Every year students ask me the same question:
“How long should my Common Application essay be?”
I am never shy about providing them with the response that best summarizes how they need to approach both the Common Application essay and the Common Application in general:
“Go Big or Go Home!”
Despite what the official directions on the Common App indicate, students writing a 250-word essay – the lowest end of the range that is officially acceptable to complete this essay – have a far lower chance of convincing college admissions officers of their admissions-worthiness than students who believe in the maxim, ‘bigger is better.” The official upper limit in acceptable length on the Common App essay is 650 words.
A well-thought out and well-developed essay of any true substance is not only not possible in 250 words, it’s barely possible in 450 words. This is why none of our clients have ever submitted a Common App essay consisting of fewer than 450 words. With that said, the true sweet spot in Common Application essay writing, for this current year’s prompts and prompts going back over a decade, is 500 to 650 words. This was even the case a few years ago when the Common App limited students to a mere 500 words. That experiment lasted for such a short time because colleges were getting such transparently superficial essays that they were a waste of time and effort for students and completely lacking any valuable insight helpful to college admissions officers.
Think of a 500- to 650-word essay as a smooth and enjoyable flight from D.C. to Disney World. In 500 to 650 words students have the space they need to achieve proper cruising altitude: writing a strong introductory paragraph that both grabs readers’ attention and clearly states the essay’s thesis. Next, just as one wants to have an enjoyable in-flight experience with the fasten seatbelt sight off and flight attendants passing out drinks and snacks, so to does a 500- to 650-word essay allow readers to relax a bit. In 500 to 650 words students are able to produce non-rushed, non-turbulent, highly valuable descriptive and specific body paragraphs that go a long way toward proving the essay’s thesis. Finally, landing a plane takes great skill, as does writing a conclusion to a college application essay. It’s not a simple rehash of the lift off (thesis); it should be complementary to it. Students who have 500 to 650 words to work with are able to smoothly touch down in a way that puts the cherry on top of the entire flying/essay reading experience. At the end of the day, admissions officers read your essays because they want to fly the friendly skies with you into your world. 500 to 600 words allows you to give them a proper flying experience and gives you the words necessary to differentiate your world from the world of other applicants.
In order to produce a great final draft essay, your rough drafts should be even longer than 650 words. It’s very common for our clients to create first, second, and third draft essays of nearly 1,000 words. Only through consistent and high quality editing can any essay be ready for submission to colleges and universities, and starting with too few words on initial drafts is a recipe for a puny little final draft essay.
So, the big take-away ideas on the Common App Essay are these:
- Don’t do the minimum because you are officially allowed to do the minimum
- Go big or go home – your final draft should be 500 to 650 words and your first draft should be even longer
- In your final draft, ensure that paragraph transitions are smooth – just as a good pilot and great weather conditions allow a flight to be smooth from lift-off to landing
So, what are you going to be writing about on this year’s Common App? Just before April Fool’s Day 2015 The Common Application, which has more than 500 member colleges and universities, announced its 2015-2016 essay prompts. But, these new questions are no joke; none of the essay prompts are easy, and all require a great deal of time, thought, and drafting before members of the Class of 2016 can confidently hit submit on their applications.
Honestly, I miss the old questions. Though the 2017-2018 Common App will feature some improvements compared to the 2016-2017 version of the Common App, it seems as though the people behind the Common App are less and less interested in reading essays from normal teenagers and more and more interested in pushing teens to appear exceptional, idiosyncratic, or downright eccentric for the purpose of entertaining application readers and putting on a show of some sort of diversity. I would be surprised if many of the admissions officers could portray themselves accurately with these prompts. Yet, this is what students in the Class of 2018 who will apply to Common App colleges and universities have to work with this coming admissions cycle, so they better start brainstorming now.
The 2017-2018 Common Application essay prompts are as follows:
Choose the option below that best helps you write an essay of no more than 650 words.
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. [No change from last year]
2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised from last year]
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised from last year]
4. Describe a problem you’ve solved or a problem you’d like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma – anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change from last year]
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised from last year]
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]
7. 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. [New]
Are you ready to start drafting? If you are a member of the Class of 2018, your time to start drafting is now! You should aim to wrap up your Common App essay no later than early August, which will give you plenty of time to draft and perfect your essays for Common Application supplements, the Universal College App, and other institutional applications.
Remember, if you want or need help with any part of your essay brainstorming and drafting, we are here to help you. We help students from around the world, and we are standing by ready to help you compose essays that will help you get into your dream colleges and universities. Schedule a video chat with us to discuss your essay strategy or have one of our experts review and edit your current draft(s) today.
Craig Meister is an international university admissions expert and founder of Admissions Intel, the authoritative online knowledge base and admissions consultancy for students and parents navigating the college admissions process.
How long does it take to research an essay?
If you’re writing an opinion piece on something you already have some knowledge about, you may not have to do any research at all. It may just be a matter of organizing your existing thoughts into a coherent essay. If you need to find out about a topic before you begin to write, you can easily get information on certain topics, whilst others will be more obscure and therefore more difficult to research. Clearly, the easier it is to find information, the faster you can write.
How good are your reading comprehension skills?
Some of us can just skim a piece and pick up all the salient points. Others will have to read with more attention, and even re-read a piece several times to extract the information we need. Having good reading and comprehension skills makes writing much faster since you’re able to “get” the facts faster and organize them better. Now you know why you had to do so many reading comprehension tests at school.
How well did you plan?
Throwing yourself headlong at a 1,000-word essay and writing till you reach the word count may seem like the easy option, but it isn’t. Planning your essay so that it begins with an introduction, highlights the most important points you want to make and then wraps everything up into a conclusion actually saves you time. Sometimes, essay instructions will tell you how to structure the piece, so read them carefully and extract any information you can use to guide your essay’s structure.
How fast do you type?
Have you ever gotten lost halfway through a sentence? You know what you wanted to say, but halfway through, the thought slips away from you. The faster you can type, the more easily you can capture thoughts before your mind moves onto the next thing and you forget what you were trying to say. Typing skills are essential in the modern world. Consider using typing games to improve your speed.
How long does it take me to write a 1,000-word essay?
Faster isn’t always better. The more in-depth your report is meant to be, the longer you should spend on it. I can usually research and write a fairly technical magazine article of 1,000 words in three hours, but do remember that I’m a professional writer. I’m fast because I write all day, every day.
The longest I’ve ever spent on a 1,000-word article was 12 hours. It was absolutely brutal! The information I needed to gather was very technical, hard to find, and even more difficult to understand, and you can’t write something until you really understand the subject matter. I also had to contact experts for their opinions, but I couldn’t even ask about their opinions until I could target them with the right questions. As a result, I actually had to write most of the article before slotting in the expert comment.
The quickest I’ve ever written a 1,000-word article is one hour. In this case, I already knew the subject matter well and didn’t have to back up every fact in the essay with references.
Reviewing your work also matters
If you’re writing for grades and want a good one, you need a really good essay. Don’t start writing it the day before you have to hand it in. Try and get your first draft down at least a day or two before you have to submit your work. Then return to it and do your editing. Read your essay aloud to yourself, since this will help you pick up any careless errors you wouldn’t otherwise spot. Check to see if your information flows logically from one point to the next and make sure that you’ve presented your information clearly.
Remember, teachers get tired. They have to read the same kind of essay over and over again when they grade. If they struggle to understand what you’re saying, you might not get as good a grade as you would if you stuck to using short sentences and relatively simple language.
Your reviewing process shouldn’t take all that long. If you don’t have to make a lot of changes, you should be able to do your final edit in under half an hour.
Take your time. Whatever you do, don’t rush. You might want your essay to be written quickly, but if it’s an important essay, taking your time will give you a better finished product. Budget your time conservatively. It’s better to find that you’ve still got time left over than to run out of time and end up dashing things off with a looming deadline.
Below are some basic guidelines if you need a rough estimate on how long it will take to write an essay. It’s important to remember that there are a plethora of mitigating factors that can increase or decrease the time it takes to write. The below numbers are using an estimate that it takes about 3 hours 20 minutes to write a 1000 word essay:
How long does it take to write a 100 word essay?
It takes about 20 minutes to write a 100 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 200 word essay?
It takes about 40 minutes to write a 200 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 250 word essay?
It takes about 50 minutes to write a 250 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 300 word essay?
It takes about 1 hour to write a 300 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 400 word essay?
It takes about 1 hour and 20 minutes to write a 400 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 500 word essay?
It takes about 1 hour and 40 minutes to write a 500 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 600 word essay?
It takes about 2 hours to write a 600 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 700 word essay?
It takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes to write a 700 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 800 word essay?
It takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes to write a 800 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 900 word essay?
It takes about 3 hours to write a 900 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 1,000 word essay?
It takes about 3 hours and 20 minutes to write a 1,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 1,250 word essay?
It takes about 4 hours and 10 minutes to write a 1,250 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 1,500 word essay?
It takes about 5 hours to write a 1,500 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 1,750 word essay?
It takes about 5 hours and 50 minutes to write a 1,750 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 2,000 word essay?
It takes about 6 hours and 40 minutes to write a 2,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 2,500 word essay?
It takes about 8 hours and 20 minutes to write a 2,500 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 3,000 word essay?
It takes about 10 hours to write a 3,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 3,500 word essay?
It takes about 11 hours and 40 minutes to write a 3,500 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 4,000 word essay?
It takes about 13 hours and 20 minutes to write a 4,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 4,500 word essay?
It takes about 15 hours to write a 4,500 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 5,000 word essay?
It takes about 16 hours and 40 minutes to write a 5,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 6,000 word essay?
It takes about 20 hours to write a 6,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 7,000 word essay?
It takes about 23 hours and 20 minutes to write a 7,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 7,500 word essay?
It takes about 25 hours to write a 7,500 word essay.
How long does it take to write an 8,000 word essay?
It takes about 26 hours and 40 minutes to write an 8,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 9,000 word essay?
It takes about 30 hours to write a 9,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 10,000 word essay?
It takes about 33 hours and 20 minutes to write a 10,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 12,500 word essay?
It takes about 41 hours and 40 minutes to write a 12,500 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 15,000 word essay?
It takes about 50 hours to write a 15,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 20,000 word essay?
It takes about 66 hours and 40 minutes to write a 20,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 25,000 word essay?
It takes about 83 hours and 20 minutes to write a 25,000 word essay.
How long does it take to write a 50,000 word essay?
It takes about 166 hours and 40 minutes to write a 50,000 word essay.
(Image courtesy of Miguel)