Is It Ok If My College Essay Is Over 500 Words Is How Many Paragraphs

Question: I am typing a scholarship essay that is supposed to be 500 words long. I was typing and continued to type and type and soon realized I was at 600 words. So I finished up and was about to submit it when I saw in smaller print in the instructions that it is supposed to be 500 words or less. Should I cut out some of my essay or submit it with all 601 words? I have heard that they may not even look at it or they may cut it off at 500 and not even read the rest. I really liked my essay but if it means being disqualified then I will definitely cut some parts out. Thanks!

If the online form did not actually cut you off at 500 words, then you don’t have to worry about an exact count. BUT … I have NEVER (in three decades) read a student essay that couldn’t use at least a little shortening in order to be stronger. So I suggest that you try to carve off at least 50 of those extra words.

Be particularly aware of first-paragraph “throat clearing.” Often when I edit a student essay, the first thing I do is to delete all or most of the opening sentences.

For instance, if the topic is “Tell us about an experience that helped you to learn something about yourself,” it’s common to see an essay that starts something like this:

People learn about themselves in many ways. Sometimes it is from a pleasant experience and sometimes it is an unpleasant one. Sometimes it takes a while to learn the lesson and sometimes it is learned immediately. But most of us realize that both the good and bad times we have in our lives will teach us lessons that will stay with us forever.

The day I broke Ephraim McEwan’s Volvo window with a socket wrench was just the beginning. It wasn’t intentional but it wasn’t entirely accidental either … depending, of course, on how “accidental” is defined. For starters, I should tell you that I’m pretty handy with tools. I’ve been repairing my own bike since I was 7; I built the bookcase in my bedroom when I was 12; and I’m in the process of helping my father restore a 1968 Plymouth Suburban station wagon that has been in the family since he was a teenager. So having a wrench in my back pocket was completely legitimate. I only wish now that it had stayed there …

Sixty-three words were wasted on the first paragraph … almost entirely hackneyed drivel! The second paragraph is immediately engaging, and the author should have saved those initial five-or-so-dozen words and started with the Volvo window.

Likewise, take a look at what you can lop off of your essay, but don’t feel that it’s imperative that you cut it down to exactly 500 words, if 50 or fewer extras will still fit in the space.

(posted 6/21/2012)

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The college admissions essay is a part of the application process that often gives students the most anxiety. In the essay, applicants work hard to really let the admissions counselors get to know them beyond their test scores and grades. After writing what they feel is a nearly perfect essay the student finds out that their 800-word essay is longer than the 500-word maximum allowed.

According to the New York Times article, “College Application Essay as Haiku? For Some, 500 Words Aren’t Enough,” students fret over the idea of having to chop all of the emotion and substance from their essays in order to stay within the word count.

Here are 5 easy tips to help you get the word count down on your admissions essay and still make a great first impression.

1. Free write — Without censoring yourself, write the first draft of your essay. If it goes on for 1,000 words, that’s fine. The goal here is to write down everything you want to say. It is better to have a lot of words to chop, rearrange, or rewrite than to be staring at a blank page with an application deadline looming.

2. Read Aloud — Read what you have written out loud. This may feel a little bit silly at first, but it works. When you read aloud you are able to hear when sentences do not make sense, are run-ons, or are just plain bad. You want to read your essay aloud a few times. The first time you read just to get a feel of what is working and what is not. The second time, go through and mark places that need to be edited.

3. Rewrite — Go back to the sections you marked for editing. Break up run-on sentences. Either make two new sentences, or see if you can say the same thing in a simpler way. Be sure to vary sentence length using longer and shorter sentences. An essay full of all short sentences will sound choppy and elementary.

4. Move Forward — Remove all words, sentences, and paragraphs that do not add to the story you are telling, or move it forward. Just because your limit is 500 words doesn’t mean you can’t have a strong introduction, body, and conclusion. Be sure that you are using strong active verbs. For example:

Active Verbs:

Passive: Mom was cooking.
Active: Mom cooked.

Passive: We were jumping rope.
Active: We jumped rope.


Passive: Dad was laughing.
Active: Dad laughed.

Removing unnecessary words:

Wordy: Mr. Smith, who was my doctor, said that I needed surgery.
Better: My doctor said that I needed surgery.

Wordy: The thing that I am most proud of from my high school career is my participation in the debate team.
Better: I am most proud of participating in the debate team.

5. Proofread, Proofread, Proofread — After you are done rewriting your essay, read it aloud again slowly. Look out for any misspelled words, missing words, problems with punctuation, or the use of one word when you really mean to use another one such as: their, there, and they’re. What you say in your college admissions essay is important, but how you say it may be even more so.

Writing a polished 500-word essay does not have to be difficult, or leave you feeling like you didn’t have the space to shine. Follow these tips and a 500-word admissions essay limit should be no problem.

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