College Essay Word Limits: How to Master Them

Cory Chen
December 28, 2023
College Essays

Why are there College Essay Word Limits

Delete. Click. Click. Delete, delete, delete. Your college essay is 28 words above college essay word limits, and you have no idea what to cut. Frustrating isn’t it— to amputate a sentence from your paragraph. 

However, conciseness is what colleges want. Last year, UCLA and UCSD received over 100,000 college applications, meaning they had to limit the time it takes to review each application. Even a private university like NYU received over 80,000 applications. This is why UC essays have word limits of 350 words each, University of Michigan restricts one of its supplemental essays to 300, and NYU curbs its diversity supplemental essay at 250. 

Conciseness is not easy, but with the right framework and practice, (or with a DeweySmart counselor) you can permanently improve your writing. 

4 Steps to Master College Essay Word Limits

  1. Understand Purpose

The first step to mastering college essay word limits is to understand the purpose of the prompt. By understanding the question, you’ll discover how you should respond. Here’s an example. 

Question: How will you explore community at Penn? Consider how Penn will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape Penn. (word limit: 150-200)Purpose of Question: Penn is testing you on three things: who you are, what you bring, and whether you understand what UPenn is about. Have you done your research and do you truly belong here?Purpose of Essay: Establish a specific and intentional narrative about one or two particular aspects of your identity (culture, history, experiences) and tie it into specific communities at Penn you’d be interested in contributing to. 

Anything that doesn’t align with the purpose of your essay is unnecessary. In answering this question, let’s say you decided to discuss details of your experiences as a photographer and your experience as a club soccer player. This would answer the question of your identity— but not your identity at UPenn. A better answer is to write about how you would join a team of photographers and take creative shots of UPenn’s soccer games for the photography blog. 

Need more help understanding the purpose? Check out Understanding Stories

  1. Guillotine Irrelevant Details

How do you recognize irrelevant details? Let’s keep our UPenn example and analyze a fictional sample response. 

As a transgender female who is dedicated to the future of healthcare for all people— regardless of their gender, race, or ethnicity— I am inspired by the nursing community at UPenn. I understand the stigma often harbored against people like me. I recognize the institutional structures that prevent adequate healthcare for transgender people, and this is why I would be at the frontlines taking part in the nursing story slam. When I tell stories about my life I don’t rant about why life is unfair; instead, I acknowledge that my self acceptance is not a simple formula, and that it takes patience and forgiveness to connect with people who are predisposed to being hostile toward you. Because I am a creative writer, I would join the community involved in the amplify nursing podcast and volunteer at the community champions program. I recognize that professors are an important and often forgotten part of the student community; I have read many of Professor Seul Ki Choi’s research on innovations in digital platforms to reach gender minority youths. At UPenn the first thing I would do is reach out to her about implementing virtual ways to connect LGBT patients with mental health resources. I also understand that the LGBT nursing community is strengthened by the support of people from both the political left and right. One of my goals would be to begin bridging the divide between republicans and democrats by reframing the narrative around healthcare: I believe that healing is one of the most unexplainable forces of good. I want to help create a community that understands the complexities around healthcare, a community that can help both physicians and patients to understand ethical philosophies and gravitate toward political, psychological and physical healing. Word Count: 290; How would you cut 90 words from this paragraph? 

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Here are some pro tips. Don’t repeat information and delete implied information. If you’ve discussed how you’ve played soccer for 9 years, you don’t have to say “and I also love soccer.” If you’re interested in joining the tennis club, say, “I see myself playing matches every week at the Penn Club Tennis,” and don’t say, “I’ve always loved tennis and I played varsity tennis in high school. Therefore, I would like to join Penn Club Tennis.” Remember that this information has already been included in your activities list, so there’s no need to repeat it. 

Want more pro tips? Schedule a session with a Dewey Smart Tutor. 

      3. Incinerate Unnecessary Words

Which words must be taken out? Usually adjectives, adverbs, and infinitives because they usually don’t add extra meaning to your sentence.  


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      4. Remove Lengthy Phrases 

There are a few ways to replace lengthy phrases with shorter ones to fit college essay word limits. 

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Challenge: Win 3 free counseling sessions (worth $300)

Can you revise the sample essay so that it fits the 200 word limit? Send in your answer to and the top 3 responders will get published in the next blog and win 3  free counseling sessions! 

If you have questions, want further explanations, or think I’m wrong, feel free to email me at! Use this link to schedule a 1-on-1 session with one of our DeweySmart tutors. 

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