How to Shorten Your College Application Essay

Looking for college essay feedback and advice? First, read the instructions for your college application essay prompts carefully.

If no word limit is specified, try to keep your essay within 300 and 600 words in length. Most published essays, columns, or editorials are within this range.  The word limit on the common application essay is 650 words.

Do you need feedback or editing advice from an expert at

Read “To Receive College Application Essay Feedback.”

Read more below about how to shorten your college application essay.

Try not to shorten your essay with words that “tell.”

Why doesn’t this shortcut work?

An example of a phrase that tells:  “I am a hard worker.”

“I am a hard worker” is a cliche. Everyone can say it. The phrase doesn’t back up the self-assessment. “I am a hard worker” doesn’t give the reader unique and visual information about the writer.

Compare “I am a hard worker” to these phrases that “show”

-I shovel for my elderly neighbors, but no one asks me to.

-I’m taking a class that meets at 6 AM every morning.

-My team voted me “most improved” last year.

-I work in a grocery store 20 hours a week to save for college.

-I mucked out the stalls for the horse next to mine for two months after the owner sprained her ankle.

All of the phrases above “show” a strong, sensory, memorable image to the reader.

So how can you add longer details to your essay to “show?”  Use the tips below to shorten your first essay draft.

Tips to shorten your essay:

  1.  Read the essay out loud five to ten times, with a day or two separating each reading. Each time you read the essay, you’ll see words to cut. Does a sentence bore you? Cut it! Are you repeating yourself? Cut!   Edit by pasting deleted words in a section at the bottom of your essay called “Recycle.”  You might want them later, like when you cut the crust off a child’s sandwich and nibble on the crust later.
  2.  Make precise word choices. For example, substitute “remove” for “take off,” or “prepare” for “get ready.”
  3. Think big. You may find you can delete an entire paragraph.  Often the first paragraph is a good candidate for deletion. Does it show the reader something important about you?  If not, edit or delete! Delete sentences and phrases that don’t add meaning.  Some students think that writing a longer sentence can makes them sound intelligent, and many long sentences make them sound even more intelligent. Wrong!  A short sentence can be powerful. It can hit the reader like a ton of flowers (just as heavy as a ton of bricks but more fragrant.)

Read How to Edit Your College Application Essay

Use a Yellow, Pink and Blue Highlighter to Shorten Your College Application Essay

  1. Use a Orange Highlighter— Read the essay out loud and then write down what you remembered, without looking at the essay. Then, look at that list while highlighting in the essay the phrases you remembered.  These words and phrases are powerful.  They will retain in a reader’s mind! They have been spared from the recycle bin. Have a friend or family member try this too!
  2. Use a Pink Highlighter — Write a list of three things you hope someone will learn about you from reading your essay. Then go back to the essay and highlight sentences or phrases (with a pink highlighter) that help someone learn this information about you. Not highlighted? Those words are candidates for the recycle bin!
  3. Use a Blue Highlighter— What EXTERNAL information do you reveal—What are the details about what happened outside of you, also known as the “fly on the wall” view or “Show Don’t Tell.” Describe smells, sounds (including dialogue), touch, taste, sights (use colors!). Be specific, quantify, use titles, names, places, dates. Highlight in blue any sensory or quantitative words that “show.” Not in blue? Is it a reflection that is needed? Is the reflection after the external information? Keep it! Otherwise, delete in your essay what isn’t highlighted, and then simply work on making your story flow.

Do you need feedback or editing advice from an expert at

Read “To Receive College Application Essay Feedback.”

Readers always appreciate conciseness:

“A sentence should contain no unnecessary words for the same reason that a machine should have no unnecessary parts.”—William Strunk, Jr., The Elements of Style

Read more about the editing process in “When to Ignore Your Application Essay Word Count.”