When to Ignore Your Application Essay Word Count

Most application essays have a maximum word count.  It’s easy to fixate on this word limit, as though the essay is a 1-mile race, and once you’ve gotten to the 1-mile marker, you’ve gone as far as you need to.  Essay word limits might be 650 (for CommonApp.org) or approximately 550 (for CoalitionForCollegeAccess.org) or 250 (for University of Michigan Supplement 1) or even 35 words (Yale short answers).

Back to the 1-mile race analogy.  If you’re a runner, you know that your coach will have you run much further than one mile on a daily basis to train for a 1-mile race.  That’s because you are strengthening yourself as you train. Every day you get faster.  An essay is similar. Every day you work on your edit you can strengthen it, and at some point you will start to shave unnecessary words off of your essay like you shave seconds off the time it takes you to run a mile.

Your Common App Essay Word Count Might Look Like This:

  • Draft 0. 100  words (Outline or brainstorm.)
  • Draft 1. 650 words (You’re writing fast to get the story down.)
  • Draft 2. 800 words (Here is where you explain confusing parts or add detail.)
  • Draft 3. 750 words (You’re still adding details here but start deleting duplication and unneeded details.)
  • Draft 4.  650 words (The big haircut, where you edit the essay down to at or under the word limit.)

So stop counting words (until the VERY LAST draft) to start improving your essay.

For the final essay you submit, remember to check that it is under the word limit.

A Word Count Fixation Can Weaken Your Essay In These Ways:

Remember to “Show”

You may have heard the expression “Show, don’t tell.” Students sometimes “tell” (“I’m a hard worker”) rather than “show” (“I work 20 hours a week at Krogers as a bagger to save money for college”) because it takes fewer words to tell. But what’s wrong with saying “I’m a hard worker” when colleges clearly want hard workers? I always ask students that question. They’ll answer in many ways, all correct: “Anyone can say that.” Or “That’s not unique.” Or “It doesn’t show what you can do.” Right!  Read more about saying “I’m a hard worker” in  Expert Advice to Get You Started on Your College Application Essays.


Don’t stop once you get going

Sometimes it takes a few paragraphs to get your brain on the topic and thinking of anything useful or interesting.  Brains tend to surprise us when it comes to creativity–sometimes you never know if your next sentence is going to be exciting or just ho-hum. So once your brain starts going, don’t stop writing. Don’t say, “It’s 650 words, I’m done!”


from http://www.dontstopband.com/

Editing often means making an essay longer

Students will sometimes write a first draft of 650 words, then say, “I’m done!” Wait a minute! Now you need to edit! Editing often means adding words, because you are explaining aspects of what you said that’s confusing, or replacing a “tell” with a “show” phrase, or filling in holes in your story. For example, you might be writing about an interesting incident at your job, but how did you get the job? That might be impressive too!


Give your essay a word count haircut at the end

Revise for meaning—Ask yourself:  What does this essay say about me? Make sure you get your strengths across. Then, edit back down to size. One way to edit is to keep all of the phrases that back up your main points.  Another is to keep all of the essay aspects you can visualize like a movie. Editing a strong essay down to size is like letting a good sauce simmer on the stove—the reduction strengthens what remains.

Give your essay a word count haircut at the very end.

Give your essay a haircut in the final draft.

Read also:  How To Edit Your College Application Essay

Need more assistance with writing your college application essay?  Check out the free Essay Coaching quizzes here.  Would you like to work with an award-winning writer who helps businesses, authors and students tell their story in a compelling, meaningful way?  Write Debbie Merion:  Debbie@EssayCoaching.com