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May 17, 2020

How Strict is Word Limit on Scholarship Essay?

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)

Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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