student openly shares their internal state with us — we feel their anger and panic upon the reversal of roles. We empathize with their emotions of “utter dread” and embarrassment when they’re unable to speak. 

For in-the-moment essays, overloading on descriptions is a common mistake students make. This writer provides just the right amount of background and details to help us understand the situation, however, and balances out the actual event with reflection on the significance of this experience. 

One main area of improvement is that the writer sometimes makes explicit statements that could be better illustrated through their thoughts, actions, and feelings. For instance, they say they “spoke articulately” after recovering from their initial inability to speak, and they also claim that adaptability has helped them in other situations. This is not as engaging as actual examples that convey the same meaning. Still, this essay overall is a strong example of in-the-moment narration, and gives us a relatable look into the writer’s life and personality.

2. Narrative told over an extended period of time

In this essay structure, you share a story that takes place across several different experiences. This narrative style is well-suited for any story arc with multiple parts. If you want to highlight your development over time, you might consider this structure. 

When I was younger, I was adamant that no two foods on my plate touch. As a result, I often used a second plate to prevent such an atrocity. In many ways, I learned to separate different things this way from my older brothers, Nate and Rob. Growing up, I idolized both of them. Nate was a performer, and I insisted on arriving early to his shows to secure front row seats, refusing to budge during intermission for fear of missing anything. Rob was a three-sport athlete, and I attended his games religiously, waving worn-out foam cougar paws and cheering until my voice was hoarse. My brothers were my role models. However, while each was talented, neither was interested in the other’s passion. To me, they represented two contrasting ideals of what I could become: artist or athlete. I believed I had to choose.

And for a long time, I chose athlete. I played soccer, basketball, and lacrosse and viewed myself exclusively as an athlete, believing the arts were not for me. I conveniently overlooked that since the age of five, I had been composing stories for my family for Christmas, gifts that were as much for me as them, as I loved writing. So when in tenth grade, I had the option of taking a creative writing class, I was faced with a question: could I be an athlete and a writer? After much debate, I enrolled in the class, feeling both apprehensive and excited. When I arrived on the first day of school, my teacher, Ms. Jenkins, asked us to write down our expectations for the class. After a few minutes, eraser shavings stubbornly sunbathing on my now-smudged paper, I finally wrote, “I do not expect to become a published writer from this class. I just want this to be a place where I can write freely.”

Although the purpose of the class never changed for me, on the third “submission day,” – our time to submit writing to upcoming contests and literary magazines – I faced a predicament. For the first two submission days, I had passed the time editing earlier pieces, eventually (pretty quickly) resorting to screen snake when hopelessness made the words look like hieroglyphics. I must not have been as subtle as I thought, as on the third of these days, Ms. Jenkins approached me. After shifting from excuse to excuse as to why I did not submit my writing, I finally recognized the real reason I had withheld my work: I was scared. I did not want to be different, and I did not want to challenge not only others’ perceptions of me, but also my own. I yielded to Ms. Jenkin’s pleas and sent one of my pieces to an upcoming contest.

By the time the letter came, I had already forgotten about the contest. When the flimsy white envelope arrived in the mail, I was shocked and ecstatic to learn that I had received 2nd place in a nationwide writing competition. The next morning, however, I discovered Ms. Jenkins would make an announcement to the whole school exposing me as a poet. I decided to own this identity and embrace my friends’ jokes and playful digs, and over time, they have learned to accept and respect this part of me. I have since seen more boys at my school identifying themselves as writers or artists.

I no longer see myself as an athlete and a poet independently, but rather I see these two aspects forming a single inseparable identity – me. Despite their apparent differences, these two disciplines are quite similar, as each requires creativity and devotion. I am still a poet when I am lacing up my cleats for soccer practice and still an athlete when I am building metaphors in the back of my mind – and I have realized ice cream and gummy bears taste pretty good together.

The timeline of this essay spans from the writer’s childhood all the way to sophomore year, but we only see key moments along this journey. First, we get context for why the writer thought he had to choose one identity: his older brothers had very distinct interests. Then, we learn about the student’s 10th grade creative writing class, writing contest, and results of the contest. Finally, the essay covers the writers’ embarrassment of his identity as a poet, to gradual acceptance and pride in that identity. 

This essay is a great example of a narrative told over an extended period of time. It’s highly personal and reflective, as the piece shares the writer’s conflicting feelings, and takes care to get to the root of those feelings. Furthermore, the overarching story is that of a personal transformation and development, so it’s well-suited to this essay structure.

3. Series of anecdotes, or montage

This essay structure allows you to focus on the most important experiences of a single storyline, or it lets you feature multiple (not necessarily related) stories that highlight your personality. Montage is a structure where you piece together separate scenes to form a whole story. This technique is most commonly associated with film. Just envision your favorite movie—it likely is a montage of various scenes that may not even be chronological. 

Night had robbed the academy of its daytime colors, yet there was comfort in the dim lights that cast shadows of our advances against the bare studio walls. Silhouettes of roundhouse kicks, spin crescent kicks, uppercuts and the occasional butterfly kick danced while we sparred. She approached me, eyes narrowed with the trace of a smirk challenging me. “Ready spar!” Her arm began an upward trajectory targeting my shoulder, a common first move. I sidestepped — only to almost collide with another flying fist. Pivoting my right foot, I snapped my left leg, aiming my heel at her midsection. The center judge raised one finger. 

There was no time to celebrate, not in the traditional sense at least. Master Pollard gave a brief command greeted with a unanimous “Yes, sir” and the thud of 20 hands dropping-down-and-giving-him-30, while the “winners” celebrated their victory with laps as usual. 

Three years ago, seven-thirty in the evening meant I was a warrior. It meant standing up straighter, pushing a little harder, “Yes, sir” and “Yes, ma’am”, celebrating birthdays by breaking boards, never pointing your toes, and familiarity. Three years later, seven-thirty in the morning meant I was nervous. 

The room is uncomfortably large. The sprung floor soaks up the checkerboard of sunlight piercing through the colonial windows. The mirrored walls further illuminate the studio and I feel the light scrutinizing my sorry attempts at a pas de bourrée , while capturing the organic fluidity of the dancers around me. “ Chassé en croix, grand battement, pique, pirouette.” I follow the graceful limbs of the woman in front of me, her legs floating ribbons, as she executes what seems to be a perfect ronds de jambes. Each movement remains a negotiation. With admirable patience, Ms. Tan casts me a sympathetic glance.   

There is no time to wallow in the misery that is my right foot. Taekwondo calls for dorsiflexion; pointed toes are synonymous with broken toes. My thoughts drag me into a flashback of the usual response to this painful mistake: “You might as well grab a tutu and head to the ballet studio next door.” Well, here I am Master Pollard, unfortunately still following your orders to never point my toes, but no longer feeling the satisfaction that comes with being a third degree black belt with 5 years of experience quite literally under her belt. It’s like being a white belt again — just in a leotard and ballet slippers. 

But the appetite for new beginnings that brought me here doesn’t falter. It is only reinforced by the classical rendition of “Dancing Queen” that floods the room and the ghost of familiarity that reassures me that this new beginning does not and will not erase the past. After years spent at the top, it’s hard to start over. But surrendering what you are only leads you to what you may become. In Taekwondo, we started each class reciting the tenets: honor, courtesy, integrity, perseverance, self-control, courage, humility, and knowledge, and I have never felt that I embodied those traits more so than when I started ballet. 

The thing about change is that it eventually stops making things so different. After nine different schools, four different countries, three different continents, fluency in Tamil, Norwegian, and English, there are more blurred lines than there are clear fragments. My life has not been a tactfully executed, gold medal-worthy Taekwondo form with each movement defined, nor has it been a series of frappés performed by a prima ballerina with each extension identical and precise, but thankfully it has been like the dynamics of a spinning back kick, fluid, and like my chances of landing a pirouette, unpredictable. 

This essay takes a few different anecdotes and weaves them into a coherent narrative about the writer’s penchant for novel experiences. We’re plunged into her universe, in the middle of her Taekwondo spar, three years before the present day. She then transitions into a scene in a ballet studio, present day. By switching from past tense to present tense, the writer clearly demarcates this shift in time. 

The parallel use of the spoken phrase “Point” in the essay ties these two experiences together. The writer also employs a flashback to Master Pollard’s remark about “grabbing a tutu” and her habit of dorsiflexing her toes, which further cements the connection between these anecdotes. 

While some of the descriptions are a little wordy, the piece is well-executed overall, and is a stellar example of the montage structure. The two anecdotes are seamlessly intertwined, and they both clearly illustrate the student’s determination, dedication, reflectiveness, and adaptability. The writer also concludes the essay with a larger reflection on her life, many moves, and multiple languages. 

Unconventional College Essay Structures

Unconventional essay structures are any that don’t fit into the categories above. These tend to be higher risk, as it’s easier to turn off the admissions officer, but they’re also higher reward if executed correctly. 

There are endless possibilities for unconventional structures, but most fall under one of two categories:

1. Playing with essay format

Instead of choosing a traditional narrative format, you might take a more creative route to showcase your interests, writing your essay:

  • As a movie script
  • With a creative visual format (such as creating a visual pattern with the spaces between your sentences forming a picture)
  • As a two-sided Lincoln-Douglas debate
  • As a legal brief
  • Using song lyrics

2. Linguistic techniques

You could also play with the actual language and sentence structure of your essay, writing it:

  • In iambic pentameter
  • Partially in your mother tongue
  • In code or a programming language

These linguistic techniques are often hybrid, where you write some of the essay with the linguistic variation, then write more of an explanation in English.

Under no circumstances should you feel pressured to use an unconventional structure. Trying to force something unconventional will only hurt your chances. That being said, if a creative structure comes naturally to you, suits your personality, and works with the content of your essay — go for that structure!

←What is a College Application Theme and How Do You Come Up With One?

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how long should be your college essay

how long should be your college essay

The Best College Essay Length: How Long Should It Be?

how long should be your college essay

How Long Is a College Essay? First, Check the Word Limit

When it comes to college essays, it's crucial to adhere to the specified word limit set by the college or university. The word limit typically ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand words, depending on the institution and the specific essay prompt.

The purpose of setting a word limit is to ensure that applicants can effectively convey their ideas and demonstrate their writing skills within a reasonable length. Admissions officers have a large volume of essays to review, and adhering to the word limit allows for fair evaluation and comparison of applicants.

While word limits can vary, most college essays fall within the range of 250 to 650 words. Some institutions may have specific guidelines for different essay components, such as a shorter word limit for supplemental essays or a longer limit for personal statements. It's important to carefully review the application instructions and essay prompts to determine the specific word limits for each essay.

It's crucial to follow the word limit and avoid exceeding it. Going significantly under the word limit may indicate a lack of depth or detail in your response, while exceeding the limit may be seen as disregarding the instructions and displaying poor attention to detail.

To make the most of the word limit, focus on crafting a concise and impactful essay. Prioritize clarity, coherence, and relevance in your writing. Use precise language and avoid unnecessary repetition or fluff. It's essential to express your thoughts and ideas effectively within the given word count.

Remember that the word limit serves as a guideline and a constraint to ensure a fair evaluation process. Admissions officers appreciate concise and well-crafted essays that effectively address the prompt. By staying within the word limit and maximizing the impact of your writing, you can present a compelling and memorable essay that stands out among the competition.

How Flexible Is the Word Limit?

The word limit for college essays is generally set with the intention of providing applicants with a clear guideline for expressing their ideas concisely. Adhering to the word limit is important because it demonstrates your ability to follow instructions and effectively communicate within a given constraint. However, it's important to understand that the flexibility of the word limit can vary among colleges and universities.

In some cases, colleges may have a strict word limit, and exceeding it may result in penalties or disqualification of the essay. Admissions officers often have many essays to review, and they rely on the word limit to manage their workload effectively. Consequently, going significantly over the word limit can be viewed as disregarding instructions or displaying poor attention to detail.

On the other hand, some institutions may provide a certain degree of flexibility in their word limits. They understand that applicants have unique experiences and stories to share and may need a few extra words to effectively convey their message. In such cases, there may be a specified range within which you can work, allowing for a slightly longer or shorter essay as long as it remains within that range.

It's important to note that even if a college offers flexibility, it's generally not advisable to write a significantly longer essay than the stated word limit. Admissions officers have limited time to review applications, and a concise and well-crafted essay is more likely to capture their attention and make a lasting impression.

When in doubt about the flexibility of the word limit, it's always best to err on the side of caution and adhere to the specified limit as closely as possible. Remember that quality and clarity of content are more important than word count alone. Focus on presenting a compelling and coherent narrative within the given word limit to maximize the impact of your essay.

Lastly, always review and follow the specific instructions provided by each college or university regarding word limits. Adhering to these guidelines demonstrates your ability to understand and follow directions, which is an essential skill that colleges value in their applicants.

The Final Word: How Long Should a College Essay Be?

When it comes to determining the ideal length for a college essay, there is no one-size-fits-all answer. The length of a college essay can vary depending on the specific requirements and guidelines set by each college or university. However, there are some general considerations to keep in mind when determining the appropriate length for your essay.

1. Adhere to the specified word limit: Most colleges and universities provide a word limit or a range within which your essay should fall. It's important to respect these guidelines as they are set to ensure a fair evaluation process and to assess your ability to express your ideas concisely.

2. Quality over quantity: The focus should be on the quality and substance of your essay rather than simply meeting a specific word count. Admissions officers are more interested in the content, clarity, and coherence of your writing. A well-crafted, concise essay can be more impactful than a lengthy one that lacks focus or substance.

3. Consider the prompt and purpose of the essay: The essay prompt and the intended purpose of the essay can provide clues about the appropriate length. Some prompts may require more in-depth exploration and analysis, while others may be more concise and focused. Tailor your essay length to meet the requirements of the prompt and effectively address the key points.

4. Engage your reader: Admissions officers have a large volume of essays to review, so it's important to capture their attention and maintain their interest. A well-structured, engaging essay that conveys your unique voice and perspective can leave a lasting impression regardless of its length.

5. Seek feedback: If you are unsure about the length of your essay, seek feedback from trusted advisors, such as teachers, counselors, or mentors. They can provide valuable insights and help you determine whether your essay is effectively conveying your message within the appropriate length.

Remember, the goal of a college essay is not to meet a specific word count, but rather to present a compelling narrative that showcases your personality, experiences, and aspirations. Focus on expressing your ideas clearly and concisely while adhering to any specified guidelines. Ultimately, it's the quality and impact of your essay that will leave a lasting impression on admissions officers.

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College Essays: How Long Should They Be?

Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine Karydes

Lead admissions expert, table of contents, your best foot forward, what about supplemental college essays.

Stay up-to-date on the latest research and college admissions trends with our blog team.

College Essays: How Long Should They Be?

Looking for how long college essays are ? We’ve got a few tips for you. Read on to learn how many words you should include in your college essays.

When preparing for college applications, putting your best foot forward is key. A place where you get to really be yourself is in the college essay. However, this piece tends to stump many students and can cause anxiety that can impact your overall application. Have you ever found yourself wondering how many words college essays have? You’re definitely not alone, but we wanted to share with you some tips today to help clarify some questions you may have about college essays—and, in specific, how long a college essay should be exactly. 

Remember that the word count is different from what you might be used to when it comes to your high school papers, so having questions is okay! While you may be familiar with page count when it comes to writing, word count is different—all you need to do is pay attention to the number of words you are able to submit in your essay. Additionally, instead of being scared of word count, use it as a helpful tool when developing your storyline or narrative and when coming up with ideas during the brainstorming process (we’ll dive more into this in a bit.). For now, let’s take a deep dive into how long college essays are typically and what you should pay attention to when you begin drafting your own.

How long should a main college essay be?

When it comes to how long a college essay should be , you might find yourself wondering how much you should typically write. Well, main essays usually have a word-count range between 500-600 words or less, so it’s important to keep this in mind when coming up with topics to write about and/or choosing prompts that fit your story best. (For instance, applications like the Common App will typically have a cut-off of around 650 words!) 

Admissions officers, when reviewing your application, want to learn about the highlights of your achievements, your ability to persevere, as well as who you are both as a student and as an individual, but don’t have a ton of time to do so given the large number of applications submitted during a typical admissions cycle. Given this, it’s important to stick to the 500-600 word count limit when crafting your personal statement and ensure that what you do include should showcase the best of who you are and what you’ve achieved during high school. 

Something to keep in mind:

If you end up writing too little, it could work against you during the admissions process. Admissions officers look for students who can stick to the instructions and are mindful of this while preparing their pieces for their application submission. For that reason, we highly recommend trying to stick to the higher end of the essay limit (around 500 words or so at minimum), as it will 1) Give you more of an opportunity to thoroughly develop your narrative and 2) show the readers that you have taken time to show your dedication and your due diligence when sharing your story. 

When creating the drafts of your college essays, try to write a lot more at the beginning of the process. This can allow you to work through your answers and narrow your responses down to the statements that truly matter. While you may have difficulty brainstorming meaningful topics to connect to the prompts, you’ll find that once you start writing, it can be hard to stop yourself during the process! This is great for the first few drafts, but be sure to review these a few times and ask your friends, family, and even teachers if there are sentences that could be clearer and where you could add to or take away from the narrative. 

If you’ve previewed any supplemental essays before, you’ll notice they’re typically about half of the length of main application essays. These are normally more focused questions and have about eight main topics they typically fall into: 

  • the “why” essay, 
  • the intended choice of major essay, 
  • the “describe an extracurricular” essay, 
  • the community essay, 
  • the intellectual essay,
  • the short and sweet essay, 
  • and the imaginative essay. 

While these may differ slightly based on the school and/or even the specific major you’re applying to, generally, one of these topics can be found on most applications requiring the submission of supplemental essays. 

So, how long should these college essays be?

Supplemental essay questions will usually ask for a word count range of around 20-650 words, depending on what is being asked, so be sure to review the question and truly understand what is required of you.

When it comes to an extracurricular-focused essay, for example, these will likely ask for a more in-depth and longer response, so you’ll have more room to go into detail about the different extracurricular activities you participated in and the impact you were able to make while you participated. On the other hand, imaginative essays like Stanford’s “How did you spend your last two summers?” question only provide 50 words or less to describe something meaningful you were able to accomplish.

These essays tend to trip students quite often, so be sure to really think long and hard about something specific you would like to talk about and narrow your drafts down to the true essence of this past time or activity. This is your time to truly show the best of your story and who you are as a person to the admissions committee, so take your time and make it count!

I’m applying to the UCs, so what about personal statements?

When it comes to the University of California (or UCs for short) personal insight questions, there’s a specific set of questions already available for you to review online! As noted on the website, there are eight prompts to choose from, although you are only asked to respond to four. When it comes to the length of these responses, you only have a maximum of 350 words to work from per response, so it is important to make sure to include everything you need in a concise and clear manner to make the most out of these short-answer questions. 

While many of the questions may connect with your own personal story, some may not. With this in mind, be sure to take the time to work through the list of available questions and weigh every one to make sure you’ll be able to make the word count matter as much as possible in your answer. Try to pick questions you’ll be able to answer as sincerely as possible, and you’ll likely find that answering these questions within the word count may become harder than you think! Once you develop drafts, try to narrow down the words you have so your point comes across clearly and concisely and ensures you are getting your point across as efficiently as possible.

How can word counts help me in my drafts?

Now you may be thinking, how can using word counts help me better develop my essays? As we’ve sprinkled throughout, there are various ways to use word count as a tool to help guide you along the essay writing process.

First and foremost, word counts provide a bit of a guideline for how to approach your essays and how much content you should incorporate into each response. While at first, you’ll find yourself writing quite a lot with some topics, shortening your responses can help ensure your storyline flows well, is as concise as possible, and removes unnecessary tangents you may find yourself following during the brainstorming process. Additionally, being mindful of the target word count when you begin the drafting process will allow you to plan your writing accordingly and should help make the process seem a bit less daunting.  – Bear in mind word count when picking something to write!

What about if I’m not given a word count?

While most of the time you’ll receive a range of word counts to follow when crafting your personal essays, some schools may not provide a word count at all. In this case, it is recommended that you should stick to around 400 to 600 words for your response to make the most out of the prompt without creating too long of a narrative. Again, remember that your readers are reading thousands of other applications during the admissions cycle, so making your essay stick concisely is key to making your student profile stand out from the competition! 

Final thoughts

Now that you have a clearer idea of how many words are in a college essay , it’s time to put this into effect. If you’re looking for more guidance in writing your admissions essays or editing them, Empowerly ’s team of experts is here to help you every step of the way. Your story matters, so it’s important to put your best foot forward when preparing for the next stage of your academic journey. It’s your chance to show the admissions committee the best of who you are, and we’ll be here to support you at each step along the way. 

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Blog > Application Strategy , Essay Advice > College Essay Requirements: Everything You Need to Know

College Essay Requirements: Everything You Need to Know

Admissions officer reviewed by Ben Bousquet, M.Ed Former Vanderbilt University

Written by Kylie Kistner, MA Former Willamette University Admissions

Key Takeaway

College essays, also called personal statements, are essays that most colleges require students to write as part of their applications for admission.

We have a giant comprehensive guide on how to write college essays . But this post goes a little more in detail on the specific requirements you should meet when writing your personal statement for college.

Most students write a college essay for a centralized application system called the Common Application. The Common Application has its own standardized requirements for you to meet.

But you’re not just looking at logistical requirements like length and prompt choice. You also need to know answers to those intangible questions about what a college essay should actually DO.

In this post, we’ll start with the basics and end with a detailed discussion about those unspoken requirements for what your college essay needs to look like.

How long should a college essay be?

A college essay should be within the assigned word count requirements. The maximum word length for the Common Application personal statement (and other systems, like Coalition) is 650 words . That’s almost a page and a half single-spaced or nearly three pages double-spaced if you’re writing on a word processor.

What happens if you go under the word limit on a college essay?

To be clear, you do not have to write exactly 650 words to write a good Common Application essay.

A good rule of thumb that we use with our students is to get to about 80% of the word count. For the Common App essay, that would mean your goal should be to get to at least 520 words.

If you’re in the 520 to 650 range, it’s unlikely that an admissions officer would even think about your word count.

But if your essay doesn’t hit the 520 mark, then the length starts to raise some questions.

In particular, admissions officers might start scrutinizing whether you put enough time and effort into your essay. Don’t add words just to add words, but make sure your essay is fully developed enough to fall within the word length requirements.

What happens if you go over the word limit on a college essay?

Several things might happen if your essay is too long. You might be automatically cut off by the application system. Even if you are able to submit your essay, an admissions officer might stop reading when they notice that it’s too long. Or, worse, if your essay is over the word count because your language is long and rambling, you might bore an admissions officer.

For these reasons, it’s best to stay at or below the word limit.

If your essay is just a little too long, try these tips for cutting words:

  • Cut any unnecessary tangents that don’t contribute to the overall theme of your essay.
  • Eliminate cliche phrases or unnecessary idioms.
  • Delete filler phrases like “in order to” or unnecessary adverbs like “really” or “very.”

If your essay is way over the word count, there’s a good chance you’re trying to do too many things at once. Take a step back and make sure your essay only has one main focus (and see our college essay writing guide for tips).

Can I submit an essay I’ve written for another class?

One of the Common Application prompts often looks something like this:

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.

If that’s a prompt option, then you may be wondering whether you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle and submit an essay that you’ve already written, maybe even an essay from one of your classes.

While doing so is technically allowed by the prompt, we do not advise that you submit an essay you’ve written for something previously.

Why do we not recommend this?

Because personal statements have such a specific purpose (more on that in a minute), anything you’ve already written likely won’t fit the bill.

School assignments and past essays won’t say nearly enough about who you are. Admissions officers might enjoy a history essay you wrote about the French Revolution, but it probably won’t give them the information they need to confidently admit you.

Who reads college essays anyway, and what do they expect of you?

College essays are most commonly read by admissions officers. Admissions officers work for the undergraduate office of admission at the institution you’re applying to. While different offices have different practices, these admissions officers are generally full-time university employees. They often did not attend the university at which they work, though sometimes they did.

College admissions officers are generally assigned a regional territory, so they work with students and read applications from that territory. That means that if you go to most college admissions pages, you should be able to find your admissions counselor by inputting your geographic information. If you want, you can reach out to this person with any questions about the institution or application process.

Now on to the bigger question: what do they expect of you?

What an admissions officer expects from your college application essay depends on the kind of institution for which they work. Admissions officers at schools with lower acceptance rates, for example, will have higher expectations than those at schools with higher acceptance rates.

But across the board, there are a few things admissions officers expect from your college essays.

These expectations come from unspoken understandings of what a college essay should say and do.

The next section breaks down the five biggest college essay writing requirements you should try to follow.

College Essay Conventions

College essay requirements are about more than responding to a prompt and meeting a certain word count. They’re also about fulfilling the expectations that readers have of college essays. College essays are all about creating a cohesive narrative across your application. To help you accomplish that, there are a few conventions you should be aware of.

Tell a meaningful story about who you are

Why do college essays exist? They are an opportunity to tell admissions officers something about who you are as a person. As we know from our time as admissions officers ourselves, it can be difficult to truly understand who a person is from facts and figures alone. Transcripts and test scores tell us very little about your values, goals, and personality.

College essays should therefore communicate something meaningful about who you are. And when we say “meaningful,” we really mean it. College essays aren’t surface-level stuff. They get to the core of your background and motivations.

That doesn’t mean you have to write about your deepest, darkest secrets. But it does mean that you have to go below the surface to reveal a genuine personal insight.

Write vulnerably and authentically.

This tip is an extension of the previous one. To write a meaningful essay, you’ll need to write vulnerably and authentically.

Some college essays are just pleasantries that are so generic they could have been written by anybody.

The best college essays are ones that are written in your own voice. They open up a part of you that is normally reserved for close family and friends. They skip the formalities and get straight to the heart of why you are who you are.

It can be hard to write honestly for an audience full of faceless admissions officers who hold your fate in their hands. But it will be worth it.

Craft an essay that focuses on your strengths.

Here’s the thing. You can’t write just any old essay for your college essay. Your essay needs to be strategic. And to be strategic, it needs to revolve around your strengths.

Your college essay should showcase your strengths because you want to give the admissions officers who read your essays as many reasons as possible to admit you.

This isn’t to say that your essay should brag about all your accomplishments. Instead, being strengths-based means that whatever story you tell should leave admissions officers with a positive impression of who you are. They should be able to pick you out of a crowd and say, “Wow, this student is a really strong scholar/entrepreneur/artist/friend/caregiver/etc.”

By highlighting your strengths, you’ll show admissions officers why you belong on their campus.

Find the correct tone.

“Tone” refers to the overarching voice and vibe of an essay. Some college essays have serious tones, while others are lighthearted or funny.

The correct tone for your essay will depend on the topic you choose and the strengths you want to convey.

Most importantly, however, your tone should always end on some kind of positive, hopeful note.

It’s okay to write about difficult or serious topics, but they shouldn’t weigh your essay down and leave your admissions officer feeling uneasy afterward. Similarly, a lighthearted essay shouldn’t be so flippant that it forgets to do its job as a college essay.

Finding the correct tone is a balancing act.

Adhere to the length and stylistic requirements.

It’s worth reiterating that adhering to the rules and requirements outlined by the application is an important part of college essay writing. You want to leave your admissions officers with the best impression possible.

That means that taking each part of your application seriously is important. Try to present yourself as a professional and thoughtful person who knows how to follow the rules.

Doing so will emphasize that you are a mature student ready to take on the challenges of attending college.

Writing a college essay is really different than writing an essay for school, so sticking to these tips will help keep you on track.

College essay requirements can be tricky to navigate. But following the guidelines and meeting your readers’ expectations will help you write a standout essay.

And if you want to learn even more about how to write a college essay, check out our guide to college essays and our Essay Academy program. 👋

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  • How Long Should a College Admissions Essay Be?

Sarah Farbman

  • January 23, 2024

Student writing a college admissions essay

Throughout the process of applying to college, students must follow many steps and jump through what can feel like ten million hoops before (and even after!) hitting that submit button. But one part of the process looms large in the minds of students and parents alike: the college admissions essay . It feels so open-ended. How long should a college admissions essay be? What should you write about? How should your tone sound? How do you know if your reader will like what you wrote? 

A lot of these questions are subjective and personal, but one is much more clear-cut: essay length. In this post, we’ll go over how long your essay should be, how strict these guidelines are, and what to do if your writing doesn’t fall within the word limit provided.

How long should a college admissions essay be?

College admissions essays vary in length, but you’ll most likely be asked to write somewhere between 150 and 650 words per essay. That’s about a quarter of a page to one full page, double-spaced.

Sometimes, the word limit will be given to you right in the prompt. Take a look at this example from Villanova University:

“Why do you want to call Villanova your new home and become part of our community? Please respond in about 150 words.”

Often, the prompt itself may not state the word limit, but if you’re submitting your application through an online form like the Common App, the word limit will appear in tiny letters underneath the box where you’re supposed to paste your answer. Take a look at this screenshot from the Common App page for the University of Colorado Boulder.

As you can see, the maximum number of words the form will accept is 250, and it won’t allow you to submit fewer than 25 words, even if you want to.

Are college admissions essay word limits flexible?

So now you know how to find the word limits, but how closely do you have to stick to them? Is it okay to write less?

If a college gives you a range of words, your writing should definitely fall within that range. For example, Tufts University asks you to pick one of three topics and write between 200-250 words. In this case, you should write at least 200 words. In this case, writing fewer than 200 words could give the wrong impression for a couple of reasons.

  • You may give the impression that you don’t have a lot to say. Since college is, after all, an educational venture, schools are looking for thoughtful applicants who like to mull over new ideas. If you write too little in what is already supposed to be a pretty short piece of writing, you’re not providing the college with evidence that you like to embrace your nerdy side!
  • It might seem like you’re not good at following directions or feel that the rules don’t apply to you. Following directions is a significant part of the college application process, partly because there are just so many moving pieces and partly because you want to show that you’re a respectful applicant.

If the prompt only gives an upper limit, aim to write no fewer than 50 words under that limit. So, if the prompt asks you to write up to 450 words, try to write no fewer than 400 words. Again, this will help give the impression that you’re a thoughtful student who takes your time and considers your ideas carefully.

Remember: the point of your college application is to help your reader get to know you and to make a case for why you’d be an excellent fit for a given college or university. Readers already have so little to go on. You want to take every opportunity available to you to share with the reader more information and more evidence that you’re a great student!

What if you go over the word limit?

While some students may struggle to fill an essay, most students have the opposite problem, especially on first drafts; they blow that word limit out of the water!

It is totally, 100% acceptable to exceed that word limit, even by a lot, on your first draft. In fact, it’s crucial when drafting to take away those word limits and just let yourself write without any limits or judgment. That’s often how we, as writers, find our best ideas and figure out what we’re really trying to say.

However, it’s important not to exceed the given word limit on your finished product. For one thing, many colleges use a web-based form, often the Common Application , to collect applications. These forms will not allow you to submit more than the given number of words.

Even if you’re submitting your application in a format that does allow you to technically include as many words as you like, say, as a PDF or Word attachment, admissions readers may well stop reading after they hit the word limit.

Remember, admissions readers must read A LOT, usually under a stringent time limit. They may only have ten or fifteen minutes to read your entire file, including all your essays and letters of recommendation. And then they have to make some notes and repeat the whole exercise with someone else’s file, over and over, all day, for months. A pressed admissions officer simply doesn’t have the time to read the extra words you wrote!

Don’t worry, though, even if your first draft is significantly longer than it’s supposed to be. First drafts are often repetitive and wordy. Most students find that once they have a good idea of what they’re trying to say, it’s reasonably easy to cut words. 

First, review your draft and ensure you only present each idea once. Then, see if reorganizing the paragraphs would allow you to streamline your ideas to cut words. Finally, see if specific phrases can be replaced with shorter synonyms. You’ll see the words start to fall away pretty quickly.

So really, how long should a college admissions essay should be?

How long should a college admissions essay be? Most essay prompts will tell you either the range they’re looking for (e.g., “Respond in 200-250 words”) or the hard upper word limit. You’ll find this either written out right in the prompt or in little gray letters below the part of the application where you’re supposed to paste your answer.

If you don’t see a word limit anywhere on the prompt, don’t fret! Look around the college’s website for an FAQ section. If you still don’t see the answer you’re looking for, call the admissions office and ask!

It’s vital to stick fairly closely to the word limit given. Certainly, do not go over!

Need more advice on your college applications?

The team at Great College Advice has extensive experience in guiding students along the road from high school to college. We provide individually tailored, one-on-one advising to help young people achieve their educational ambitions. If you’d like more information about our services, contact us for a free consultation. Or just pick up the phone and call us at 720.279.7577.  We’d be happy to chat with you.

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Your chance of acceptance, your chancing factors, extracurriculars, how many paragraphs should a college essay be.

I'm working on my college essay and I'm not sure how long it should be. Is there an ideal number of paragraphs for a college essay, or does it just depend on the content and flow of the essay? Any guidance would be much appreciated!

Hey there! It's great that you're working on your college essay. The ideal length for a college essay will depend on the specific essay prompt and the word limit given by the colleges you're applying to. Generally, most college essays fall in the range of 250-650 words.

As for the number of paragraphs, it's more about effectively organizing your thoughts and ideas rather than sticking to a specific number. For instance, you might have a compelling 5-paragraph essay or an engaging 8-paragraph essay. The key is to maintain a strong narrative and flow throughout the essay.

My child faced a similar dilemma when they were applying, and what worked for them was to focus on the content, storytelling, and coherence of the essay rather than the specific number of paragraphs. Remember, it's your unique story and how you present it that matters most. Good luck!

About CollegeVine’s Expert FAQ

CollegeVine’s Q&A seeks to offer informed perspectives on commonly asked admissions questions. Every answer is refined and validated by our team of admissions experts to ensure it resonates with trusted knowledge in the field.

Frequently asked questions

How long should a college essay be.

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.

Frequently asked questions: College admissions essays

When writing your Common App essay , choose a prompt that sparks your interest and that you can connect to a unique personal story.

No matter which prompt you choose, admissions officers are more interested in your ability to demonstrate personal development , insight, or motivation for a certain area of study.

The Common App essay is your primary writing sample within the Common Application, a college application portal accepted by more than 900 schools. All your prospective schools that accept the Common App will read this essay to understand your character, background, and value as a potential student.

Since this essay is read by many colleges, avoid mentioning any college names or programs; instead, save tailored answers for the supplementary school-specific essays within the Common App.

Most importantly, your essay should be about you , not another person or thing. An insightful college admissions essay requires deep self-reflection, authenticity, and a balance between confidence and vulnerability.

Your essay shouldn’t be a résumé of your experiences but instead should tell a story that demonstrates your most important values and qualities.

When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding your message and content. Then, check for flow, tone, style , and clarity. Finally, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors .

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.

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 you’ve got to write your college essay fast , don’t panic. First, set yourself deadlines: you should spend about 10% of your remaining time on brainstorming, 10% on outlining, 40% writing, 30% revising, and 10% taking breaks in between stages.

Second, brainstorm stories and values based on your essay prompt.

Third, outline your essay based on the montage or narrative essay structure .

Fourth, write specific, personal, and unique stories that would be hard for other students to replicate.

Fifth, revise your essay and make sure it’s clearly written.

Last, if possible, get feedback from an essay coach . Scribbr essay editors can help you revise your essay in 12 hours or less.

Avoid swearing in a college essay , since admissions officers’ opinions of profanity will vary. In some cases, it might be okay to use a vulgar word, such as in dialogue or quotes that make an important point in your essay. However, it’s safest to try to make the same point without swearing.

If you have bad grades on your transcript, you may want to use your college admissions essay to explain the challenging circumstances that led to them. Make sure to avoid dwelling on the negative aspects and highlight how you overcame the situation or learned an important lesson.

However, some college applications offer an additional information section where you can explain your bad grades, allowing you to choose another meaningful topic for your college essay.

Here’s a brief list of college essay topics that may be considered cliché:

  • Extracurriculars, especially sports
  • Role models
  • Dealing with a personal tragedy or death in the family
  • Struggling with new life situations (immigrant stories, moving homes, parents’ divorce)
  • Becoming a better person after community service, traveling, or summer camp
  • Overcoming a difficult class
  • Using a common object as an extended metaphor

It’s easier to write a standout essay with a unique topic. However, it’s possible to make a common topic compelling with interesting story arcs, uncommon connections, and an advanced writing style.

Yes. The college application essay is less formal than other academic writing —though of course it’s not mandatory to use contractions in your essay.

In a college essay , you can be creative with your language . When writing about the past, you can use the present tense to make the reader feel as if they were there in the moment with you. But make sure to maintain consistency and when in doubt, default to the correct verb tense according to the time you’re writing about.

The college admissions essay gives admissions officers a different perspective on you beyond your academic achievements, test scores, and extracurriculars. It’s your chance to stand out from other applicants with similar academic profiles by telling a unique, personal, and specific story.

Use a standard font such as Times New Roman or Arial to avoid distracting the reader from your college essay’s content.

A college application essay is less formal than most academic writing . Instead of citing sources formally with in-text citations and a reference list, you can cite them informally in your text.

For example, “In her research paper on genetics, Quinn Roberts explores …”

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 .

Most topics are acceptable for college essays if you can use them to demonstrate personal growth or a lesson learned. However, there are a few difficult topics for college essays that should be avoided. Avoid topics that are:

  • Overly personal (e.g. graphic details of illness or injury, romantic or sexual relationships)
  • Not personal enough (e.g. broad solutions to world problems, inspiring people or things)
  • Too negative (e.g. an in-depth look at your flaws, put-downs of others, criticizing the need for a college essay)
  • Too boring (e.g. a resume of your academic achievements and extracurriculars)
  • Inappropriate for a college essay (e.g. illegal activities, offensive humor, false accounts of yourself, bragging about privilege)

To write an effective diversity essay , include vulnerable, authentic stories about your unique identity, background, or perspective. Provide insight into how your lived experience has influenced your outlook, activities, and goals. If relevant, you should also mention how your background has led you to apply for this university and why you’re a good fit.

Many universities believe a student body composed of different perspectives, beliefs, identities, and backgrounds will enhance the campus learning and community experience.

Admissions officers are interested in hearing about how your unique background, identity, beliefs, culture, or characteristics will enrich the campus community, which is why they assign a diversity essay .

In addition to your main college essay , some schools and scholarships may ask for a supplementary essay focused on an aspect of your identity or background. This is sometimes called a diversity essay .

You can use humor in a college essay , but carefully consider its purpose and use it wisely. An effective use of humor involves unexpected, keen observations of the everyday, or speaks to a deeper theme. Humor shouldn’t be the main focus of the essay, but rather a tool to improve your storytelling.

Get a second opinion from a teacher, counselor, or essay coach on whether your essay’s humor is appropriate.

Though admissions officers are interested in hearing your story, they’re also interested in how you tell it. An exceptionally written essay will differentiate you from other applicants, meaning that admissions officers will spend more time reading it.

You can use literary devices to catch your reader’s attention and enrich your storytelling; however, focus on using just a few devices well, rather than trying to use as many as possible.

To decide on a good college essay topic , spend time thoughtfully answering brainstorming questions. If you still have trouble identifying topics, try the following two strategies:

  • Identify your qualities → Brainstorm stories that demonstrate these qualities
  • Identify memorable stories → Connect your qualities to these stories

You can also ask family, friends, or mentors to help you brainstorm topics, give feedback on your potential essay topics, or recall key stories that showcase your qualities.

Yes—admissions officers don’t expect everyone to have a totally unique college essay topic . But you must differentiate your essay from others by having a surprising story arc, an interesting insight, and/or an advanced writing style .

There are no foolproof college essay topics —whatever your topic, the key is to write about it effectively. However, a good topic

  • Is meaningful, specific, and personal to you
  • Focuses on you and your experiences
  • Reveals something beyond your test scores, grades, and extracurriculars
  • Is creative and original

Unlike a five-paragraph essay, your admissions essay should not end by summarizing the points you’ve already made. It’s better to be creative and aim for a strong final impression.

You should also avoid stating the obvious (for example, saying that you hope to be accepted).

There are a few strategies you can use for a memorable ending to your college essay :

  • Return to the beginning with a “full circle” structure
  • Reveal the main point or insight in your story
  • Look to the future
  • End on an action

The best technique will depend on your topic choice, essay outline, and writing style. You can write several endings using different techniques to see which works best.

College deadlines vary depending on the schools you’re applying to and your application plan:

  • For early action applications and the first round of early decision applications, the deadline is on November 1 or 15. Decisions are released by mid-December.
  • For the second round of early decision applications, the deadline is January 1 or 15. Decisions are released in January or February.
  • Regular decision deadlines usually fall between late November and mid-March, and decisions are released in March or April.
  • Rolling admission deadlines run from July to April, and decisions are released around four to eight weeks after submission.

Depending on your prospective schools’ requirements, you may need to submit scores for the SAT or ACT as part of your college application .

Some schools now no longer require students to submit test scores; however, you should still take the SAT or ACT and aim to get a high score to strengthen your application package.

Aim to take the SAT or ACT in the spring of your junior year to give yourself enough time to retake it in the fall of your senior year if necessary.

Apply early for federal student aid and application fee waivers. You can also look for scholarships from schools, corporations, and charitable foundations.

To maximize your options, you should aim to apply to about eight schools:

  • Two reach schools that might be difficult to get into
  • Four match schools that you have a good chance of getting into
  • Two safety schools that you feel confident you’ll get into

The college admissions essay accounts for roughly 25% of the weight of your application .

At highly selective schools, there are four qualified candidates for every spot. While your academic achievements are important, your college admissions essay can help you stand out from other applicants with similar profiles.

In general, for your college application you will need to submit all of the following:

  • Your personal information
  • List of extracurriculars and awards
  • College application essays
  • Transcripts
  • Standardized test scores
  • Recommendation letters.

Different colleges may have specific requirements, so make sure you check exactly what’s expected in the application guidance.

You should start thinking about your college applications the summer before your junior year to give you sufficient time for college visits, taking standardized tests, applying for financial aid , writing essays, and collecting application material.

Yes, but make sure your essay directly addresses the prompt, respects the word count , and demonstrates the organization’s values.

If you plan ahead, you can save time by writing one scholarship essay for multiple prompts with similar questions. In a scholarship tracker spreadsheet, you can group or color-code overlapping essay prompts; then, write a single essay for multiple scholarships. Sometimes, you can even reuse or adapt your main college essay .

You can start applying for scholarships as early as your junior year. Continue applying throughout your senior year.

Invest time in applying for various scholarships , especially local ones with small dollar amounts, which are likely easier to win and more reflective of your background and interests. It will be easier for you to write an authentic and compelling essay if the scholarship topic is meaningful to you.

You can find scholarships through your school counselor, community network, or an internet search.

A scholarship essay requires you to demonstrate your values and qualities while answering the prompt’s specific question.

After researching the scholarship organization, identify a personal experience that embodies its values and exemplifies how you will be a successful student.

A standout college essay has several key ingredients:

  • A unique, personally meaningful topic
  • A memorable introduction with vivid imagery or an intriguing hook
  • Specific stories and language that show instead of telling
  • Vulnerability that’s authentic but not aimed at soliciting sympathy
  • Clear writing in an appropriate style and tone
  • A conclusion that offers deep insight or a creative ending

While timelines will differ depending on the student, plan on spending at least 1–3 weeks brainstorming and writing the first draft of your college admissions essay , and at least 2–4 weeks revising across multiple drafts. Don’t forget to save enough time for breaks between each writing and editing stage.

You should already begin thinking about your essay the summer before your senior year so that you have plenty of time to try out different topics and get feedback on what works.

Your college essay accounts for about 25% of your application’s weight. It may be the deciding factor in whether you’re accepted, especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurricular track records.

In most cases, quoting other people isn’t a good way to start your college essay . Admissions officers want to hear your thoughts about yourself, and quotes often don’t achieve that. Unless a quote truly adds something important to your essay that it otherwise wouldn’t have, you probably shouldn’t include it.

Cliché openers in a college essay introduction are usually general and applicable to many students and situations. Most successful introductions are specific: they only work for the unique essay that follows.

The key to a strong college essay introduction is not to give too much away. Try to start with a surprising statement or image that raises questions and compels the reader to find out more.

The introduction of your college essay is the first thing admissions officers will read and therefore your most important opportunity to stand out. An excellent introduction will keep admissions officers reading, allowing you to tell them what you want them to know.

You can speed up this process by shortening and smoothing your writing with a paraphrasing tool . After that, you can use the summarizer to shorten it even more.

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.

In your application essay , admissions officers are looking for particular features : they want to see context on your background, positive traits that you could bring to campus, and examples of you demonstrating those qualities.

Colleges want to be able to differentiate students who seem similar on paper. In the college application essay , they’re looking for a way to understand each applicant’s unique personality and experiences.

You don’t need a title for your college admissions essay , but you can include one if you think it adds something important.

Your college essay’s format should be as simple as possible:

  • Use a standard, readable font
  • Use 1.5 or double spacing
  • If attaching a file, save it as a PDF
  • Stick to the word count
  • Avoid unusual formatting and unnecessary decorative touches

There are no set rules for how to structure a college application essay , but these are two common structures that work:

  • A montage structure, a series of vignettes with a common theme.
  • A narrative structure, a single story that shows your personal growth or how you overcame a challenge.

Avoid the five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in high school.

Campus visits are always helpful, but if you can’t make it in person, the college website will have plenty of information for you to explore. You should look through the course catalog and even reach out to current faculty with any questions about the school.

Colleges set a “Why this college?” essay because they want to see that you’ve done your research. You must prove that you know what makes the school unique and can connect that to your own personal goals and academic interests.

Depending on your writing, you may go through several rounds of revision . Make sure to put aside your essay for a little while after each editing stage to return with a fresh perspective.

Teachers and guidance counselors can help you check your language, tone, and content . Ask for their help at least one to two months before the submission deadline, as many other students will also want their help.

Friends and family are a good resource to check for authenticity. It’s best to seek help from family members with a strong writing or English educational background, or from older siblings and cousins who have been through the college admissions process.

If possible, get help from an essay coach or editor ; they’ll have specialized knowledge of college admissions essays and be able to give objective expert feedback.

When revising your college essay , first check for big-picture issues regarding message, flow, tone, style , and clarity. Then, focus on eliminating grammar and punctuation errors.

Include specific, personal details and use your authentic voice to shed a new perspective on a common human experience.

Through specific stories, you can weave your achievements and qualities into your essay so that it doesn’t seem like you’re bragging from a resume.

When writing about yourself , including difficult experiences or failures can be a great way to show vulnerability and authenticity, but be careful not to overshare, and focus on showing how you matured from the experience.

First, spend time reflecting on your core values and character . You can start with these questions:

  • What are three words your friends or family would use to describe you, and why would they choose them?
  • Whom do you admire most and why?
  • What are you most proud of? Ashamed of?

However, you should do a comprehensive brainstorming session to fully understand your values. Also consider how your values and goals match your prospective university’s program and culture. Then, brainstorm stories that illustrate the fit between the two.

In a college application essay , you can occasionally bend grammatical rules if doing so adds value to the storytelling process and the essay maintains clarity.

However, use standard language rules if your stylistic choices would otherwise distract the reader from your overall narrative or could be easily interpreted as unintentional errors.

Write concisely and use the active voice to maintain a quick pace throughout your essay and make sure it’s the right length . Avoid adding definitions unless they provide necessary explanation.

Use first-person “I” statements to speak from your perspective . Use appropriate word choices that show off your vocabulary but don’t sound like you used a thesaurus. Avoid using idioms or cliché expressions by rewriting them in a creative, original way.

If you’re an international student applying to a US college and you’re comfortable using American idioms or cultural references , you can. But instead of potentially using them incorrectly, don’t be afraid to write in detail about yourself within your own culture.

Provide context for any words, customs, or places that an American admissions officer might be unfamiliar with.

College application essays are less formal than other kinds of academic writing . Use a conversational yet respectful tone , as if speaking with a teacher or mentor. Be vulnerable about your feelings, thoughts, and experiences to connect with the reader.

Aim to write in your authentic voice , with a style that sounds natural and genuine. You can be creative with your word choice, but don’t use elaborate vocabulary to impress admissions officers.

Admissions officers use college admissions essays to evaluate your character, writing skills , and ability to self-reflect . The essay is your chance to show what you will add to the academic community.

The college essay may be the deciding factor in your application , especially for competitive schools where most applicants have exceptional grades, test scores, and extracurriculars.

Some colleges also require supplemental essays about specific topics, such as why you chose that specific college . Scholarship essays are often required to obtain financial aid .

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How to Find Scholarships

Quick Links:   Understanding Scholarships | Why Apply | Application Requirements | How to Find Scholarships | How to Apply

Your Guide to Finding, Applying, and Winning Scholarships

Scholarships are a type of financial aid awarded to students based on academic achievements, athletic skills, community involvement, financial need, or other considerations. Earning scholarships can help make college more accessible and affordable. Dive into our guide for an overview of how to find and apply for scholarships to ease the financial burden of college. 

Understanding Scholarships

Several types of scholarships are available, such as merit-based aid, skill-based, and need-based aid. Every scholarship comes with unique requirements to both receive and keep the funds. Be sure to carefully read the scholarship eligibility requirements, application process, and other details before applying.

Do You Have to Pay Back Scholarships? 

College scholarships are a type of financial assistance that you won't need to repay. It’s essentially free money given to help cover your educational expenses like tuition, housing, class supplies, and more. This makes them an excellent option for students looking to reduce the cost of college without worrying about student loan debt. 

How do Scholarships Differ From Grants?

While both grants and scholarships offer financial aid for college, they differ in several important ways. Scholarships are usually merit-based, meaning they're awarded based on achievements like academic excellence, athletic skills, or involvement in community service or clubs. They're often provided by private organizations, colleges, or individuals.

On the other hand, grants are typically need-based and awarded to students who demonstrate a financial need. They are often provided by either state or federal government sources. A well-known example of a government-backed grant is the Pell Grant, which is federal aid given to undergraduate students with significant financial need.

You can visit the official Pell Grants page for more detailed information. This resource details qualifications, application processes, and how Federal Student Aid can help fund your college education. 

Why You Should Apply For Scholarships

Scholarships are an important tool for making your college education more affordable. Despite what many think, there's actually a lot of unclaimed scholarship money out there every year. According to the National Scholarship Providers Association (NSPA), about $100 million worth of scholarships are not awarded annually, mainly because students do not apply for them.

With so many available scholarships going unclaimed, it's important to explore your options thoroughly. Doing well on standardized tests like the ACT is one way to enhance your chances of tapping into this unclaimed scholarship pool. Actively seeking out and applying for scholarships can increase your likelihood of receiving financial support, which not only eases the financial strain of college but also supports your academic and personal growth, smoothing the path to a brighter and more secure future.

Typical Application Requirements For Scholarships

When applying for scholarships, students must meet a variety of requirements to be considered for aid. Common requirements include:

  • Academic performance: Keeping up a certain GPA or academic level.
  • Extracurricular activities: Being active in clubs, sports, or community service projects.
  • Standardized test scores: Some scholarships ask for scores from tests like the ACT to measure your academic readiness.
  • Essays: Crafting an essay that reflects your personal achievements or aspirations.
  • Letters of recommendation: Securing support from teachers or mentors who can speak to your character and achievements.
  • Financial need evidence: Showing that you require financial support to pursue your education. Often this requires you to submit your FAFSA.
  • Unique qualifications: Adhering to specific conditions outlined by the scholarship, like studying in a certain field or identifying with a particular demographic. 

Will All Scholarships Require an Essay?

How to find scholarships.

While earning a scholarship isn't guaranteed, there are several steps you can take to increase your chances of securing these valuable funds. Focus on the factors within your control such as timing, research, preparation, organization, and commitment. Taking your scholarship search seriously can help you tremendously in the long run.

Start The Process Early

It's important to start your scholarship application process as early as possible. suggests getting a head start on your research and applications during the summer between junior and senior years of high school. Starting the process early gives you ample time to find opportunities, meet deadlines, and prepare stronger applications.

Utilize Scholarship Searches

Various lists and resources are available that specialize in helping you find scholarships that fit your needs. One notable option is the  ACT free scholarship list , which includes more than 80 scholarships that require an ACT score. The Department of Labor also provides information for over 9,500 scholarships on their sponsored  scholarship finder . These searches can help you discover a wide range of opportunities that align with your specific academic and extracurricular achievements.

Check Local Scholarships

Students should also focus on local scholarships, which often have fewer applicants and higher chances of winning compared to larger, national scholarships. Check with local businesses, community and religious organizations, clubs, and your school counselor if they offer any scholarship opportunities. Often the scholarship details and application can be found on their website. You might also consider searching for scholarships through word of mouth, community Facebook pages, or local newspapers

Apply For Several Scholarships

Increase your chances of receiving financial aid by applying for multiple scholarships. Each application improves your likelihood of success, broadening your range of opportunities. You can enhance your chances for securing a scholarship by applying for a range of scholarship types from many different sources. 

Look Out For Fake Scholarships

Students and parents need to be vigilant to identify fake scholarships. Warning signs include requests for personal financial information or payments, such as application fees or processing charges, no past recipients mentioned, or saying you won a scholarship you don’t recall applying for. Legitimate scholarships will never ask for money or sensitive personal financial details as part of the application process. 

How to Apply For Scholarships

The process of applying for scholarships will largely depend on the type of scholarship you're pursuing, but several standard steps are involved in most applications. Understanding and following these common steps can help you collect and prepare the documents you’ll need when applying. Here are some ways in which the process may differ:

  • Eligibility criteria: Some scholarships are open to all students, while others may target specific groups, such as students pursuing certain majors, belonging to certain demographic groups, or having specific talents or interests. 
  • Application requirements: While some scholarships may require essays, others might request video submissions, artistic portfolios, or project proposals, depending on the criteria. 
  • Submission method: Methods range from online forms to mail-in or even in-person presentations. Be sure to adapt your approach based on each scholarship’s guidelines. 
  • Selection process: Each scholarship committee will assess candidates based on what was submitted. Recipients are typically students who had a well-rounded application, met all the criteria outlines, and demonstrated their readiness for college. 
  • ​​ Financial need assessment: Some scholarships are merit-based and don't consider financial need, while others may require financial information and a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to determine need-based eligibility. 
  • Recommendation letters: Some scholarships might ask for multiple letters of recommendation from a teacher, mentor, or community leader.  
  • Deadlines: Deadlines can vary significantly. Some scholarships offer multiple application rounds, while others may be once-a-year chances. 

​​It's important to keep track of deadlines for each scholarship and submit your applications promptly, as late submissions can disqualify you even if you’re an outstanding candidate. Try using an online calendar or planner specifically for scholarship deadlines to stay organized and ensure you never miss a submission date. You can also keep a digital folder with all your scholarship materials —essays, recommendation letters, transcripts, and any other required documents. This makes it easier to tailor each application without starting from scratch. 

Explore More Resources to Help Pay For College

To learn more about paying for college and managing your expenses, check out some  additional resources  that offer helpful tips and advice. Starting to look for scholarships that match your interests early in high school gives you plenty of time to set your goals and plan how to achieve them. 

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College Application Checklist

Find the right college for you., junior summer: ─do before applying to college checklist.

  • Set up a professional-sounding email address.
  • Create a balanced list of reach, match, and safety colleges.
  • Go to the application website.
  • Note the regular application deadline.
  • Note the early application deadline.

Junior Year: Take Tests and Other Exams for Admission

  • Find out if an admission test is required.
  • Take an admission test, if required.
  • Take other required or recommended tests (e.g., AP Exams, IB exams).
  • Send admission test scores, if required, with your application.
  • Send other test scores.
  • Retest by summer of junior year or fall of senior year.

student looking at binder outside

Early Senior Year: Get Letters and Essay Ready.

  • Request recommendation letters. Provide a résumé for reference.
  • Send thank-you notes to recommendation writers.
  • Start the essay drafting and revision process 2 months prior to the application deadline.
  • Draft initial essay.
  • Proofread essay for spelling and grammar.
  • Have 2 people read your essay.
  • Revise your essay.
  • Proofread your revision.

Fall of Senior Year: Make a Campus Visit. Apply for Financial Aid.

  • Interview at the college campus, if required.
  • Submit FAFSA® if eligible.
  • Submit CSS PROFILE if needed.
  • Make a note of the priority financial aid deadline.
  • Make a note of the regular financial aid deadline.
  • Submit college aid form if needed.
  • Submit a state aid form if needed.
  • Check the college's financial aid website to see if you need to submit any additional institution forms.

Submit the Application. Pay Fees by Deadlines.

  • Complete college application.
  • Save copies of your application and application materials.
  • Pay application fee. Submit an application fee waiver if eligible.
  • Submit application.
  • Request high school transcript to be sent.
  • Request midyear grade report to be sent.
  • Confirm receipt of application materials by checking your application status online.
  • Send additional material if needed.
  • Tell your school counselor that you applied.
  • Receive letter from admissions office.

Senior Spring: Make Your Selections.

  • Apply for housing and meal plans, if applicable.
  • Receive financial aid award letter.
  • Accept financial aid offer.
  • Notify whichever colleges you’re not planning to attend.

What things do you need to provide in the college application process?

When applying to college, you’ll need to provide information regarding personal details, your academic background, your extracurricular activities, and achievements you want to highlight. You’ll also need to submit standardized test scores and letters of recommendation, if required. Along with that, you’ll want to submit any required essays, making sure they highlight your aspirations and your personality. You can even strengthen your application by including additional information about yourself and a résumé.

Most colleges will require an application fee. If you require financial assistance to cover this fee, ask your school counselor about application fee waivers.

What are five things you need to know about college application process?

When navigating college admissions requirements, consider these five points:

  • Go through each college's admissions requirements, including transcripts, test scores, essays, and recommendations.
  • Pay close attention to submission deadlines to ensure you deliver all required documents on time.
  • Familiarize yourself with the admissions criteria, including academic performance, extracurricular activities, and personal attributes.
  • Check out the available financial aid options, such as scholarships and grants. Follow the designated application timelines.
  • Visit the colleges you're interested in. Take advantage of any interview opportunities to express your interest and gain valuable insights into the institutions.

Is the admissions process the same for all colleges?

The admissions process can differ between institutions. Colleges you apply to may ask for standardized test scores and recommendation letters. Or they may have more specific requirements. Before you even begin an application, you’ll need to review the admissions guidelines of each college you plan to apply to and personalize your application to their needs.

How important are extracurricular activities in the college admissions process?

Participating in extracurricular activities can significantly influence the college admissions process. Colleges seek students who aren’t only academically accomplished but also have a diverse range of interests and a demonstrated dedication to their passions. Being actively involved in clubs, sports, community service, and leadership roles can positively impact your application and highlight your potential contributions to the college community.

Are interviews required for college admission? How should I prepare for them?

Colleges may require interviews as part of their admissions process, or they may not require them. You’ll want to verify the specific requirements of each college. If a college recommends an interview or it’s mandatory, make sure to prepare yourself thoroughly. Practice answering common interview questions, research the college, and think about how to express your objectives and interests effectively. Interviews offer a chance to present yourself in a more personal and engaging way, so take advantage of this opportunity.

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Critic’s Pick

‘Civil War’ Review: We Have Met the Enemy and It Is Us. Again.

In Alex Garland’s tough new movie, a group of journalists led by Kirsten Dunst, as a photographer, travels a United States at war with itself.

  • Share full article

‘Civil War’ | Anatomy of a Scene

The writer and director alex garland narrates a sequence from his film..

“My name is Alex Garland and I’m the writer director of ‘Civil War’. So this particular clip is roughly around the halfway point of the movie and it’s these four journalists and they’re trying to get, in a very circuitous route, from New York to DC, and encountering various obstacles on the way. And this is one of those obstacles. What they find themselves stuck in is a battle between two snipers. And they are close to one of the snipers and the other sniper is somewhere unseen, but presumably in a large house that sits over a field and a hill. It’s a surrealist exchange and it’s surrounded by some very surrealist imagery, which is they’re, in broad daylight in broad sunshine, there’s no indication that we’re anywhere near winter in the filming. In fact, you can kind of tell it’s summer. But they’re surrounded by Christmas decorations. And in some ways, the Christmas decorations speak of a country, which is in disrepair, however silly it sounds. If you haven’t put away your Christmas decorations, clearly something isn’t going right.” “What’s going on?” “Someone in that house, they’re stuck. We’re stuck.” “And there’s a bit of imagery. It felt like it hit the right note. But the interesting thing about that imagery was that it was not production designed. We didn’t create it. We actually literally found it. We were driving along and we saw all of these Christmas decorations, basically exactly as they are in the film. They were about 100 yards away, just piled up by the side of the road. And it turned out, it was a guy who’d put on a winter wonderland festival. People had not dug his winter wonderland festival, and he’d gone bankrupt. And he had decided just to leave everything just strewn around on a farmer’s field, who was then absolutely furious. So in a way, there’s a loose parallel, which is the same implication that exists within the film exists within real life.” “You don’t understand a word I say. Yo. What’s over there in that house?” “Someone shooting.” “It’s to do with the fact that when things get extreme, the reasons why things got extreme no longer become relevant and the knife edge of the problem is all that really remains relevant. So it doesn’t actually matter, as it were, in this context, what side they’re fighting for or what the other person’s fighting for. It’s just reduced to a survival.”

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By Manohla Dargis

A blunt, gut-twisting work of speculative fiction, “Civil War” opens with the United States at war with itself — literally, not just rhetorically. In Washington, D.C., the president is holed up in the White House; in a spookily depopulated New York, desperate people wait for water rations. It’s the near-future, and rooftop snipers, suicide bombers and wild-eyed randos are in the fight while an opposition faction with a two-star flag called the Western Forces, comprising Texas and California — as I said, this is speculative fiction — is leading the charge against what remains of the federal government. If you’re feeling triggered, you aren’t alone.

It’s mourning again in America, and it’s mesmerizingly, horribly gripping. Filled with bullets, consuming fires and terrific actors like Kirsten Dunst running for cover, the movie is a what-if nightmare stoked by memories of Jan. 6. As in what if the visions of some rioters had been realized, what if the nation was again broken by Civil War, what if the democratic experiment called America had come undone? If that sounds harrowing, you’re right. It’s one thing when a movie taps into childish fears with monsters under the bed; you’re eager to see what happens because you know how it will end (until the sequel). Adult fears are another matter.

In “Civil War,” the British filmmaker Alex Garland explores the unbearable if not the unthinkable, something he likes to do. A pop cultural savant, he made a splashy zeitgeist-ready debut with his 1996 best seller “The Beach,” a novel about a paradise that proves deadly, an evergreen metaphor for life and the basis for a silly film . That things in the world are not what they seem, and are often far worse, is a theme that Garland has continued pursuing in other dark fantasies, first as a screenwriter (“ 28 Days Later ”), and then as a writer-director (“ Ex Machina ”). His résumé is populated with zombies, clones and aliens, though reliably it is his outwardly ordinary characters you need to keep a closer watch on.

By the time “Civil War” opens, the fight has been raging for an undisclosed period yet long enough to have hollowed out cities and people’s faces alike. It’s unclear as to why the war started or who fired the first shot. Garland does scatter some hints; in one ugly scene, a militia type played by a jolting, scarily effective Jesse Plemons asks captives “what kind of American” they are. Yet whatever divisions preceded the conflict are left to your imagination, at least partly because Garland assumes you’ve been paying attention to recent events. Instead, he presents an outwardly and largely post-ideological landscape in which debates over policies, politics and American exceptionalism have been rendered moot by war.

The Culture Desk Poster

‘Civil War’ Is Designed to Disturb You

A woman with a bulletproof vest that says “Press” stands in a smoky city street.

One thing that remains familiar amid these ruins is the movie’s old-fashioned faith in journalism. Dunst, who’s sensational, plays Lee, a war photographer who works for Reuters alongside her friend, a reporter, Joel (the charismatic Wagner Moura). They’re in New York when you meet them, milling through a crowd anxiously waiting for water rations next to a protected tanker. It’s a fraught scene; the restless crowd is edging into mob panic, and Lee, camera in hand, is on high alert. As Garland’s own camera and Joel skitter about, Lee carves a path through the chaos, as if she knows exactly where she needs to be — and then a bomb goes off. By the time it does, an aspiring photojournalist, Jessie (Cailee Spaeny), is also in the mix.

The streamlined, insistently intimate story takes shape once Lee, Joel, Jessie and a veteran reporter, Sammy (Stephen McKinley Henderson), pile into a van and head to Washington. Joel and Lee are hoping to interview the president (Nick Offerman), and Sammy and Jessie are riding along largely so that Garland can make the trip more interesting. Sammy serves as a stabilizing force (Henderson fills the van with humanizing warmth), while Jessie plays the eager upstart Lee takes under her resentful wing. It’s a tidily balanced sampling that the actors, with Garland’s banter and via some cozy downtime, turn into flesh-and-blood personalities, people whose vulnerability feeds the escalating tension with each mile.

As the miles and hours pass, Garland adds diversions and hurdles, including a pair of playful colleagues, Tony and Bohai (Nelson Lee and Evan Lai), and some spooky dudes guarding a gas station. Garland shrewdly exploits the tense emptiness of the land, turning strangers into potential threats and pretty country roads into ominously ambiguous byways. Smartly, he also recurrently focuses on Lee’s face, a heartbreakingly hard mask that Dunst lets slip brilliantly. As the journey continues, Garland further sketches in the bigger picture — the dollar is near-worthless, the F.B.I. is gone — but for the most part, he focuses on his travelers and the engulfing violence, the smoke and the tracer fire that they often don’t notice until they do.

Despite some much-needed lulls (for you, for the narrative rhythm), “Civil War” is unremittingly brutal or at least it feels that way. Many contemporary thrillers are far more overtly gruesome than this one, partly because violence is one way unimaginative directors can put a distinctive spin on otherwise interchangeable material: Cue the artful fountains of arterial spray. Part of what makes the carnage here feel incessant and palpably realistic is that Garland, whose visual approach is generally unfussy, doesn’t embellish the violence, turning it into an ornament of his virtuosity. Instead, the violence is direct, at times shockingly casual and unsettling, so much so that its unpleasantness almost comes as a surprise.

If the violence feels more intense than in a typical genre shoot ’em up, it’s also because, I think, with “Civil War,” Garland has made the movie that’s long been workshopped in American political discourse and in mass culture, and which entered wider circulation on Jan. 6. The raw power of Garland’s vision unquestionably owes much to the vivid scenes that beamed across the world that day when rioters, some wearing T-shirts emblazoned with “ MAGA civil war ,” swarmed the Capitol. Even so, watching this movie, I also flashed on other times in which Americans have relitigated the Civil War directly and not, on the screen and in the streets.

Movies have played a role in that relitigation for more than a century, at times grotesquely. Two of the most famous films in history — D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic “The Birth of a Nation” (which became a Ku Klux Klan recruitment tool) and the romantic 1939 melodrama “Gone With the Wind” — are monuments to white supremacy and the myth of the Southern Lost Cause. Both were critical and popular hits. In the decades since, filmmakers have returned to the Civil War era to tell other stories in films like “Glory,” “Lincoln” and “Django Unchained” that in addressing the American past inevitably engage with its present.

There are no lofty or reassuring speeches in “Civil War,” and the movie doesn’t speak to the better angels of our nature the way so many films try to. Hollywood’s longstanding, deeply American imperative for happy endings maintains an iron grip on movies, even in ostensibly independent productions. There’s no such possibility for that in “Civil War.” The very premise of Garland’s movie means that — no matter what happens when or if Lee and the rest reach Washington — a happy ending is impossible, which makes this very tough going. Rarely have I seen a movie that made me so acutely uncomfortable or watched an actor’s face that, like Dunst’s, expressed a nation’s soul-sickness so vividly that it felt like an X-ray.

Civil War Rated R for war violence and mass death. Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes. In theaters.

An earlier version of this review misidentified an organization in the Civil War in the movie. It is the Western Forces, not the Western Front.

How we handle corrections

Manohla Dargis is the chief film critic for The Times. More about Manohla Dargis

Explore More in TV and Movies

Not sure what to watch next we can help..

Even before his new film “Civil War” was released, the writer-director Alex Garland faced controversy over his vision of a divided America  with Texas and California as allies.

Theda Hammel’s directorial debut, “Stress Positions,” a comedy about millennials weathering the early days of the pandemic , will ask audiences to return to a time that many people would rather forget.

“Fallout,” TV’s latest big-ticket video game adaptation, takes a satirical, self-aware approach to the End Times .

“Sasquatch Sunset” follows the creatures as they go about their lives. We had so many questions. The film’s cast and crew had answers .

If you are overwhelmed by the endless options, don’t despair — we put together the best offerings   on Netflix , Max , Disney+ , Amazon Prime  and Hulu  to make choosing your next binge a little easier.

Sign up for our Watching newsletter  to get recommendations on the best films and TV shows to stream and watch, delivered to your inbox.


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