Ideal College Application Essay Length

Can you go over the Common App length limit? How long should your essay be?

College application
You should never go over the length limit for your application essay. asiseeit / Getty Images

The 2017-18 version of the Common Application has an essay length limit of 650 words. Even though the essay prompts change regularly, this length limit has now been in place for four years. In 2011 and 2012, the Common Application had a 500-word limit, but many colleges that use the application thought that constraint was a little too short. Prior to 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, allows 350 words for each of an applicant's responses to four personal insight questions for a total maximum of 1400 words. You'll find supplemental essays with length limits ranging from 50 words and up.

Can You Go Over the Essay Length Limit?

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, and the essay is one of the best places for showcasing who you are.

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 current 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. 

Also realize that the 650-word limit includes your essay title and any explanatory notes you might include.

Why You Shouldn't Go Over the Essay Length Limit:

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 that isn't enforced by the application software, 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: Ask any college writing professor, and he or she will probably tell you that most five-page papers could be cut to a four-page paper and become stronger in the process. There are almost always words, phrases, sentences, and even entire paragraphs that aren't contributing to the essay in any meaningful way. As you revise your own 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.

Should You Keep Your Essay Short?

While the maximum length for the Common Application essay is 650 words, the minimum length is 250 words. I've heard counselors advise students to keep their essays on the shorter end of the spectrum because college admissions offices are so busy they will appreciate short essays.

While this advice may be true for some colleges, for many others it will not be. If a college requires an essay, it is because it has holistic admissions and wants to get to know its applicants as more than a list of grades and standardized test scores. The essay is typically the most powerful tool you have for conveying who you are and what you care about. If you've chosen the right focus for your essay—one that reveals something meaningful about you—you're going to need far more than 250 words to provide the type of detail and self-reflection that makes an essay effective. 

Sure, the admissions folks might be glad to get through a short essay quickly, but a beautifully crafted 600-word essay is going to make a more meaningful and lasting impression than a good 300-word essay. The length limit on the Common Application went from 500 words to 650 words in 2013 for a reason: member colleges wanted their applicants to have more space to write about themselves.

That said, if you've said all you have to say in 300 words, don't try to pad out your essay to 600 words with filler and redundancy. Instead, ask yourself why you hit a wall at 300 words. Was your focus too narrow? Did you fail to dig into your topic deeply enough?

A Final Word on Essays

The length of your essay isn't as important as the content. To make a good impression, be sure to check out these five tips for a winning essay, and if you're writing a Common Application essay, take a look at the tips and sample essays for each of the seven options. Finally, be sure to steer clear of these ten bad essay topics.