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Which Top Colleges Have The Shortest Applications?

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Applying to college is a process that will inevitably take up a great deal of your time and energy, particularly during your senior year of high school. In the face of this time commitment, you may be wondering how and where you can save time in the process. One option is to apply to colleges whose applications are particularly short.


Maybe you’re looking for one more interesting college to round out your list of applications while keeping your workload manageable. Maybe you’re just trying to determine how much time you need to budget for college application season. Whatever the reason, knowing which college applications will take more or less time than others is a valuable fact to have on hand.


In this post, we’ll provide a list of ten top colleges whose applications are on the shorter side for your planning convenience.We’ll also cover what constitutes a “short” college application, what factors might increase the length of a college’s application, and why you should avoid judging applications based on length alone. 


Ten Top-Tier Colleges with Shorter Applications

First of all, here are ten highly regarded, selective colleges whose applications are on the shorter and simpler side. We’ve included links to our guides to applying to each of these colleges. 


While this list is by no means exhaustive, it provides a number of suggestions, as well as some important data for applicants planning out their application-season workload. Afterward, we’ll provide some more information and tips for saving time in the college application process. 


  • Amherst College. Its additional essay question includes the option to submit a paper that you’ve already written and had graded at school.
  • Bowdoin College. A choice of prompts are offered for the 250-word supplemental essay, all of which are quite open-ended and adaptable.
  • Claremont McKenna University. The only additional essay question is limited to 200 words and simply asks what factor most influenced you to apply.
  • The College of William and Mary. Unless you’re applying to one particular joint-degree program, you’ll only have to complete one additional essay of up to 500 words, in which you’ll have the opportunity to show off your “unique and colorful” features.
  • Cornell University. Supplemental questions vary based on your major, but most majors simply have to write a relatively open-ended 650-word essay.
  • The George Washington University. Most applicants have a choice between three prompts for the supplemental 250-word essay, one of which is the classic “Why this university?” option.
  • Harvard University. The supplemental essay question is technically optional, as we’ve discussed in our post. If you choose to write this essay, it’s also entirely open-ended and without a specified word limit.
  • Johns Hopkins University. Unless you’re applying to a joint-degree program, the single supplemental essay is open-ended and 300-500 words in length.
  • Middlebury College. No supplemental essay is required for this well-regarded liberal arts college.


Application Procedures: An Admissions Refresher

The CollegeVine blog is home to quite a few posts about college admissions. If you’re not already familiar with the process, or if you want to review it in detail, here are a few that will help you to understand the application process, learn the vocabulary of college admissions, and preview what you’ll find on a typical college application:



As you’ll read in these blog posts, except for a few outliers like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, most top colleges accept applications through a shared application platform such as the Common Application. These applications consist of two main parts: one that asks basic questions about your background, and one that consists of questions that are unique to that school.


In the first part — the main Common App section, for example — you’ll provide the information that all colleges need to know about you, from contact information to GPA to demographic details. You’ll also complete one essay question based on your choice of relatively nonspecific, open-ended prompts.


In the second part of the application, the school supplement, you’ll answer additional questions chosen by each particular school. These questions often include some multiple-choice and short-answer questions as well as essay-type questions, which can vary in number and length.


A lot of colleges ask similar questions in their school supplements. For instance, many schools will ask whether any of your family members have attended that college, what major you intend to pursue, or from what source you first heard about this college. Particularly popular right now are questions about what books, movies, or other media you’ve consumed or enjoyed recently.


However, some colleges will also ask questions on their school supplements that are very specific, address a unique quality of that school, or are just plain unusual. Every college’s supplement is different, and generally, it’s these differences that lead to a longer or shorter overall application.


What is a ‘short’ college application?

To be perfectly clear, no top-tier college has an application that can truly be described as short. Applying to college is a serious process, and competitive colleges will want to learn as much as they can about you in order to decide whether you’re the best fit for one of the limited number of spots in their first-year class.


Regardless of where you apply to college, you’ll need to set aside a significant amount of time to complete and perfect each application. However, some top colleges, such as those we listed above, have applications that do fall on the shorter end of the spectrum among their peer institutions.


Centralized application systems like the Common App can shave a lot of time off your college applications. These systems allow you to input all your basic information only once and then send that information to multiple colleges with the click of a button. Once you’ve completed the main section of the Common App for one college, adding another Common App school to your list is much easier than submitting an entirely new application.


Again, most top colleges use the Common App or similar systems, so their variations in application length are mainly attributable to differences in the length and number of questions on their school supplements, especially essay questions. In the next section of this post, we’ll go over some factors that can lead to a lengthier application.


Finally, as we’ll address in greater detail later in this post, there are a number of other reasons why application length shouldn’t be the only deciding factor in your choice of colleges. You’ll be more motivated to complete an application for a school you really care about, regardless of its actual length.


Imagine that you’re a highly qualified candidate who dreams of attending the University of Southern California, a school whose Common App supplement is exceptionally time-consuming to complete due to the large amount of information it asks you to input. (If you’re curious about the details, take a look at our Ultimate Guide to Applying to USC.)


It would be ridiculous for you to abandon your plans to apply to USC based solely on the length of the application. It’s far better to apply to a smaller number of schools which are great fits for you, even if they have lengthier applications, than to apply to a large number of schools with short applications that don’t fit your needs.

Factors That Can Make an Application Longer

Every college is different, as we’ve reiterated many times, and schools have the freedom to ask you a huge range of questions on their applications. It’s difficult to make generalizations about what longer applications look like. However, there are a number of factors that commonly come into play to make a certain college’s application longer than others.


While it will take some deeper investigation to determine how long it will actually take you to complete a given application, especially given the considerations we mention in the next section, here are a few signs to watch out for that likely indicate a longer application:


  • An application that’s specific to one school (like the MIT application) rather than available through the Common Application, Coalition Application, or similar system. You’ll lose the time advantage of the Common App when filling out school-specific applications, as you’ll have to re-enter all your basic information.
  • A school supplement (when using the Common App or similar system) that asks noticeably more questions than others. This one’s simple — more questions often means more time required to complete the application.
  • Very specific or unusual short-answer or essay questions that can’t also be repurposed or adapted for another school’s application. For more information on how to use essays for multiple schools, check out our blog post How to Write Fewer College Essays.
  • An application to a special program — for example, a combination BS/MD program — that has additional requirements. These programs may ask for additional, more specific essays, more recommendations, or other extra information.
  • An application to a particularly competitive major that has additional requirements. You may even find that once you specify your intended major on the application, more questions or requirements appear on your online application than were originally there.
  • An application where you need or want to submit an arts supplement or any other supplemental information, especially if this submission process takes place outside the Common App system. Preparing any type of supplement requires more work, and often, assistance from a specialist in the field in editing your submission.


The Limitations of Shorter Applications

The benefits of identifying colleges with shorter applications are clear, and knowing what to expect will help you manage your time effectively during application season. However, it’s just as clear that application length is far from the most important factor you should consider in deciding where to apply.


We’ve already discussed the importance of fit in making your college list, and that applying to a larger number of colleges based only on application length is a bad idea. Here are some other considerations and caveats you should keep in mind if you’re on the lookout for top colleges with shorter applications:


  • Short is relative. We discussed this above, but it bears mentioning again. While some applications ask fewer questions, and systems like the Common App can speed things up, all college applications will take time to complete. Make sure you budget enough time to really do them justice.
  • A shorter application is not always easier to complete. One school’s 150-word short essay question may be much more challenging for you to answer than another school’s 500-word essay question. Sometimes, editing your thoughts down to a brief but compelling response is actually harder than writing a longer essay.
  • A shorter application does not mean a higher acceptance rate. While some of the most selective colleges in the country do have complicated application processes, application length and selectivity don’t always correlate. Just because the application looks simple doesn’t mean that your answers won’t be subjected to close scrutiny.
  • Longer applications may give admissions officers the chance to get to know you better. After all, longer applications allow you more space to provide details about your background, qualifications, and strengths. Trying to fit all the highlights of your high school career into a shorter application can be a real challenge.
  • The questions on a longer application may play more to your strengths than the questions on a shorter application. It’s possible to write a great application essay on any topic, but certain topics will inspire particularly brilliant essays for certain people. A longer application’s particular choice of questions may really give you a chance to shine.


The bottom line is that every college application is different. Every school supplement asks different questions, and every college considers its applicants from a different perspective. If you’re really interested in a particular college, it’s worth at least looking over the application before you dismiss it based on its length.


Learning More About Managing Your College Applications

Whether you’re a senior in the thick of the college application process or a freshman just starting to consider colleges, CollegeVine is your source for expert advice on college admissions. Keep reading the CollegeVine blog for more information about preparing for the application process, putting together a competitive application, and making informed choices about your educational future.


Curious about your chances of acceptance to your dream school? Our free chancing engine takes into account your GPA, test scores, extracurriculars, and other data to predict your odds of acceptance at over 500 colleges across the U.S. We’ll also let you know how you stack up against other applicants and how you can improve your profile. Sign up for your free CollegeVine account today to get started!

Monikah Schuschu
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Monikah Schuschu is an alumna of Brown University and Harvard University. As a graduate student, she took a job at the Harvard College Office of Financial Aid and Admissions, and discovered the satisfaction of helping students and parents with the often-baffling college admissions process. She also enjoys fiber art, murder mysteries, and amateur entomology.