Five Great Tips for Shortening Your College [and School] Essays


College essays impose word limits to which students struggle to conform. Indeed, it’s difficult to tell a compelling story, analyze a life-changing event, or express one’s preference for a given college or university in under 300 words. There are, however, several ways to achieve writing that is concise and direct, yet still powerful. Read on to learn how!

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To illustrate ways to pare down your writing, we’ll use less efficient examples of the first sentence of this blog post:

College essays impose word limits to which students struggle to conform.

1. Eliminate redundancy. Sometimes, we forget that certain words provide context sufficient for the reader’s comprehension, eliminating the need for further explanation. Here’s an example.

College essays impose word limits to which students struggle to conform when writing their essays.

The part highlighted in red is unnecessary; because the start of the sentence refers to essays’ word limits and the fact that students struggle with them, we already have enough context to understand that the students experience difficulty when writing their college essays. Deleting this redundant phrase subtracts four words from the count. This may not seem like a lot, but if you’ve included one redundancy, you’ve probably included many more: start eliminating instances of needless repetition and detail, and you’ll find your word count dropping significantly!

2. Take it easy on the modifiers and qualifiers. To avoid generalizing or committing to an idea, or in efforts to better describe what we’re explaining, we use modifiers (adjectives and adverbs) and qualifiers––words that slightly alter the meaning of a sentence. Used properly, these words can add nuance and help convey a message accurately. Much of the time, though, they are simply unnecessary. Here’s an example.

College essays sometimes impose difficult word limits to which many students often struggle to conform.

In a pinch, you can eliminate the highlighted words without drastically changing the message. In this context, words like sometimes and often are weak––the reader won’t miss them. The use of many is unnecessary, because we’re already talking about students in general. Likewise, difficult is redundant: the latter part of the sentence already implies difficulty by making it clear that students struggle with the word limits.

Again, we gain four words on our count. If ten sentences in your essay feature this sort of verbosity, this can get you forty words back!

To get better at spotting extraneous words, read a sentence you’d like to shorten and ask yourself: what am I really trying to say? Write down the first thing that comes to mind as quickly as possible. Does your sentence achieve the message, or does it shroud the point in fluff?

3. Combine sentences by combining messages. Narratives involve moving from the general to the specific. When we talk to one another, we separate ideas liberally, using new sentences to build up to the important idea. When applied to writing, this habit can vastly inflate word counts. Here’s an example.

College essays impose word limits to which students struggle to conform. I am one of these many students, and regularly experience this difficulty. (23 words)

In an essay lacking word limits, this wouldn’t be top priority for whittling. But when every word counts, editing couplets like this is imperative. What’s the gist? It’s that “I” struggle with word limits just as much as other students do. We can convey the same message in many fewer words by combining the ideas of the two sentences like so.

Like many students, I struggle to conform to college essay word limits. (12 words)

This gets us eleven words back. Multiply this by five or six instances, and you’ve recovered an entire paragraph’s worth of words.

4. Don’t abuse prepositional phrases. Here’s your obvious fact of the day: prepositional phrases contain prepositions, or what I call linking words. The most common prepositions are of, to, for, by, from, in, and on. Sometimes, it’s difficult, impractical, or awkward to avoid prepositional phrases. For example, take the first clause of this paragraph:

Here’s your obvious fact of the day. (7 words)

The green highlighted bit is a prepositional phrase. If we alter it to eliminate the preposition, we obtain the following.

Here’s your day’s obvious fact. (5 words)

While we’ve gained back two words by using possession, the sentence now sounds awkward. The small benefit to the word count is not worth the oddness that results from losing the prepositional phrase. But there are plenty of instances in which reworking prepositional phrases is the right move.

Students struggle to conform to imposed word limits of college essays.

In isolation, the awkwardness is obvious. Believe it or not, I’ve read hundreds of essays that contain ten or more instances of this type of error. Check your essays for this misstep: you’re sure to find it at least a few times.

5. Eliminate everything that doesn’t contribute to the point. This is tough, because you’ve probably been trained to provide descriptive detail, expand on ideas, and provide copious context. All of this, however, will work against your ability to stay under a word limit. Here’s an example.

Everyone has to write college essays; it’s just a fact of life. College essays impose word limits to which many students struggle to conform. In fact, I’m the same way, and it’s not just college essays that I have a tough time with: all of my essays tend to be long. (46 words)

Here, the repetition and extra detail don’t improve the writing; instead, they make it tedious and consume valuable space. Once again, the best way to avoid or improve sentences like this one is to ask yourself directly for the main idea. Why not say something like this instead?

Like many students, I struggle to conform to essay word limits. (11 words)

Or, in case you want to cite college essays and other essays specifically, something like this might work.

Like many students, I struggle to conform to the word limits of both college essays and school essays.
(17 words)

Either way, you’ve saved a huge number of words.

Of course, achieving clear, concise writing requires hard work: your first draft will be full of redundancies, unimportant information, awkward phrases, and unnecessary qualifiers. This is normal, even for experienced writers. The idea is to aggressively trim the gristle from the meat of your essay. By addressing the five points above while you edit, you’ll be well on your way!

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