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How Long Is A Normal College Essay

At Synocate many juniors and seniors in high school ask us how long they should be spending on writing admissions essays, filling out the Common Application, and interviewing for college. We have a unique view on this that probably differs from many in the college admissions world, because we have seen how it can reap rewards for students. We believe students and parents should spend as much time as they need (usually much more than they anticipate) on the college admissions process. Below we will outline why it works.

How The College Admissions Process Works

College admissions is becoming more complex every year with millions of students applying from all over the world. Colleges love the attention because it increases the brand value of their institution and lowers their acceptance rate, making them more selective.

For most US colleges, students have to write a series of essays to be admitted. These essays range from short answers of 1-250 characters all the way to the main Common Application essay that is routinely 650 words. The number of drafts for each of these usually starts at 5 and decreases over time to 2-3 as students learn to write about themselves and answer these types of essay prompts.

Many high school seniors routinely apply to 7 or more schools, with some applying to over 30. At Synocate, our sweet spot with students is 10-20 colleges. Generally, the more high-achieving the student and the more ambitious their goals, the higher the number of colleges we should apply to. We want to include as many "reach" colleges as possible in these scenarios.

How Much Time to Spend?

We take an "unlimited" approach to college admissions because ultimately we are about the work product not the time it takes to complete essays. Students and parents spend 4 or more years preparing for college - everything we do is in that effort to find yourself.

In my book The Applicant, I talk about the Perspective Approach to life. Generally, the best way to build success is to think deeply about why you do what you do. In college admissions, this means thinking deeply about why you are doing a certain club, applying to a certain college, and why you want to go to college in the first place.

Most students and parents have a vague answer to the last question, but after thinking about it for a few days will come to a more concrete answer. This answer will guide all of their work and thoughts through the stressful admissions process.

When most parents and students reflect they find that they have spent several years preparing for this moment of college admissions. Senior year is the time to show your skills and show all of your hard work - so why spend less time? If you have spent 4 years preparing for college admissions, then every minute you work on your application you have spent 4 preparing for that moment.

Instead of cutting yourself short and not spending the time, it might even be better to spend more time than you expected. And for most of our students, this ends up being the case. In fact, it ends up being the case for our counselors too.

Why It Works

Spend more time on your application shows. Admissions readers routinely spend 15-20 minutes on your essays and the time we spend tailoring what we say is important. At the same time, that does not mean focusing so intensely on every single word of your application. Be you. Be natural.

Spend time thinking about who you are today and what you stand for. If you are able to think deeply about this before writing and during the writing process, it will help you stand out legions from everyone else precisely because you will be reflecting YOU and not anyone else.

The beauty of this approach is that it does not require you to have done international level awards or to have a clear idea of even what you hope to pursue. Instead, our goal is to help students realize who they are today and use that toolset now and in the future. Granted, we have many students who already have a passion and that is great, but for those students it is about finding out why you have that passion and what that means for your future.

Think deeply. Be open. Reflect and understand why you are doing what you are doing. Even 5 minutes a day. It will open doors for you that you never imagined and make the college admissions process a discovery process instead of a chore that you should allote 1 hour toward in senior year of high school.

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As a former college admissions officer who read over 3,000 essays every admissions cycle, I can’t stress enough that students should consider quality over quantity when drafting college essays. My colleagues have previously written blog posts encouraging students to draft essays in their everyday voice, and to avoid replacing normal words with cousins from the thesaurus. The bigger picture here is to tell your own story as clearly and concisely as you can. The same goes for the length of your personal statement—hone in on the specific message you want to convey and deliver it as succinctly as you can.

Admission officers prioritize content over quantity. I never met an admission officer who literally counted the words in a college essay. Outliers in either direction were immediately noticed, though—writing 250 words when the space accommodates 650, or submitting 2-3 pages when a single page was requested—can send a bad first impression. But the difference between 280 words and 315 words, or 512 words and 627 words, will go completely unnoticed. Admission officers do notice, however, the clarity of your thought and the effectiveness with which you convey your ideas. If your message was well-said in 250 words but the maximum was 300, so you added 50 words of fluff, those 50 words are diluting the strength of your message.  Similarly, if you wrote a 500-word piece you’re proud of but the maximum is 300, please don’t go line-by-line to delete extra words; instead, reconsider the scope of your essay, because you may have selected a larger topic than can be thoughtfully addressed within the word count.

For those of you still concerned about the literal word count: The most common “personal statement” length is in the ballpark of 500 words. The three standardized application portals—the Common App, the Universal App, and the Coalition App—all request personal statements capped at 650 words, but that’s the absolute limit, at which point your writing will be cut off.  I consider 500 the “sweet spot,” but don’t stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 that you’re honestly proud of.  Many colleges also ask for short answer responses, sometimes called supplemental prompts or personal insight questions, in the range of 150, 250, or 350 words; in this case, aim for the suggested length and be aware of the hard limits on either end, but don’t stress if you’re over or under by 10-15%.