I used to answer this question by saying: “As long as it takes to be good.” Although I agree teachers shouldn’t be sticklers about word count, there are times when word count does matter. For example: college and scholarship application essays, submitting to an op-ed or story contest. As a professional writer, I frequently have to trim my essays or stories because they are over the word limit stated in the publication guidelines. Students should also develop a feel for the length of a piece. They should know that 1000 words is about 3-5 pages. If they want to submit their work, there will almost always be a word count minimum and maximum.
- One of the most challenging aspects of writing a college application essay is keeping within the required or suggested word limit. For the common application, the range is 250 to 650 words. The maximum used to be 500 words, but luckily, they raised the limit to 650 in 2013. Because the common app is submitted by an electronic form online, the website actually won't allow you to submit an essay if it's over 650 words or under 250. As the common app reminds you, 650 words is your limit, not your goal. This is their subtle way of telling you that sometimes shorter is better. Some common app schools require you to submit a writing supplement in addition to the main essay. That gives you a chance to tell the school a little more about who you are and why you're a good fit for them. These essays tend to have tight word limits too. Standford, for example, requires applicants to answer three separate essay topics. Each in 250 words or less. What a challenge. Some colleges or universities…
If it's not on a form, you can get away with more, but I wouldn't recommend going more than 20 words over. 130 words might not sound like a lot, but it IS noticeable (if you don't believe me, copy your essay into a new file and delete 100 words, then compare the length of that piece to the original -- you will see a difference). College class essays always have some sort of limit, whether it's a specific number of words or a specific number of pages, and some professors are much more picky about that number than others. You want to get used to working within length limits NOW. Plus, if you follow the college's directions, it will look a lot better than if you just ignore the directions and write your paper however you want. Obviously that's not what you're doing -- if you didn't care you wouldn't have asked the question -- but if anyone notices that you've gone over they won't be able to tell the difference between genuine concern over the essay sounding bad and you deciding the rules don't apply to you because you're special/different/above rules/whatever.
Most college essays have a stated word-limit. But admissions officers will enforce the spirit, not the letter of the law here. You need to follow directions, but as long as the college’s online application doesn’t cut you off, it’s fine to go over the word limit by 10-20 words in a short essay, and maybe by a few sentences in a long essay. Colleges have better things to do than to check the word counts of your essays for minor infractions.
Word Limits on the Common Application College Essay …
As a private college counselor, I love the essay part of the college applications. I know for some students 500 words seems like so many, but for others it is not nearly enough. I do believe, however, whether a college allows you to use more words or not, 500 or fewer is about the right number. Admission counselors read a lot of essays and you don’t want them to lose their enthusiasm before they get to yours. These are some great ideas for keeping essays within the 500 word limit.
Can you go over the word limit in a college essay?
Sure, the admissions folks might be glad to get through a short essay quickly, but a beautifully crafted 600-word essay is going to make a more meaningful impression and lasting impression than a good 300-word essay. The length limit on the Common Application went from 500 words to 650 words in 2013 for a reason: member colleges wanted their applicants to have more space to write about themselves.
Adhering to word limits: College Prep: Writing a Strong Essay
If you are applying to a college that does allow you to go over the limit, or if you have a supplemental essay with a recommended word count, you still should not go over the limit.