For college admission essays, it is very important to write clearly and concisely, using as few words as you need. Most readers on admission committees are overworked, tired, and need to get to a range of other tasks that their jobs demand. 

But how short is too short? And what if you’re so concise that you don’t come close to the maximum word length?

The Common App essay requires you write between 250 and 650 words. Hitting the maximum is great, but make sure not to settle at the minimum. For all college admission essays, it’s best to come as close to the maximum as you can, as long as you’re not filling space with meaningless sentences. For the Common App, I would recommend a bare minimum of 500 words, about 75 percent of the maximum.

If you’ve written your essay and there is room for more, share it with readers you trust—friends, parents, and especially teachers—and ask if there are moments that could be clearer or that seem underdeveloped. As you reread your own work, ask yourself these questions:

1. Could you be more specific and more detailed?

The best essays are both detailed and storied. If there is one thing we can safely say about most human beings, it’s that we are hard-wired for stories. Good stories “show” more than they “tell.” 

Instead of telling your readers that a difficult time in your life was stressful, show your reader how that stress manifested in your life. Maybe you lost sleep. Maybe you had trouble eating. Maybe there was a specific day or a specific hour or moment when that stress reached a climax. Get your readers into the details. Let them see and feel what you experienced before zooming out to tell us about it.

Don’t just tell your readers about the prom; bring them there.

2. Could your introduction make a stronger first impression?

Consider this introduction from a sample application essay:

From the time I was able to realize what a university was, all I heard from my mother's side of the family was about the University of Michigan and the great heritage it has. Many a Saturday afternoon my grandfather would devote to me, by sitting me down in front of the television and reminiscing about the University of Michigan while halftime occurred during a Michigan Wolverines football game. Later, as I grew older and universities took on greater meaning, my mother and uncle, both alumni of the University of Michigan, took me to see their old stamping grounds. From first sight, the university looked frightening because of its size, but with such a large school comes diversity of people and of academic and non-academic events.

This introduction does a fairly good job of placing us in a specific context, explaining the reader’s deep ties to the University of Michigan. 

It suffers, however, from some imprecise phrasing and vague thinking. Michigan and its heritage surely was not literally all this writer ever heard from his mother’s side of the family. “While halftime occurred” is a wordier and more awkward version of of just “at halftime.” The size of a place does necessarily make it look “frightening.” And the last phrase—”academic and non-academic events”—is far too abstract. (One more thing: the idiom is “stomping grounds.”)

Though the introduction may seem long, its lack of precision sets the stage for an essay that is likely to be short on details. If you read the entire essay, you can see that this writer drifts frequently into generalizations. 

It is important to be detailed and storied from the outset so that you set a tone for the entire essay. Consider this revision of the introduction:

It is a Saturday afternoon in early October. At halftime, the Michigan Wolverines are tied with the Ohio State Buckeyes. My grandfather sits in his favorite chair, its arms threadbare from decades of cheering, swearing, hoping, mourning, and rejoicing over Michigan football. His voice is already hoarse from yelling at the TV. He turns to me to share another story about Anthony Carter or Rick Leach or Jim Harbaugh, names that he’s instilled in me as far back as I can remember, names that my grandpa uses to prove again and again that Michigan means not just perseverance and toughness but the height of individual and community achievement. Often, I only half listen to these repeated stories. But today, as I plan my visit to Michigan to see if I want to attend the university that my mother, uncle, and grandfather attended, I’m all ears.

Now, I have no idea if some of these details are true to this student’s life. Surely, some of the facts are wrong, so this writer would have to adjust this revision to fit the truth. But the point here is to stay focused on a single story rather than a laundry list of vague statements. 

This revision is very detailed, placing readers in the scene of the conversation and leading into a moment of truth: what will happen when this writer visits Michigan? The visit could be just as detailed and could more effectively include some of those “academic and non-academic” opportunities. This revised paragraph is focused on less but includes so much more. 

3. Have you created a clear picture of who you are?

The revised introduction above tells us a few things about this writer: he comes from a long line of Michigan alumni, he seems to have close ties to his family, and he is curious about what is uniquely great about the university. That threadbare couch provides a concrete image that embodies the longstanding passion his family has for the University of Michigan. The statement needs more—the most important details are surely to come—but this is a solid start.

Some students wonder whether football or other “low-brow” activities are worthwhile contexts to introduce in a personal statement. Shouldn’t I place myself in the Folger Shakespeare Library reading the First Quarto of Hamlet?

No. You should write about the scenes and contexts that will give the clearest and deepest picture of who you are and what you will bring to the universities and colleges to which you’re applying.

Consider this opening paragraph from a college application essay featured in the New York Times. The author is Jonathan Ababiy:

At age 6, I remember the light filled openness of the house, how the whir of my mother’s vacuum floated from room to room. At 9, I remember how I used to lounge on the couch and watch Disney cartoons on the sideways refrigerator of a TV implanted in a small cave in the wall. At 12, I remember family photographs of the Spanish countryside hanging in every room. At 14, I remember vacuuming each foot of carpet in the massive house and folding pastel shirts fresh out of the dryer.

This scene, we soon learn, is a home in which the writer’s mother worked as a housekeeper. The home is owned by two professors. His mother’s access to this home allows Ababiy to imagine an expansive other world, a world perhaps accessible with the right education. 

This is a meaningful setting in that it allows the writer to create a bridge from his humble beginnings to an ambitious, unwritten future, the future that he hopes to write at his university of choice. We learn early on that Ababiy is the son of working-class immigrants and that he’s a dreamer capable of locating portals to new worlds in the most mundane objects. 

I encourage you to read the entire essay—it’s brilliant.

The best essays are detailed and storied. If your own essay is coming up a bit short, turn to essays like the one above as a model. Populate your writing with rich and meaningful scenery, and plunge deeply into what that setting reveals about you and your dreams.


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