The College Essay Word Count

Today I wanted to pass along some advice about college essays from Bruce Hammond, a former high school counselor and the co-author of numerous Fiske Guides, including one on writing college essays.

I read his advice this week on a list serve for members of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. There has been a lot of chatter on the list serve about essays, which isn’t surprising since seniors are getting ready to apply to schools. I thought Hammond’s observations about the proper length of an admission essay were worth sharing.

So here’s what Hammond had to say:

I changed my view on the length issue after co-editing a book of student essays. In 15 years as a school counselor, I had been fairly outspoken in telling kids to keep it short (e.g. Lincoln wrote the Gettysburg Address in 225 words, do you really think you need 500?)

My outlook changed somewhat after soliciting outstanding essays from both sides of the desk. For that project, the essays that our colleagues chose as the very best were significantly longer than typical ones, on average, and often exceeded 500 words. A couple of the essays were over 1,000 words.

I’ve settled on the view that for the 90 percent (or so) of kids who are unlikely to write a superb essay, keeping it in the 400-500 word range is good advice. But if a really superb essay runs long, there is no reason to hit the panic button. The good ones always get read. It is worth noting that one of the very finest essays I have seen –and one that was praised to the counselor by no less than the Yale admissions office — was 78 words.

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is the author of The College Solution and also write a college blog for

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  1. You should begin writing your college admissions essay the summer before your senior year of high school – so that you have time to have it reviewed and edited. You may also change your perspective and decide to tweek it a bit – so give yourself time to allow that to happen.