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College Application Essay Length Limit

Is the 650-word limit firm? Can you go over the limit?




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One of the biggest changes to the Common Application in 2013 was the revamping of the essay section. Not only does the application have all new essay prompts, but the 500-word limit from 2011 and 2012 has been replaced by a 650-word limit. Before 2011, the length of the essay was set by the judgment of the applicant (and some applicants who wrote 1,200-word essays showed bad judgment).

Many colleges who don't use the Common Application also have clearly defined length limits for the essays. The University of California, for example, gives applicants a maximum of 1,000 words for two essays.

I receive lots of email messages asking about these length limits. Can you go over the limit? If so, by how much? What if you need 700 words to convey your ideas? What if your essay is just a few words over?

These are all good questions. After all, 650 words is not a lot of space in which to convey your personality, passions, and writing ability to the folks in the admissions office. And with holistic admissions, schools really do want to get to know the person behind your test scores and grades.

That said, you should never go over the limit. The new Common Application won't let you. In previous years applicants could attach their essays to the application, and this allowed them to attach essays that were too long. With CA4, the new Common Application, you'll need to enter your essay in a text box that counts words. You won't be allowed to enter anything over 650 words. Note that there is also a minimum length--CA4 won't accept any essay under 250 words.

If you are applying to a college that does allow you to go over the limit, or if you have a supplemental essay with a recommended word count, you still should not go over the limit. Here's why:

  • Good college students know how to follow directions: If a professor assigns a 5-page paper, she doesn't want a 10-page paper. If you have 50 minutes to take a college exam, you can't have 55 minutes. If you need to use black ink, you shouldn't use orange ink. Think about the message you're sending a college if you don't follow the directions on the application. Will a college want to admit a student who thinks directions are optional?

  • Good writers know how to edit and cut: In my own writing classes, I often have my first-year students write a two-page paper. Before I accept it, I make them turn it into a one-page paper without losing any substantive content. The one-page papers are almost always better. As you revise your essay, keep asking yourself what ideas are truly essential. Everything else can go. And these 9 style tips can help you tighten up your language.

The Common Application and other college applications ask for relatively short essays because college admissions officers don't want to waste time reading long, rambling, unfocused, poorly edited essays. Not all colleges, however, are fans of the shorter length. Some colleges like a longer essay because they can get to know their applicants better, and they get to see how well applicants can sustain focus in a longer piece of writing (a valuable college skill). However, for any application essay you write, follow the directions. If a college wants a long essay, the directions will ask for it.

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