- Bentham Admissions Team
How Long Should College Application Essays Be?
“Thump, thump, thump.” The bows crash like tsunami waves against the strings of the cello and violin. “Knock, knock, knock.” That’s the KGB knocking thrice on your door – they want to ask a few questions.”
Have I caught your interest? Perfect. These are the opening lines from a college application essay written by a student who is now attending an Ivy League university, and I am using them to illustrate my first and perhaps most important point regarding how to write your own college application essay.
You must seize the reader’s attention from the absolute beginning. While this is the goal of any piece of worthwhile writing, this is especially relevant when it comes to your application essay.
Why? Because to admissions officers, you begin as a nobody, or rather, an everybody. At top universities, your capabilities and accomplishments are arguably equivalent to all serious applicants. You are indistinguishable until they read your essay.
Related Article: Do College Application Essays Matter?
It is imperative that you write in a way that grabs admissions officers by their lapels and implores them to listen to you above all others. Getting into a top college is a ruthless competition, and you have very little time to make your case.
College admissions have gotten significantly more competitive in the last decade; the average acceptance rates have dropped so dramatically that schools like Harvard, Yale, Princeton, and Stanford reject over 60% of applicants.
Your perfect scores and extracurriculars will not shock anyone in admissions, because they see high achievers all the time. That may be hard to swallow, but it is true. At this stage, you will have to demand attention in a way that is singular to you.
Your college application essay also needs to be memorable. Admissions officers are likely overworked, tired, and perhaps even bored. Not to mention they only have a few minutes to read your essay.
You need to make them laugh, make them cry, whatever it takes to make them get behind your application so much so that you are the anecdote they share that night at dinner. You cannot risk highlighting the obvious, or you will be overlooked.
How do you do this?
Follow these guidelines to write an application essay that will take admissions officers on an emotional journey and that will show them you are ready not only to rock the boat but to become a leader in your field.
We’ll start with the basics.
How Long College Application Essay Should Be
College application essays come in two flavors, the personal statement, and shorter supplemental essays. The personal statement will need to be 650 words and the others fall within the range of 250 words.
No matter which you are writing, you should not exceed the word limit. Primarily, it will annoy your reader and may even get your essay thrown out.
Though there are technical reasons as well. For example, if you have written your essay in another program, say Microsoft Word, and then copy it into a submission portal, your essay may get truncated to the proper word limit.
You will either notice this and waste precious time and energy fixing it, or you will not notice and will face a catastrophic outcome. Every word you write counts, literally. Take your application essay length seriously and pack a punch within it.
This may sound intimidating, but there are key methods to achieve this that will help you stand out and get noticed.
How To Start A College Application Essay
It is no secret that boring writing is, well, boring, and you can usually tell within the first few sentences what you are reading if you are likely to continue to the end. It is no different for a college application essay.
Your job is to hook the admissions officers’ attention from the start. In other words, you have 10 seconds to spellbind them before they start skimming to the end.
Command their attention by opening with an engrossing anecdote, a shocking one-liner, or a counter-intuitive statement. “The only sound worth hearing is silence.” (Come again? Exactly. That is the point.) A simple test you can use to see if you are on target is to ask yourself while rereading what you wrote, “Am I intrigued?” If you are not, scrap it and try again.
Most importantly, you need to signal to the reader that they are in for a good story. Begin in the first person and have a casual tone. Humans evolved in a culture of storytelling, meaning our brains are biologically hardwired to respond well to them.
When we hear stories, our brains release hormones that help us remember, become emotionally involved, and keep us engaged. Use this to your advantage to make sure the admissions officers not only stick with you but also talk about you with their peers.
How To End A College Application Essay
Great. You have done the hard work to get the admissions officer to the end of your essay. Now what? You need to stick the landing. Let us go back to that point about how our brains are hardwired.
At the end of a story, your reader will have all these chemicals released that compel them to empathize with you. Consider the last movie you watched.
Did you notice yourself standing up and fist-pumping?
Or did you burst into tears in despair?
Were you cheering for a protagonist whom you’ve never even met?
You can (and should) aim for a similar effect by ending your essay with an image, action, dialogue, or reflection. All of which will show rather than tell your story and will leave your reader triggered by empathy.
Think of it as your mic drop. All four of those techniques target your reader’s emotional epicenter. Use one of them to give your essay closure and leave the reader with that sweet sensation of wanting more.
The best way to achieve this is to couple one of these techniques with a reference to your opening scene. By circling back and then zooming out, you’ll be letting a little bit of the future peak through a future where the only answer is to have you at their school.
What Should College Application Essays Be About?
You now know two critical components of the college application essay format: hook from the start and go out with a bang. You also know from all the English classes that you have ever taken that there are simple rules and specific tools you can use to achieve these structural goals, including well-placed metaphors, rhetorical questions, and clever similes.
Your reader is captivated, leaning over your essay, and enthralled to know what happens next. But what is it you are actually writing about?
You will have the opportunity to select one application essay topic from a list of seven that Common App provides.
Due to COVID-19, the 2020-2021 college application essay prompts were identical to the previous year’s, and it is not far-fetched to think this may happen again for the 2021-2022 cycle.
The first six prompts include describing pivotal life stories, lessons learned, beliefs challenged, problems you’d like to solve, periods of personal growth, or engrossing personal interests. The last prompt is the wild card: you can select a topic of your choice.
Given the options of prompts, you can theoretically write about anything you want. However, there are a few common content traps that you should avoid.
Do not select the lessons learned prompt and write about overcoming hardship, like a challenging trip abroad, the death of a relative, or your family’s immigration.
And do not select the wild card promptly to write about a global cause you are passionate about, like access to clean water.
These are worthwhile topics, no doubt, but guess what: they could be written by any motivated student applying to a top school.
Regardless of the prompt, you select, what you write about needs to be specific to you—razor-sharp specific to you. Your essay for college application is your number one self-marketing tool to get you into college.
It is your chance to emphasize your strategic position and talk about what you bring to the incoming class that no one else brings. It is where you show all that your raw scores and resume cannot: your intellectual vitality and your personality.
Going back to the three thumps that began this post, the student continued his essay by sharing how he learned that those three dissonant chords represent the fears of a totalitarian regime, which motivated him to devour books on 20th century Russian history.
He then shared how he applied what he knew about mathematical theory to better understand the underlying mechanisms of emotionally manipulative music that can be used to serve Fascist propaganda.
This is entirely unique content, which highlights his intellectual curiosity and strengths against his target school’s weaknesses.
In other words, his essay directly speaks to a singular passion of his that will fill an open niche at the university where he is applying. This is exactly the type of content you should focus on.
Can You Reuse Your College Application Essay?
If you are using Common App, you will write one personal essay which is then submitted to all the colleges you are applying to that participate.
So, you are not reusing this application per se, but it is used for multiple universities at once.
However, your supplemental essays are college-specific, with prompts such as “why us” or “design a class or major that you would pursue.” Your answers need to be tailored specifically for the school.
Every college looks for something different, otherwise, there would be no way for them to stand out against each other. And just like you, these schools are wanting to be the best out there. The trick is to know what these schools are looking for so that you can show them you are it.
Write About Yourself
Writing an essay for a college application that highlights how you—specifically you—will enhance a university’s mission and reputation is extremely challenging. There is no way around it. But with the resources now available to high schoolers, it is not a mysterious nor impossible task.
Bentham’s professional consultants are all alumni of top universities across the country who have played the admissions game and won. They are expert writers and will help you develop and outline essay content that will showcase your distinct strengths. They will also edit your drafts to make them as sharp as possible before submission.
Applying to college is one of the most pivotal moments in your life; take advantage of Bentham’s college application package to ensure you demonstrate to top schools that you are the future they need.