The Length Requirements for the Common Application Essay in 2018

Learn About the Maximum Word Count for Your Personal Statement

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A College Student Working at Her Laptop. CollegeDegrees360 / Flickr

Students applying to colleges that use the Common Application will typically need to respond to one of seven essay prompts. For the 2018-19 application cycle, the length limit for the essay is 650 words. That limit includes the essay title, notes, and any other text that you include in the essay text box.

History of the Common Application Length Limit

For years the Common Application had no length limit, and applicants and counselors frequently debated whether a tight 450-word essay was a wiser approach than a detailed 900-word piece. In 2011, that decision was taken away as the Common Application moved to a relatively short 500-word limit. With the August 2013 release of CA4 (the newest version of the Common Application), the guidelines changed once again. CA4 set the limit at 650 words (and a minimum of 250 words). And unlike earlier versions of the Common Application, the length limit is now enforced by the application form. No longer can applicants attach an essay that goes over the limit. Instead, applicants will need to enter the essay into a text box that counts words and prevents entering anything beyond 650 words.

What Can You ​Accomplish in 650 Words?

Even if you take advantage of the full length available to you, keep in mind that 650 words is not a long essay. It's roughly the equivalent of a two-page, double-spaced essay. It's about the same length as this article on essay length. Most essays tend to be between three and eight paragraphs depending on the applicant's writing style and essay strategy (essays with dialogue, of course, might have far more paragraphs).

As you plan your essay, you definitely want to keep the length requirement in mind. Many applicants attempt to do too much with their essays and then struggle to edit them down to 650 words. Realize the purpose of the personal statement is not to tell your life story or to give an exhaustive overview of all of your accomplishments. Let your list of extracurricular activities, academic record, letters of recommendation, and supplemental essays and materials show your range of accomplishments. The personal statement is not the place for long lists or catalogs of achievement.

To write an engaging and effective 650 word or shorter essay, you need to have a sharp focus. Narrate a single event, or illuminate a single passion or talent. Whichever essay prompt you choose, make sure you zero in on a specific example that you narrate in an engaging and thoughtful way. Allow enough space for self reflection so that whatever your topic is you spend at least some time talking about its significance to you.

A Final Word About Essay Length

With the primary Common Application essay, you will need to come in at 650 words or fewer. However, you will find that most supplemental essays on the Common Application have different length guidelines, and colleges that don't use the Common Application will have differing length requirements. No matter what the circumstances, make sure you follow the guidelines. If an essay should be 350 words, don't write 370. Learn more about some of the issues related to essay length in this article: College Application Essay Length Limits.

Finally, keep in mind that what you say and how you say it is far more important than whether you have 550 words or 650 words. Be sure to attend to your essay's style, and in most cases you're going to want to avoid these ten bad essay topics. If you've said all you have to say in 500 words, don't try to pad your essay to make it longer. Regardless of length, the best essays tell a compelling story, provide insight to your character and interests, and are written with crisp and engaging prose.