Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: pt 4 (Ideas that Work)


Congratulations! If you’re reading this, you’re on your way to succeeding with the Common App Essay’s 500 Word Limit.

So far in this 4 part series, I’ve given you 7 Important Tips to Remember, told you how to Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story, and showed you some Writing Samples.

Now, here’s how to find Ideas that Work:

1. Don’t Choose a Topic that’s Too Big

This is perhaps the most important thing to remember. If you write about your entire summer vacation, or an idea or event that’s going to take 3 paragraphs just to explain, you’re in trouble before you begin.

2. Write about a Moment in Time

If you can find a moment — something that happened in a brief period – you can be well on your way to tackling the 500 word limit.

For example, I had a student tell me about the time he spent playing catch with his brother. It started out helping him improve his baseball skills, but then he found it drew them together as brothers. He used that game of catch — that moment in time — to write about their friendship.

I also had a student write about babysitting for kids who played video games instead of using their imaginations, and she talked about how imagination was so important to her. She used that night of babysitting as her jumping off point to write her Common Application essay. It was her moment in time.

Remember, moments can be easily related in 500 words. If you want more examples,  I’ve written more about moments in an earlier blogpost.

3. Write about an Idea

What do you love? What is it about you that makes you different, interesting, or unique?

Let’s say you love music. Why? What does it do for you? How does it shape who you are or how you see yourself in the world?  Use the IDEA to craft an essay.

Connecticut College has a great page called “Essays that Worked.”  On it are different Common App essays from admitted students, including a couple of examples of how students write about an “idea.” One student writes about why she doesn’t watch television, another writes about why she’s so comfortable when she’s curled up. While these essays are over 500 words (they were submitted before the new limit), an idea can definitely be tackled in 500 words or less.

4. Leave time to Edit!

I can’t stress this enough — leave enough time to edit your work. If you’re long and you don’t know what to do, ask an adult who has good writing skills to help you. But you can’t finish at 11 pm before your deadline and expect to edit your essay.

Well-edited essays are stronger, clearer, and easier to read.
Editing shows you took the time to review and polish your work.

Impress your college reader. Edit.

5. Does the Common Application Essay Need to be 500 Words???

This is a great question, and one that’s being answered in different ways. The Common Application says it expects students to adhere to the limit. I’ve talked to admission counselors who say that going over a little isn’t going to hurt anyone. Others say if you’re over by a lot, it doesn’t say good things about you being able to follow instructions.

Here’s what I have to say:

1. If you want your Common Application essay to be more than a few words over the limit, contact the admissions counselors at the schools you’re applying to. They’re the only ones who can give you a definite answer.

2. Boring is boring, no matter how long or short it is. So be interesting, be yourself, and write a wonderful, 500 word essay.

related posts:
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 1 (7 Tips to Remember)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 2 (Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 3 (Essay Samples )

Read on the Common App Essay Word Limit

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? Get in touch! I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for contact info.


Author: Sharon Epstein

College consultant, teaching students how to write memorable college application essays, grad school and prep school essays, and succeed at job and college interviews.

6 thoughts on “How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: pt 4 (Ideas that Work)

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