Hitting the Word Limit on Your College Admissions Essay: How to Expand Scenes and Add Detail

Space comes at a premium in college essays. In just a few hundred words at most, you have to sketch a narrative, demonstrate your personal growth, and give a sense of your personality–all to someone who only has a stack of your application papers as context. That’s why it’s natural for each essay to require more than a few drafts. It takes time to hone structure, detail, and voice to a high degree of polish.

This article is a guide to adding setting details, timestamps, and examples that help the reader understand your experiences beyond the surface level. 

Setting the Scene with Details

Remember that the reader doesn’t have the same knowledge you have, so it’s important to ground them in the story you’re telling. You don’t necessarily need to describe every crack on the ceiling in the food bank you were volunteering in, but you might provide a concise description of the building, explain briefly what your task was, and give some samples of dialogue from the volunteers around you. Try to make the reader feel like they were right there in the moment with you by conveying the sights and sounds or even the smells, tastes, and textures around you.

Setting details can be helpful to include at the beginning of an essay, especially if it’s an essay that’s centered around a single event. If your essay centers around the after school poetry workshops you lead, for example, here’s some examples of things you might describe: 

  • The activity room you teach in
  • The supply closet you retrieve supplies from
  • The expressions and body language of your students
  • Background noise and excerpts of student conversation

It may be helpful to make a list of the physical locations that your story mentions to help you decide which settings deserve the most space. 

Anchoring the Narrative in Time 

It’s also important to realize that the reader isn’t aware of the timeline of your narrative in the same way as you are. In your head, your narrative may flow logically from one time period to another, but the reader may not be so sure. Conveying a timeline is especially important when your essay’s narrative is nonlinear and the reader isn’t sure when the essay is going back in time or going forward. 

For example, did your improvement in basketball dribbling technique develop over the entirety of the junior year spring semester, or just a couple of weeks? Did your Samba dance competition come after your Flamenco dance competition, or before it? These are questions that may be clear to you but not the reader. 

Although “show not tell” is a well-known writing mantra, explicit timestamps can help the reader create the same mental map of the narrative that you have, such as:

  • “After a month of work…”
  • “In those two hours…”
  • “Beginning the spring of next year…”

Jot down a list of the “chain of events” that occur in your essay, such as the steps it took to present a petition to your school board or the pieces of your family history you unlocked over many years. Once you have the list, you can think about where to interject timestamps to help define the timeline of your essay. 

Giving Examples

Your essay will naturally have two kinds of sentences: “structure” sentences and “supporting” sentences. Structure sentences are sentences that describe more abstract events or concepts such as a personal realization, while supporting sentences help clarify or nuance the meaning of these structural sentences with examples, details, and observation. While most of the time in the essay you’ll be “showing” us your story, sometimes you do need to “tell” the reader information critical to understanding your essay’s narrative. 

Some examples of “Structure” sentences could be:

  • “When tutoring math, I found my tutees responded well to my use of real-world situations.” 
  • “Trimming garden plants requires both precision and concentration.” 

Some examples of “Supporting” sentences could be: 

  • “Using food items as examples when teaching multiplication, such as by placing rows of Skittles™ together, helped Sheila get better at visualizing her homework problems.” 
  • “For example, a centimeter can mean a world of difference when pruning the branches of woody shrubs.” 

A rule of thumb is a ratio of 1 structure sentence to 2 or more supporting sentences. Too many structure sentences can make an essay sound like a summary–such as if you only gave a list of your takeaways from a national robotics competition and didn’t describe any of the experiences that led to that list. The exception is in your essay’s conclusion, which has a higher density of structure sentences due to it being a “summing up” of the major themes of the essay. 

Behind each essay’s story lies a whole world of events, observations, and settings. By selectively filling in details about time, place, and experience, you’ll give the reader a richer understanding of your journey while staying within the word count!

3 Students talking on campus, How to Write the Why This College Essay

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Laurence Li

Laurence Li is a native Californian and a recent graduate from the Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Technology, Innovation, and Education program. Before earning his M. Ed, he worked as an educational consultant in Beijing, China for two years, helping students discover their higher education and career paths. In 2017, he graduated from Yale with a degree in English and concentration in Creative Writing. He is currently an Expert and Site reviewer at WtW and is eager to help high school seniors find their voice in the college application process.

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