Nov   2016



5 Easy Ways to Trim Your College Application Essay

President, Wow Writing Workshop

This time of year, we get pretty busy giving application essays a final edit before they’re sent off to all those dream colleges. But we’ve noticed an unfortunate trend with many of the essays when we get them: they’re not done. Sometimes the essay doesn’t answer the prompt, and sometimes it doesn’t offer any insight into the student’s personality. But often it simply doesn’t stick to the word limit specified in the instructions…

Rule #1 in your college applications: follow the instructions! The word count is no exception. Colleges give these directions not just to make admission counselors’ lives easier, but they also act almost like a mini test to see if you’re taking the time to read and follow them. And if you don’t appear to respect admission counselors’ time or directions, it can reflect poorly on you as a candidate.

Recently, I reviewed a student’s personal statement for a big state school that required each applicant to submit a short essay of up to 400 words. The draft he assumed was ready for a final edit was 751 words—almost twice as long as permitted. Furthermore, the student didn’t think he could shorten it!

Nonsense, I told him. We’ve never seen a personal statement or supplemental essay weakened by the editing process.

Nearly doubling the length of your application essay is a mistake, to be clear. But even though some people may say a few extra words will not matter, I say it’s not worth the risk. Just answer the essay prompt or question within the specified word count, and you won’t need to worry.

Here are five simple tips for trimming personal statements and supplemental college essays without destroying content:

  1. Circle or highlight all adverbs—then take them out! These include “very” and many “ly” words, such as really, extremely, completely, and absolutely.
  2. Look for nonessential words and short phrases, often set off by a comma. These include things like “because of this,” “in fact,” “first,” “last,” “hopefully,” “to be frank,” “quite frankly,” and “in conclusion.” Highlight the words or phrases, and then read the sentences without them. Take out the ones that do not enhance your story.
  3. Tighten up helping verbs. For example, replace “I am going to be attending” with “I will attend.”
  4. Use “active voice” and swap out “to be” verbs. For example, rather than saying “I am a voracious reader,” try “I read voraciously.”
  5. Turn some nouns into verbs. For example,  “I concluded” is better than “I came to the conclusion.”

If these little fixes don’t tighten up your admission essay sufficiently, take a break, come back to your writing with fresh eyes, and read through it a couple of times. Really think about what you’re trying to say in your application essay, and ask yourself how each example and sentence helps you tell your story. Are there phrases or even paragraphs you could cut or condense? You almost certainly will be able to find some. (Remember, some of the best and most effective writing is the shortest!) Finally, don’t be afraid to have someone else review your essay and give feedback.

Related: College Application Proofreading Tips from an Editor–in–Chief 

Following this advice will not only help you shorten your essay; it’ll inevitably end up clearer, more succinct, and easier to read. This also demonstrates that you’re ready for college-level writing, which is exactly what admission counselors are looking for.

For more tips to make sure your essay is ready to submit, you can sign up for free resources from Wow Writing Workshop.

Note: Did you know you could win a $10,000 scholarship for college or grad school just by registering on CollegeXpress? This is one of the quickest, easiest scholarships you’ll ever apply for. Register Now »

About Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton

Kim Lifton, President and Cofounder of WowWritingWorkshop, has been reporting the news, writing for businesses and nonprofits, and teaching students how to tell their stories for three decades. Her articles on the college essay and other topics appear in a variety of publications, in print and online.  

Kim and her business partner, Susan Knoppow, founded Wow in 2009 as a full-service company that specializes in personal statement and supplemental essay coaching services to students applying to college, graduate school, and beyond. The company also provides professional essay coaching to educational consultants and strategic communications and writing services to businesses and nonprofit organizations. Kim and Susan are co-authors of a popular e-book for anyone who works with students applying to college: How to Write an Effective College Application Essay: The Inside Scoop for Parents ($9.99 on

Kim is a recognized national expert on the college application essay and speaks to high school and parent groups about the role of the college essay within the competitive admission world. Kim is also a frequent guest speaker at industry conferences, and has planned and moderated expert panel discussions on the college essay with admission professionals from the nation’s top universities. Kim conducts monthly webinars for parents and represents Wow during webinars and interactive social media events (Twitter Chats, Google Hangouts, etc.) sponsored by community service organizations, test prep organizations, and financial aid companies.  

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