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Writing a Stellar 500 Word College Essay

October 28, 2010 By: Category: College application essays

Today we have a guest post by Jennifer Cohen, President and Chief Word-Nerd at, a great resource for SAT and PSAT vocabulary prep.

500 word college essays are the bane of high school seniors everywhere.  You’re expected to make yourself sound brilliant, athletic, interesting and downright cool without coming across as pompous or silly.  Add in the 500-word length limit many colleges impose, and the task escalates from challenging to daunting.  You may be tempted to give up and send in a picture of you and your dog instead (everyone loves pictures of dogs, right?), but don’t throw in the towel yet!  Here are a few tips to get you started:


Photo by largerich

  1. Get comfortable with the length limit.  500 words translate to about one single-spaced page (or two pages double-spaced).  Your word processing program should have a word count feature, so use it.  Don’t spend hours on your essay and discover you just produced 1,000 words too many!
  2. Keep it short and sweet.  Imagine your English teacher on your shoulder chiding you for being too verbose.  You only have 500 words; choose them wisely.  Don’t use three words when one will do.
  3. Remember your college essay is an opportunity to communicate with the admissions officer on a personal level.  Don’t waste it rehashing the contents of the rest of your application.  Admissions officers already know about your 4.0, your test scores and your chemistry award.  The essay should show something about who you are outside the numbers.  
  4. Use the essay to distinguish yourself from other applicants.  You’re unique, so flaunt it!  Resist the urge to revisit the most hackneyed of topics.  While Martin Luther King, To Kill a Mockingbird and Mother Theresa may have impacted you, they impacted everyone else applying to college, too.  Go out on a limb!  Reference that YouTube video that inspired you.  Give some props to your little league coach.  Call out THAT guy who showed you that picking your nose in public is a bad idea (OK, maybe not that, but you get the idea).
  5. Keep your style polished, but not pretentious.  Use correct grammar and spelling, of course, but don’t drag out every vocabulary word you learned for the SAT.  Your scores should already sing your praises in the brains department.  As a test, let your mom read your essay.  If she gets through it without pulling out a dictionary, you’ve done a good job.

Hopefully you’re feeling confident and ready to tackle your college essay.  But if you’re still feeling stumped, simply Google “sample college essays”.  There are tons of great resources out there to help you write a stellar 500 word college essay.  And when in doubt, let your English teacher critique your work.  He or she is sure to give you helpful feedback.  Good luck!