This prompt is about more than just your favorite novel. At its heart, this prompt is asking you to tell a story about your own personal development through your relationship to a work of art.
It might be tempting to choose a fancy piece of literature in order to show off your intellectual prowess. But you should not feel pressured into claiming that you’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow every summer since you were eight years old. The admissions committee is more interested in seeing that you are a thoughtful person who is capable of reflecting on how you have changed. If you can tell that story best by writing about Pokémon, Episode 70, “Go West Young Meowth,” so be it.
You might say that as a child you were mostly drawn to the flashy drawings and silly cartoons. But maybe when you saw that episode again in your high school years, you were fascinated with how it imagines that an animal might learn to speak “human language.” This might have been one piece of your growing interest in the philosophy of human-animal relations and the different ways that species communicate with each other.
Of course, not everything that we read as a child ages well. One way to approach this essay is to talk about something that you might have once loved, and perhaps still love, but has come to seem more problematic. For one example of what such an essay might look like, you might turn to Daniel Jose Ruiz’s essay on Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. For Ruiz, the fantasy world where mice and badgers were good guys and weasels and ferrets were bad guys was a place where he felt included as a child:
I felt a kinship with the badger characters. They were large, strong, a bit stubborn, with big tempers, but they were good guys and heroes. Redwall seemed to say that I could be a good guy and a hero even though I was big for my age, stubborn, and volatile.
But as Ruiz grew older and read more, parts of the Redwall books called out for critique:
You can do a pretty thorough Marxist reading of Redwall as a parable of the righteous nature of bourgeois property relations. The mice, hares, and badgers are metaphors for the inherent superiority of the ruling class, while the vermin are symbols of the degenerate nature of the proletariat.
In the real world, however, few people just decide to become bandits unless their situation dictates that this is one of the better options for survival. I can’t recall a single time where the [mice and badgers try] to establish a mutually beneficial agreement with the vermin, as opposed to occasional acts of charity that don’t address systemic issues.
However you choose to write about your changing relationship to a piece of art, your focus should be on how you and your interpretation of that work have changed over time. You do not want to get bogged down with lots of plot summary. Notice how, as you read Ruiz’s essay, no sentences are given over to just describing the plot: Every sentence weaves summary and analysis together, with constant references to his own personal story.
Finally, there is one last possibility for how you might approach this prompt that is a little bit more experimental. The prompt asks you to address how your developmental story changed the way you understand a work of art. But what if you reversed the prompt and asked how a work of art changed the way you understood your own developmental story? Perhaps a relevant essay in this vein is Ashon Crawley’s poetic meditation on Barry Jenkins’s Oscar winning 2016 film, Moonlight.
“Sometimes fiction functions to produce memory,” Crawley says, and then goes on to tell the story of how he grew through three different nicknames (Berry Berry, Cookie, and Ashon) parallel to, but not exactly the same as, the film’s main character who is known as “Little,” then “Chiron,” then “Black.”
Even if you end up structuring your essay in a more traditional manner, it is worth noting how Crawley zooms in on precise details that might have been mundane but vibrate with meaning in the force of his prose — a change in email address, a choir membership card, a Walter Hawkins song…
As you respond to Villanova’s prompt, you will not be able to tell the admissions committee every twist and turn in the story of your maturation, but your essay might become bland if you only speak in vague general terms. Ashon slices through this dilemma by focusing on precise details, little snippets from his life, that tell some, but not all, of his story. As you write, it is worth considering what little moments you might choose from your own life’s story to represent how you’ve changed.
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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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