How Long Should Your Common Application Short Answer Essay Be?

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

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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.

Key Takeaways: Short Answer Essay Length

  • Always follow the instructions and don't go over the length limit.
  • Use the space you've been given. If the limit is 150 words, don't stop at 50 words. Use the space to show why you are passionate about something.
  • "Short" doesn't mean unimportant. Make sure every word counts, and attend to grammar, style, and tone.

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 decade. 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.

A Final Word on Short Answer Essays

If you follow the tips for writing a winning short answer essay, you'll focus on a topic that is central to who you. Make sure your essay adds an element to your application that isn't already presented in your personal statement or other application components. Your essay can even focus on a hobby or passion disconnected from school as Christie does in her short answer essay on running. You'll want to avoid common short answer mistakes and make sure your essay has tight language and a sharp focus. Gwen fails on this front, and her short answer essay on soccer is wordy and repetitive.

Finally, be yourself. Don't try to second guess what activity will most impress the admissions folks. The purpose here is to show the college who you are and what matters most to you. An essay on community service isn't necessarily better than one on baking cherry pies, and the person who reads your application is likely to see right through an insincere essay.