In my last blog post, I provided a list of strategies that students should consider adopting when writing their “Why our college?” supplemental essays. The Dos. Well, now we are going to look at the flip side and discuss those things that students do way too often with the crafting of this essay that they should absolutely avoid. The Don’ts.
Here is what you don’t want to do:
- DON’T focus on superficial aspects of the school. Oh, how many essays have I read that have talked about how great the food looked in a college’s cafeteria! C’mon. Is that really a reason that you want to go to a certain school? Even if it is, that shows a shallowness of thought that you probably don’t want to reveal to the college of your choice. You must gear your essay to discuss more meaningful aspects. Common pitfalls when it comes to these more “superficial” topics are:
- School Setting and/or Geographic Location: Students spend a good chunk of their essay focussed on a school’s setting or geographic location and simply talk about the location without either making it about the school or about themselves. (“And University of XYZ is located right in the heart of ABCity, which I love so much!”). While the setting is, of course, an integral part of the school, and, therefore, fair game, when the student makes this the crux of their reason for attending, it sounds like the student just wants to get to that location, regardless of the school, itself. It’s perfectly fine to talk about the location and have that be a reason, but as with any with any other aspect of your essay, you need to make your discussion personal and relevant to you. (“I love the fact that University of XYZ is located in the heart of ABCity because, as a musician myself who loves listening to all types of music from show tunes to jazz , I would really enjoy getting a chance to go to the many different types of musical performances that I’ll find there.”)
- College Reputation: A college’s reputation is NOT a good reason to say you want to go there because that says nothing about you nor why you are a fit for it. On the other hand, if you can back it up with specific examples of why that reputation was earned, and its relevance to you, then go for it. For example, you could say, “I’m excited about the prospect of studying engineering at U of XYZ, which has attracted top notch faculty, such as Prof. Prizewinner who teaches engineering in my area of interest.”
- DON’T just compliment the school or overuse hyperbole. “U of XYZ is by far the best place on earth! It has the most intelligent and motivated students anywhere! Your study abroad programs are like no other!” Most colleges are proud of their institutions, and they should be. But, let’s face it, none of them are a utopia, and unfortunately, you sound completely fake, when you make sweeping, superlative statements about the school without also being able to support your claim. While you absolutely should be enthusiastic and think very highly of the schools you are applying to, and you should tell them so, a better approach is to compliment the school in the context of yourself. For example, if you want to study abroad, and the college has a strong offering in this area that is one of the main reasons that you are attracted to it, then discuss a particular program they have that might appeal, and explain why it excites you and why you feel it’s so top notch. Remember, specificity is always best.
- DON’T waste words telling them what they already know. Often, when students do get specific about particular courses, programs or activities that they are interested in at a given school, they spend the majority of their writing focussing on describing and explaining it. Well, guess what. The school already knows what that class, program, or activity is all about because it’s their class, program, or activity! Don’t waste your precious words. Spend your prose making it personal and discussing how those courses, programs, or activities fit with who you are and what you want to accomplish.
- DON’T write a “Plug and Play” essay. A “Plug and Play” essay is one where you submit the exact same essay to each school that asks the question, and you only change up a couple of small details, one of which is the college’s name. If you are applying to several schools, the “Why Our School?” question is one that you will probably have to answer multiple times during your application season, so the appeal of doing a “plug and play” is obvious. I do not, however, recommend this approach. Experienced admissions readers know a mostly generic “plug and play” essay when they see one, and it does not cast a favorable light on the student. It leaves the impression that the student didn’t have enough interest in the college to take the time to understand the school and write an essay that was based on the unique things about that institution. It’s OK to reuse the same themes about yourself from one essay to the next, so that you don’t have to completely reinvent the wheel, but you absolutely should tailor the essay to the individual school that you are writing about and be genuine about the reasons that you are interested in that particular institution.
- DON’T go too broad, when you only have a few words. The length requirements for the “Why Our College?” essay cover a range. Some ask for just a few characters, while others have no restrictions. The most common maximum length requirements, however, seem to be in the 150-300 word range. I’ve recommended a lot of things that you should consider covering when you write this essay, but how do you do that when you only have a little bit of space to do it in? In a word: focus. Don’t try to do it all. Instead, pick one or two things that appeal to you about the school and drill down on just those things. Better to go deep than wide, so that you can really make the argument, at least on one level, why you and that institution are the right fit.
Combining the “dos” and the “don’ts of writing the “Why our college?” essay will help you to strategically approach developing a truly strong piece of writing. While trying to incorporate all of these strategies into your writing may seem a little scary (and, of course, we are always here to help!), always remember that the goal of any piece of writing that you do for a college application is to allow the admissions office to understand more about you, who you are, and what makes you tick.
College Admissions Consultant
Filed Under: Application Tips, College Essays, UncategorizedTagged With: admissions, application strategy, applying to college, college admissions advisor, college applications, college essay advice, college essay tips, College essays, Cranford NJ college admissions consultant, essay strategy, Scotch Plains area college admissions help, supplemental essays, Westfield NJ College Admission counselor, Why do you want to go to our college?
Figuring out your college essay can be one of the most difficult parts of applying to college. Even once you’ve the prompt and picked a topic, you might wonder: if you write too much or too little, will you blow your chance of admission? How long should a college essay be?
Whether you’re a terse writer or a loquacious one, we can advise you on college essay length. In this guide, we'll cover what the standard college essay length is, how much word limits matter, and what to do if you aren't sure how long a specific essay should be.
How Long Is a College Essay? Check the Word Limit
You might be used to turning in your writing assignments on a page-limit basis. (For example, a 10-page paper). While some colleges provide page limits for their college essays, most use a word limit instead. This makes sure there’s a standard length for all the essays that a college receives, regardless of formatting or font.
In the simplest terms, your college essay should be pretty close to, but not exceeding, the word limit in length. Think within 50 words as the lower bound, with the word limit as the upper bound. So for a 500-word limit essay, try to get to somewhere between 450-500 words. If they give you a range, stay within that range.
College essay prompts usually provide the word limit right in the prompt or in the instructions.
For example, the University of Illinois says: “Explain your interest in the major you selected and describe how you have recently explored or developed this interest inside and/or outside the classroom. You may also explain how this major relates to your future career goals. If you're applying to the Division of General Studies, explain your academic interests and strengths or your future career goals. You may include any majors or areas of study you're currently considering. Limit your response to 300 to 400 words.”
See, it’s right in the prompt—they even gave you a word range to stay within!
The shortest word limits for college essays are usually around 250 words (less than half a single-spaced page). Rarely will you see a word limit higher than around 600 words (over one single-spaced page). College essays are usually pretty short: between 200 and 650 words. Admissions officers have to read a lot of them, after all!
Weigh your words carefully, because they are limited!
How Flexible Is the Word Limit?
But how flexible is the word limit? What if your poignant anecdote is just 10 words too long—or 100 too short?
Can I Go Over the Word Limit?
If you are attaching a document and you need one or two extra words, you can probably get away with exceeding the word limit a teeny tiny bitty amount. Some colleges will actually tell you that exceeding the word limit by 1-2 words is fine. However, I advise against exceeding the word limit unless it’s explicitly allowed for a few reasons:
First, you might not be able to. If you have to copy-paste it into a text box, your essay might get cut off and you’ll have to trim down anyways.
If you exceed the word limit in a noticeable way, the admissions counselor may just stop reading your essay past that point. This is not good for you.
Following directions is actually a very important part of the college application process. You need to follow directions to get your letters of recommendation, upload your essays, send supplemental materials, get your test scores sent, and so on and so forth. So it’s just a good general rule to follow whatever instructions you’ve been given by the institution. Better safe than sorry!
Can I Go Under the Word Limit?
If you can truly get your point across well beneath the word limit, it’s probably fine. Brevity is not necessarily a bad thing in writing just so long as you are clear, cogent, and communicate what you want to.
However, most college essays have pretty tight word limits anyways. So if you’re writing 300 words for an essay with a 500-word essay ask yourself: is there anything more you could say to elaborate on or support your points? Consult with a parent, friend, or teacher on where you could elaborate with more detail or expand your points.
Also, if the college gives you a word range, you absolutely need to at least hit the bottom end of the range. So if you get a range from the institution like 400-500 words, you need to write at least 400 words. If you write less, it will come across like you have nothing to say, which is obviously not an impression you want to give.
Don't let this sinister hand stop you from writing everything you have to say!
What If There Is No Word Limit?
Some colleges don’t give you a word limit for one or more of your essay prompts. This can be a little stressful, but the prompts generally fall into a few categories:
Some colleges don’t provide a hard-and-fast word limit because they want a writing sample from one of your classes. In this case, a word limit would be very limiting to you in terms of which assignments you could select from.
For an example of this kind of prompt, check out essay Option B at Amherst: “Submit a graded paper from your junior or senior year that best represents your writing skills and analytical abilities. We are particularly interested in your ability to construct a tightly reasoned, persuasive argument that calls upon literary, sociological or historical evidence. You should NOT submit a laboratory report, journal entry, creative writing sample or in-class essay.”
While there is usually no word limit per se, colleges sometimes provide a general page guideline for a writing samples. In the FAQ for Option B, Amherst clarifies, “There is no hard-and-fast rule for official page limit. Typically, we anticipate a paper of 4-5 pages will provide adequate length to demonstrate your analytical abilities. Somewhat longer papers can also be submitted, but in most cases should not exceed 8-10 pages.”
So even though there’s no word limit, they’d like somewhere in the 4-10 pages range. High school students are not usually writing papers that are longer than 10 pages anyways, so that isn’t very limiting.
Implicit Length Guideline
Sometimes, while there’s no word (or even page) limit, there’s still an implicit length guideline. What do I mean by this?
See, for example, this Wellesley supplemental essay prompt: “The required Wellesley ‘Writing Supplement,’ asks you to respond to the following topic in two well-developed paragraphs. When choosing a college community, you are choosing a place where you believe that you can live, learn, and flourish. Generations of inspiring women have thrived in the Wellesley community, and we want to know what aspects of this community inspire you to consider Wellesley. We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but the ‘Wellesley 100’ is a good place to start. Visit the Wellesley 100 (www.wellesley.edu/admission/100) and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why.”
There’s no page or word limit here, but it does say to respond “in two well-developed paragraphs.” This gives you an idea of what’s reasonable. “Well-developed” certainly means the paragraphs can be long, but even two long paragraphs shouldn’t exceed 500 words or so. That’s what I mean by an “implicit” word limit—there is a reasonable length you could go to within the boundaries of the prompt.
But what's the proper coffee-to-paragraph ratio?
There is also the classic “treasure hunt” prompt. No, it’s not a prompt about a treasure hunt. It’s a prompt where there are no length guidelines given, but if you hunt around on the rest of the website you can find length guidelines.
For example, the University of Chicago provides six “Extended Essay” prompts. They are required, and you must choose one, but nowhere on the page is there any guidance about word count or page limit.
However, some googling about UChicago essay prompts led me to a post about the essays on the UChicago admissions blog. That post says at the end, “We ask simply that your essay is somewhere in the realm of 500-650 words, or about 1-2 pages single or double spaced (and we’re flexible—don’t take this as license to write a 14-page tome, but know that we won’t stop reading at 651 words if you need an extra verb).”
So there you go! You want to be (loosely) in the realm of 500-650 words.
Help! There Really Is No Guidance on Length
If you really can’t find any length guidelines anywhere on the admissions website and you’re at a loss, I advise calling the admissions office. They may not be able to give you an exact number (in fact, they probably won’t), but they will probably at least be able to tell you how long most of the essays they see are. (And keep you from writing a panicked, 20-page dissertation about your relationship with your dog).
In general, 500 words or so is pretty safe for a college essay. It’s a fairly standard word limit length, in fact. (And if you’re wondering, that’s about a page and a half double-spaced.) 500 words is long enough to develop a basic idea while still getting a point across quickly—important when admissions counselors have thousands of essays to read!
"See? It says 500 words right there in tiny font!"
The Final Word: How Long Should a College Essay Be?
The best college essay length is usually pretty straightforward: you want to be right under or at the provided word limit. If you go substantially past the word limit, you risk having your essay cut off by an online application form or having the admissions officer just not finish it. And if you’re too far under the word limit, you may not be elaborating enough.
What if there is no word limit? Then how long should a college essay be? In general, around 500 words is a pretty safe approximate word amount for a college essay—it’s one of the most common word limits, after all!
Here’s guidance for special cases and hunting down word limits:
If it’s a writing sample of your graded academic work, the length either doesn’t matter or there should be some loose page guidelines.
There also may be implicit length guidelines. For example, if a prompt says to write three paragraphs, you’ll know that writing six sentences is definitely too short, and two single-spaced pages is definitely too long.
You might not be able to find length guidelines in the prompt, but you could still hunt them up elsewhere on the website. Try checking FAQs or googling your chosen school name with “admissions essay word limit.”
If there really is no word limit, you can call the school to try to get some guidance.
With this advice, you can be sure you’ve got the right college essay length on lockdown!
Hey, writing about yourself can even be fun!
Need to ask a teacher or friend for help with your essay? See our do's and dont's to getting college essay advice.
If you're lacking in essay inspiration, see our guide to brainstorming college essay ideas. And here's our guide to starting out your essay perfectly!
Looking for college essay examples? See 11 places to find college essay examples and 133 essay examples with analysis!
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