How Long Should Your Common Application Short Answer Essay Be?

What is the ideal word count for the short answer on the common application?

teenager at home writing notes
The best short answers often are not too short. Take advantage of the space you've been allowed. Thomas Grass / Getty Images

If you've been asked to elaborate on an extracurricular or work experience in a short supplemental essay on your college application, it's general a good idea to use the space that has been given you. If a college sets the length limit at 150 words, don't ever exceed that limit (typically the online application won't allow you to go over), but don't hesitate to elaborate on your activities as much as the length limit allows.

Changes in the Short Answer Length Limit

It's easy to try and second guess the preferences of the admissions officers who will be reading your college application. With CA4, the current version of the Common Application, some of this guess work is removed because each college can set its length preference. Typical length limits are in the 150-word (Harvard) to 250-word (USC) range. You'll find that in many cases the short answer question will not state what the word limit is—you'll simply get a red warning message when you go over the limit.

The length requirements for the short answer have changed over the past several years. Up until 2011, the guidelines said the essay should be "150 words or fewer." From 2011 to 2013, the online form had a 1,000 character limit that would frequently allow for a few more than 150 words. Many colleges were happy with and have kept the 150 word limit, so that length can be a good general guideline for a short answer essay.

What Is the Ideal Short Answer Essay Length?

You've probably heard the advice, "keep it brief." As for brevity, 150 words is already very short. At 150 words, your answer will be a single paragraph that the person reviewing applications can read in less than a minute. There really isn't a need to try and go much shorter.

Can you really say anything meaningful about your work or an extracurricular activity in 75 words? The instructions tell you to "elaborate" on one of your activities, and anything much less than 150 words isn't much space in which to elaborate.

When a college has allowed you more than 150 words, this is an indication that they would like to learn a bit more than 150 words allows. The very fact that the school is asking for this short essay means that it has holistic admissions, and the admissions folks want to get to know you as a person, not as a simple matrix of numerical data. If you don't feel that you've done justice to your work or extracurricular experience, don't hesitate to use the extra space you've been provided.

That said, put yourself in the shoes of an admissions officer who reads thousands of these short essays—you want your language to be tight and engaging. Never pad your short answer to get a little more length, and always attend to your essay's style. 120 sharp and engaging words are far preferable to 240 words of padded language.

So what is the ideal Short Answer length? You'll get cut off before you go over the limit, but you should use the space you've been given.

If the limit is 150 words, then shoot for something in the 125- to 150-word range. Make sure each word counts, and make sure you are saying something meaningful about one of your activities. The best short answers elaborate on an activity that you are passionate about, and they add a dimension to your application that hasn't been presented elsewhere.

Resources for short answer essays:

mla apa chicago
Your Citation
Grove, Allen. "How Long Should Your Common Application Short Answer Essay Be?" ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2017, Grove, Allen. (2017, August 28). How Long Should Your Common Application Short Answer Essay Be? Retrieved from Grove, Allen. "How Long Should Your Common Application Short Answer Essay Be?" ThoughtCo. (accessed March 19, 2018).