April Maguire 4 min read 12th Grade, Essay FAQs, Essay Tips

How Long Should Your College Essay Be? What is the Ideal Length?

Students often spend hours agonizing over the best topics for their college essays. While it’s natural to wonder whether your personal statement is original or compelling enough, there’s one aspect of the process that shouldn’t cause you undue stress: how many words should a college essay be? Fortunately, with a little research, you can uncover the ideal college essay length for all your applications. 

 

Unlike high school assignments, which typically have a strict page requirement, most colleges provide a word limit or word range for their application essays. This practice helps ensure that essays are the same length regardless of font or formatting. As a rule of thumb, students should strive to get as close as possible to the upper limit of the word range without exceeding it. Keep reading to learn more about college essay length best practices. 

 

Main College Application Essay Length vs. Supplemental Essay Length

 

So, how many words should a college essay be? Main application essays are generally 500-650 words. For example, the Common Application, which can be used to apply to more than 800 colleges, requires an essay ranging from 250-650 words. Similarly, the Coalition Application, which has 150 member schools, features an essay with a recommended length of 500-550 words.

 

While 500 words is the most common college essay length, schools may ask students to write more or less. ApplyTexas, a platform used to apply to Texas public universities and other select colleges, requests essays with requirements varying by school. For example, students applying to UT Austin will need to submit an essay of 500-700 words, along with three short-answer questions of 250-300 words. 

 

On the other hand, the University of California (UC) schools application includes a Personal Insight section with eight prompts. Students are asked to respond to any four of the questions, with their answers topping out at 350 words. 

 

Additionally, some schools request a few supplemental essays, which are typically shorter than a personal statement. These questions are designed to gain more information about a student’s interests and abilities, and may include topics like why you want to attend their school, your desired major, or favorite activity. 

 

Most schools require 1-3 supplemental essays, though some may require more or none at all (see our list of top colleges without supplements). These supplemental essays tend to be around 250 words, though some may be just as long as your main essay. For example, UPenn requires lengthy special program supplements. Students applying to the Computer and Cognitive Science: Artificial Intelligence Program for the 2019-2020 academic year were asked to write 400-650 words explaining their interest in the major. 

 

Can You Go Over/Under the College Essay Word Count?

 

It’s important to adhere to the word limits dictated by the college. If you write too little, it might appear that you’re careless or unconcerned with the school’s requirements. On the other hand, overwriting can suggest that you can’t follow instructions, or can’t write concisely. 

 

For best results, keep your essays within the word range provided. While you don’t have to hit the count exactly, you should aim to stay within a 10% difference of the upper limit, without including “fluff” or “filler content.” For example, if the school requests 500 words, try to ensure your essay is between 450 and 500 words. For the Common App, also try to stay within 550-650 words, even though the given range is 250-650. Any shorter than 500 words will simply look like you didn’t care enough, and it won’t be long enough to truly share who you are and what matters to you.

 

It’s best not to go over the word count, as most application portals will cut off your writing when it exceeds the top of the range. 

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What If a College Essay Word Count Isn’t Given?

 

Although most schools provide applicants with a specific word count, some offer more general guidelines. For example, a college may ask for a particular number of pages or paragraphs. 

 

If you aren’t given a word count, try to adhere to writing best practices and conventions. Avoid writing especially short or overly long paragraphs—250 words per paragraph is generally a safe upper limit. If you’re asked to write a certain number of pages, single- or double-spaced,  stick to a standard font and font size (like Times New Roman 12). 

 

In the event that the college doesn’t offer guidelines, shoot for an essay length of 500 words. 

 

What If You Need to Submit a Graded Paper?

 

While essays are the most commonly requested writing sample, some colleges ask for additional pieces of content. For example, Amherst College has an essay option that asks students to submit a graded paper for evaluation. 

 

If the school doesn’t offer length requirements, choose a paper ranging from 3-5 pages for best results. The goal is to select a paper long enough to showcase your writing skills and unique voice, but short enough that the admissions officer doesn’t get bored. 

 

Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

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April Maguire
Blogger at CollegeVine
Short bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.