Over the Word Limit on Your College Admissions Essay? Here’s How to Condense and Refine

Condensing is an important part of the college essay process. Most essays start around 100, 200, or even 300 or more words over the word limit, and that’s totally fine! After the first few drafts, however, you can begin refining your vision for the essay–picking and choosing main topics, clarifying the structure and narrative, and deciding what message you want to convey. This article outlines tips on where and why you should slim down your essay in each stage of the drafting process. 

Paragraph-Level Editing

When drafting, it’s a good idea to define the structure of your essay and do paragraph and topic-level editing before going too into the weeds with individual words. Paragraph-level editing usually happens within the first three or four drafts, and it’s critical for carving a statue out of the block of word marble that is your first draft. In this stage of editing, don’t worry as much about word choice and detail, and instead think about what the essay’s final structure will look like:

  • What is the narrative “arc” of the essay and what events are key to that arc?
  • How did I change or grow from those events?
  • What message or messages do I want to convey about myself and my growth? 

As you outline, you may find yourself discovering parts of the essay that are extraneous. If the essay is about how you overcame your fear of heights when mountain climbing, for example, a detailed biography of your favorite climber is not necessary unless they were an integral part of your journey to overcome that fear. In this process, you may find the essay shedding whole sections and paragraphs, which is completely natural! Making an outline of the essay’s narrative, describing paragraph-by-paragraph what events occurred and what realizations you had about yourself because of them, may be helpful to identify which parts are integral and which are extraneous. If you’re unsure of what to keep, try focusing the essay by writing a 1-2 sentence “main message statement”, similar to the thesis of a persuasive essay, before writing the outline. For example, the message statement for an essay about choreography could be: “my tenacity and willingness to accept responsibility allowed me to grow from a novice to an expert choreographer.” 

Unfortunately, editing can involve taking out sections you’re attached to for the sake of clarity and saving space. But not to fear–you still have your previous drafts on your computer, and if you don’t, you should remember to keep each round of revisions on a separate document. That way, if there’s a sentence or phrase you want to put back in several drafts down the line, it’ll be waiting for you right where you left it. 

Some final tips for paragraph-level editing:

  • Break Up Paragraphs: If your essay has lengthy paragraphs, consider splitting them out into shorter paragraphs of around three to six sentences. This helps the admissions officer (who has to read through a ton of essays!) navigate the essay.
  • BE BOLD: Bold sections that are “must-keep”, sections that either best display your voice or are critical moments in the story. This will help you focus your condensing efforts on the parts of the essay that are left unbolded. 

Sentence-Level Editing

Once you’ve finished your paragraph-level editing, your draft will most likely still need some trimming. No fear–that’s where sentence-level editing comes in! 

One of the most common ways of reducing words is by taking out redundant sentences or phrases. In a long list of pastries your French club has baked, for example, you may only need to include two or three for the reader to get the picture. There also may be sentences with a similar sentiment or purpose that are redundant, such as if you have several sentences conveying how enthusiastic you are about biochemistry. This is where having an outside reader like a classmate, teacher, or family member is helpful, as they can help you catch which sentences are redundant and which convey new information that provides nuance or drives forward the narrative.

Another common way of reducing word count and increasing clarity is to listen to the flow of the sentence and read it aloud. As a reader, do the sentences “flow”, or are there words or phrases that are confusing or extraneous? Conversely, does it flow too smoothly and colloquially? Does the essay contain phrases like “basically” and “at the end of the day” that may sound fine in every-day speech, but can be taken out in written speech? 

The Final Cut

After paragraph and sentence-level editing, you may find that the essay is still over the word limit. Luckily, there are some tricks for cutting those last few words: 

    • Abbreviate:If you’ve written out organization names with a common acronym such as the NAACP and the IRS, consider abbreviating them.
    • Evaluate Vocabulary: If there are names that are four words or longer mentioned in your essay, consider using shorter alternate names or taking the name out altogether if it’s not an integral part of the narrative. Consider replacing phrases with shorter synonyms, e.g. replace “as well as” with “and”.
  • Print it Out: Printing out a hard copy of your essay and reading it out loud can help you understand the “flow” of your essay and find extraneous words. 

Condensing is difficult. Everyone has moments in their essay that they’re reluctant to part with, as well as doubts about whether they’ve cut the right section in the right way. These concerns are natural, and show that you care deeply about your writing. Remember that no draft is lost, and that you can always bring material back in as the essay develops, draft by draft. You could even use old material as the seed of a future piece of creative nonfiction. Now go out there and start backspacing! 

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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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