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How to shorten your college application essay by 50%

When I first started writing my college essays, I thought 500 words was plenty of space. Filling the page felt like trying to fill water into a bucket with a hole at the bottom. No matter what I wrote, the essay was never long enough. Somehow, I ended up going over the limit.

I’m going to show you two tricks to shorten your essay by 50%.

1. Show, not tell.

The number one reason essays are long is because students repeat or emphasize the same topic. They feel the need to do this because their statement doesn’t feel powerful enough, so they try to reiterate it, hoping that that will make the statement stronger.

In truth, the best way to make a statement powerful is to show, not tell.

Here’s an example:

Example A: I like chocolate because it tastes sweet. I like how it’s soft, the texture is velvety, and it makes me feel warm inside. Everytime I eat chocolate, I feel happy. I like all sorts of chocolates, like Hershey’s, Ghirardelli, and Snickers.

Example B: I sank my teeth into the sweet, soft chocolate bar. Mmm. It melted in my mouth, a velvety texture. Hershey’s, Ghiradhelli, Snickers, I’ll take them all!

In example B, there’s no need to say, “Everytime I eat chocolate, I feel happy”, because it’s so obvious from what you showed. Example A has a word count of 41 and B has a word count of 26. That’s a 40% word count reduction, just by using show, not tell.

2. Trim the fat.

A lot of sentences can look important at first. But always ask yourself “What is the purpose of this sentence?” Many times, you don’t need it at all. Here’s an example:

Before: During high school, I was very self conscious about my appearance. I worried about how fat I was, even though I was only 100 lbs and 5 foot 3. My hair always poofed out and was never smooth. I compared myself to magazine models a lot, no matter how unrealistic I knew it was. Yes, I knew they were photoshopped, but I couldn’t help myself. (65 words)

After: During high school, I was very self conscious. I worried about my weight, even though I was only 100 lbs. My hair always poofed out. I constantly compared myself to magazine models. (32 words)

The “Before” is a great example of content fat. It has unecessary details like height. In the after, we cut a bit of the content fat, but the main idea is the same and remains just as powerful. Even though we didn’t talk about knowing how unrealistic our expectations were or share our height, at this point, it is clear to the reader that we are very self conscious.

Some readers reached out to me asking if this trimming was bad because we lost some voice. We did lose voice, but we can add it back into the content, without inflating the word count.

What do you want to trim? Everything that you can without losing the sincerity of the main idea. Many students want to trim the word fat — doing things like adding contractions or removing a simple adjective — without trimming content fat. Recognize that word fat and content fat both exist, and you need to be brutal about trimming both.

Try it yourself

I’d love to hear how these tips work on your essay. Try it out and comment with the results! I’d be happy to take a look.

Good luck!

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