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Winning Personal Essays in 500 Words or Less

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Great personal statement advice from education professional Sharon Epstein. Here she gives us her top tips for acing the application essay despite the tight word limit.

Many college essays, including the essay for The Common Application, limit you to 500 or fewer words. It can be tough to write an interesting, creative essay and keep it short, but if you know a few simple tips you can stick to the word limit and deliver an essay that will impress.

1. Think small

Don’t try to tackle a big topic like world peace or what you did for your entire summer vacation. Choose a shorter span of time and a topic that’s not too broad.

2. Write about a moment

A moment is a brief period of time when you learned something meaningful to you. Moments can make powerful essays. Here’s an example of a moment:

A student working in a store noticed that a customer had dropped some change. It wasn’t a lot and he almost didn’t stop to pick it up, but then he did. The customer was extremely grateful and told him she was counting on that money. The student wrote about how he’d never forgotten that something insignificant to him could make such a big difference to someone else.

3. Begin in the middle of your story, where the action or conflict starts

This technique will not only save you words but it’s also a great way to draw the reader into your story. Here are two examples of introductions that were changed to start with action:

Example #1:

Before: “I spent my summer vacation interning in the emergency room of a hospital.”

After: “The bloody gurney wheeled past me. I closed my eyes and prayed for the strength not to pass out.”

Example #2: 

Before: “I always wanted to climb a mountain, so that’s what I decided to do my freshman year.”

After: “Hurry up!” my dad yelled, as I scrambled to collect myself for another day of mountain climbing.

4. Use adjectives and adverbs wisely

If your essay is too long, try to edit out some of your adjectives and adverbs. Here are two examples of edits and the reasons behind them:

Example #1: 

Before: As Andrew walked his large legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the dawning sunrise.

After: As Andrew walked his legs made heavy, thumping sounds. He turned to stare at the sunrise.

Why the change?

  1. Size adjectives, like “large,” are often too general. “Heavy” and “thumping” are specific and convey the idea of being large.
  2. “Sunrise” is dawn. Look for these kinds of redundancies.

Example #2:

Before: “He walked convincingly.”

After: “He strode.”

Why the change?

One word conveys the same idea.

5. Edit Your Essay

Eliminate any details or explanations that don’t move you toward your conclusion. Don’t repeat your ideas. Pare down adjectives and adverbs (see tip #4). Ask someone else to read your essay. Sometimes, as writers, we get attached to our material and it becomes difficult to know what to cut. Ask one or more people who know you to give you suggestions.

Sharon Epstein is a college consultant in Redding, Connecticut, specializing in college essay writing and interview skills. Her business is First Impressions College Consulting and she blogs about college admissions at

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