Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

College Essay 500 Word Limit: 5 Simple Ways to Pare it Down


college-essay-500-word-limitMany college essays, including the essay for The Common Application, limit you to 500 words.

It can be tough to write an interesting, creative essay and keep it short, but if you know a few simple tips you can deliver an essay that will impress.

Here are 5 Ways to Succeed with the 500 Word Limit:

1. Think Small Instead of Big. Don’t try to tackle a big topic like world peace or what you did for your entire summer vacation. Choose a shorter span of time and a topic that’s not too broad.

2. Write About a Moment. A moment is a brief period of time when you learned something meaningful to you. Moments can make powerful essays.

Here’s an Example of a Moment:

  • A student working in a store noticed that a customer had dropped some change. It wasn’t a lot and he almost didn’t stop to pick it up, but then he did. The customer was extremely grateful and told him she was counting on that money. The student wrote about how he’d never forget that something insignificant to him could make such a big difference to someone else.

3. Begin in the Middle of Your Story, Where the Action or Conflict Starts. This technique will not only save you words but it’s also a great way to draw the reader into your story. Here are two examples of introductions that were changed to start with action:

Example #1:
“I spent my summer vacation interning in the emergency room of a hospital.”
Changed: “The bloody gurney wheeled past me. I closed my eyes and prayed for the strength not to pass out.

Example #2:
Before: “I always wanted to climb a mountain, so that’s what I decided to do my freshman year.”
Changed: “Hurry up!” my dad yelled, as I scrambled to collect myself for another day of mountain climbing.

4. Use Adjectives and Adverbs Wisely. If your essay is too long try to edit out some of your adjectives and adverbs. Here are two examples of edits and the reasons behind them:

Example #1:
Before: As Andrew walked his large legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the dawning sunrise.
Changed: As Andrew walked his legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the sunrise.
Why the Change? 1. Size adjectives, like “large,” are often too general. “Heavy” and “thumping” are specific and convey the idea of being large. 2. “Sunrise” is dawn. Look for these kinds of redundancies.

Example #2:
Before: “He walked convincingly.
After: “He strode.”
Why the Change? One word conveys the same idea.

5. Edit Your Essay. Here are 4 ways to eliminate words:

  1. Eliminate any details or explanations that don’t move you toward your conclusion.
  2. Don’t repeat your ideas.
  3. Pare down adjectives and adverbs (see tip #4).
  4. Ask someone else to read you essay. Sometimes, as writers, we get attached to our material and it becomes difficult to know what to cut. Ask one or more people who know you to give you suggestions.

Can you submit an essay that’s over the limit? Check with the admissions office at the college(s). They’ll be able to guide you.

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

Read on the Common App Essay Word Limit

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skillsSharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting, and is the recipient of a Writers Guild Award and two Emmy nominations for her work in television. I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Connect with me on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:
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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 “College Essay 500 Word Limit: 5 Simple Ways to Pare it Down

  1. 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.

    Susie Watts
    Denver, Colorado


  2. Pingback: Common App 500 Word Limit: What Colleges Think « Applying To College

  3. I am taking placement test at college and I am not good writing at all because of my hard of hearing[deaf],do speak. I have to write essay and I have try to write but i can visuial [my head] good but not my writing. I really do push myself to hard! What advice do I need to do?wish me luck!


    • Hi Lillie,

      It sounds like you’re working very hard. Getting extra help from a teacher might be an idea. But you should also know that when you fill out your applications for college you will have the chance to explain your situation. If your test scores don’t reflect what you’re capable of, you can explain that in the application and say why. Once the schools understand that it’s hard for you to write because of your hearing difficulty they will look extra hard at your grades and your teacher recommendations and pay a lot of attention to those. Good luck!


  4. Alright its hard for me to write or type what i’m thinking on paper or in microsoft word. I’ve been ou tof school for 8 years , i joined the military right after high school.Filling out the 500 word essay is really hard for me and i can use some advice on how to start this part.


    • Hi Kirby,

      If you’re having trouble starting your essay, try one or both of these methods: 1. Spend 15 or 20 minutes brainstorming. If you’re uncomfortable at the computer, use paper. Set a timer, and start writing about your idea(s). Let your thoughts flow and write them down. Don’t worry about spelling, grammar, or even if they’re sentences. If one idea leads to something that seems unrelated, that’s okay. Keep writing and don’t stop until your time is up, and above all don’t judge what you’re writing. Then, when you’re finished, go back and pick out the good parts to use to start your essay. You can do this exercise several times, until you find something you’re happy with. 2. Dictate your story. For some people talking through their story is much easier than writing it. Then transcribe the pieces that you like, and use them to start your essay. Good luck! Sharon


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