Last updated March 15, 2023
College Essay Requirements: Everything You Need to Know
College essays, also called personal statements, are essays that most colleges require students to write as part of their applications for admission.
We have a giant comprehensive guide on how to write college essays. But this post goes a little more in detail on the specific requirements you should meet when writing your personal statement for college.
Most students write a college essay for a centralized application system called the Common Application. The Common Application has its own standardized requirements for you to meet.
But you’re not just looking at logistical requirements like length and prompt choice. You also need to know answers to those intangible questions about what a college essay should actually DO.
In this post, we’ll start with the basics and end with a detailed discussion about those unspoken requirements for what your college essay needs to look like.
How long should a college essay be?
A college essay should be within the assigned word count requirements. The maximum word length for the Common Application personal statement (and other systems, like Coalition) is 650 words. That’s almost a page and a half single-spaced or nearly three pages double-spaced if you’re writing on a word processor.
What happens if you go under the word limit on a college essay?
To be clear, you do not have to write exactly 650 words to write a good Common Application essay.
A good rule of thumb that we use with our students is to get to about 80% of the word count. For the Common App essay, that would mean your goal should be to get to at least 520 words.
If you’re in the 520 to 650 range, it’s unlikely that an admissions officer would even think about your word count.
But if your essay doesn’t hit the 520 mark, then the length starts to raise some questions.
In particular, admissions officers might start scrutinizing whether you put enough time and effort into your essay. Don’t add words just to add words, but make sure your essay is fully developed enough to fall within the word length requirements.
What happens if you go over the word limit on a college essay?
Several things might happen if your essay is too long. You might be automatically cut off by the application system. Even if you are able to submit your essay, an admissions officer might stop reading when they notice that it’s too long. Or, worse, if your essay is over the word count because your language is long and rambling, you might bore an admissions officer.
For these reasons, it’s best to stay at or below the word limit.
If your essay is just a little too long, try these tips for cutting words:
- Cut any unnecessary tangents that don’t contribute to the overall theme of your essay.
- Eliminate cliche phrases or unnecessary idioms.
- Delete filler phrases like “in order to” or unnecessary adverbs like “really” or “very.”
If your essay is way over the word count, there’s a good chance you’re trying to do too many things at once. Take a step back and make sure your essay only has one main focus (and see our college essay writing guide for tips).
Can I submit an essay I’ve written for another class?
One of the Common Application prompts often looks something like this:
Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.
If that’s a prompt option, then you may be wondering whether you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle and submit an essay that you’ve already written, maybe even an essay from one of your classes.
While doing so is technically allowed by the prompt, we do not advise that you submit an essay you’ve written for something previously.
Why do we not recommend this?
Because personal statements have such a specific purpose (more on that in a minute), anything you’ve already written likely won’t fit the bill.
School assignments and past essays won’t say nearly enough about who you are. Admissions officers might enjoy a history essay you wrote about the French Revolution, but it probably won’t give them the information they need to confidently admit you.
Who reads college essays anyway, and what do they expect of you?
College essays are most commonly read by admissions officers. Admissions officers work for the undergraduate office of admission at the institution you’re applying to. While different offices have different practices, these admissions officers are generally full-time university employees. They often did not attend the university at which they work, though sometimes they did.
College admissions officers are generally assigned a regional territory, so they work with students and read applications from that territory. That means that if you go to most college admissions pages, you should be able to find your admissions counselor by inputting your geographic information. If you want, you can reach out to this person with any questions about the institution or application process.
Now on to the bigger question: what do they expect of you?
What an admissions officer expects from your college application essay depends on the kind of institution for which they work. Admissions officers at schools with lower acceptance rates, for example, will have higher expectations than those at schools with higher acceptance rates.
But across the board, there are a few things admissions officers expect from your college essays.
These expectations come from unspoken understandings of what a college essay should say and do.
The next section breaks down the five biggest college essay writing requirements you should try to follow.
College Essay Conventions
College essay requirements are about more than responding to a prompt and meeting a certain word count. They’re also about fulfilling the expectations that readers have of college essays. College essays are all about creating a cohesive narrative across your application. To help you accomplish that, there are a few conventions you should be aware of.
Tell a meaningful story about who you are
Why do college essays exist? They are an opportunity to tell admissions officers something about who you are as a person. As we know from our time as admissions officers ourselves, it can be difficult to truly understand who a person is from facts and figures alone. Transcripts and test scores tell us very little about your values, goals, and personality.
College essays should therefore communicate something meaningful about who you are. And when we say “meaningful,” we really mean it. College essays aren’t surface-level stuff. They get to the core of your background and motivations.
That doesn’t mean you have to write about your deepest, darkest secrets. But it does mean that you have to go below the surface to reveal a genuine personal insight.
Write vulnerably and authentically.
This tip is an extension of the previous one. To write a meaningful essay, you’ll need to write vulnerably and authentically.
Some college essays are just pleasantries that are so generic they could have been written by anybody.
The best college essays are ones that are written in your own voice. They open up a part of you that is normally reserved for close family and friends. They skip the formalities and get straight to the heart of why you are who you are.
It can be hard to write honestly for an audience full of faceless admissions officers who hold your fate in their hands. But it will be worth it.
Craft an essay that focuses on your strengths.
Here’s the thing. You can’t write just any old essay for your college essay. Your essay needs to be strategic. And to be strategic, it needs to revolve around your strengths.
Your college essay should showcase your strengths because you want to give the admissions officers who read your essays as many reasons as possible to admit you.
This isn’t to say that your essay should brag about all your accomplishments. Instead, being strengths-based means that whatever story you tell should leave admissions officers with a positive impression of who you are. They should be able to pick you out of a crowd and say, “Wow, this student is a really strong scholar/entrepreneur/artist/friend/caregiver/etc.”
By highlighting your strengths, you’ll show admissions officers why you belong on their campus.
Find the correct tone.
“Tone” refers to the overarching voice and vibe of an essay. Some college essays have serious tones, while others are lighthearted or funny.
The correct tone for your essay will depend on the topic you choose and the strengths you want to convey.
Most importantly, however, your tone should always end on some kind of positive, hopeful note.
It’s okay to write about difficult or serious topics, but they shouldn’t weigh your essay down and leave your admissions officer feeling uneasy afterward. Similarly, a lighthearted essay shouldn’t be so flippant that it forgets to do its job as a college essay.
Finding the correct tone is a balancing act.
Adhere to the length and stylistic requirements.
It’s worth reiterating that adhering to the rules and requirements outlined by the application is an important part of college essay writing. You want to leave your admissions officers with the best impression possible.
That means that taking each part of your application seriously is important. Try to present yourself as a professional and thoughtful person who knows how to follow the rules.
Doing so will emphasize that you are a mature student ready to take on the challenges of attending college.
Writing a college essay is really different than writing an essay for school, so sticking to these tips will help keep you on track.
College essay requirements can be tricky to navigate. But following the guidelines and meeting your readers’ expectations will help you write a standout essay.
And if you want to learn even more about how to write a college essay, check out our guide to college essays and our Essay Academy program. 👋
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