College Essay Length 2014

Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.

Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut is inextricably linked with its largest rival, Harvard University. Both schools have a lot in common: strong liberal arts curricula, disproportionate representation amongst the nation’s policy-making elite, and more.

But both schools also share a more mundane characteristic: similar supplement essays. Like Harvard, Yale offers students the opportunity to write an open-ended supplement essay on any topic they want, with a 500-word cap. Yale also has a short 100-word “Why Yale” essay, and an optional 500-word essay for applicants to its engineering school.

What in particular about Yale has influenced your decision to apply? (100 words)

This is a standard “Why School” essay, however since the length allowed is just 100 words, you should focus your essay on one specific characteristic of Yale, in particular something unique to the school. For example, if you spent high school participating in myriad debate competitions, discussing Yale’s top-ranked debate squad and its unique culture. Or if you crave close friendships in your personal life, you could discuss Yale’s residential college system, and how you would enjoy forming deep relationships therein. The options are (effectively) limitless, but of course specificity is key. Balancing this prompt with the other two (or three) essays that Yale will see is also important. If your Common App and long essay are both about academics, you should choose a social topic, and vice versa. If the breakdown is one each, you should reinforce your weaker essay (i.e. a supplement essay about your social life) with this one.

In this second essay, please reflect on something you would like us to know about you that we might not learn from the rest of your application, or on something about which you would like to say more. You may write about anything—from personal experiences or interests to intellectual pursuits. (500 words)

This long essay prompt offers you an opportunity to discuss your personal development beyond the bullet points on your resume, as well as beyond your Common App. Your supplement essay should not be redundant with your Common App one; it should have different content and a different tone and writing style. In terms of topics, you can certainly use an extracurricular activity, though if you do, you should try to highlight a less-prominent activity on your resume. It is more important to convey development than competence in this essay, and while discussing your most prominent extracurricular activity is often an excellent way to show off your skills, an activity where you enjoyed less success is often a better tool to discuss challenges you faced or personal development. For example, even if your most successful activity is Science Olympiad, you could discuss the friendships and improved social skills you gained from the debate club.

Beyond extracurricular passions, you could also base your essay on an intellectual topic, such as something that you researched, something that you would like to research, or just a field of academics that you find interesting. However, this strategy can be risky because you risk getting stuck in the weeds. The essay has to be at least 50% about you; your emotional and rational reasons for liking or loving the topic. Writing 500 words about the beauty of nominal GDP targeting might make for interesting reading. But it doesn’t convey enough about you. A less risky option is to discuss a personal growth story, discussing a challenge you faced or an incident that helped you develop. The opportunities here are endless, but you do want to be careful not to write your essay in a way that makes it seem as though you want to elicit sympathy. In particular, tone deaf pathos (for example describing a move two towns over at the age of 7 as a traumatic life-or-death experience) can backfire substantially.

This essay allows you to show why you will add something to the Yale community. The admissions counselors should be able to read it and see how you will fit in. You don’t have to explicitly or even implicitly reference Yale itself, but you do want to convey themes such as citizenship, curiosity, idealism, realism, and acceptance, which will convey your suitability.

Optional essay for prospective engineering majors:

If you selected one of the engineering majors, please write a brief third essay telling us what has led you to an interest in this field of study, what experiences (if any) you have had in engineering, and what it is about Yale’s engineering program that appeals to you. (500 words)

This is a pretty basic “Why Major” essay, and accordingly you can use the same technique that you do for all such essays. As always, you want to make sure that you specifically address Yale engineering, not just engineering as a field. Unless you have a specific vehicle or highly specific interdisciplinary field (such as the economics of amphibious vehicle procurement for the US military), you should use the standard playbook. Start by discussing why you want to pursue the field, making reference to experiences and activities in high school that reinforce your decision and prove your competence, then transition into Yale Engineering-specific factors. Yale Engineering has relatively few “disciplines,” so you should drill down into specific areas of focus (amphibious vehicles in the mechanical engineering discipline being one prominent example). Be sure to focus on specific sets of classes and research initiatives – don’t just name-drop professors.

Zack Perkins

Zack was an economics major at Harvard before going on indefinite leave to pursue CollegeVine full-time as a founder. In his spare time, he enjoys closely following politics and binge-watching horror movies. To see Zack's full bio, visit the Team page.

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What else might go here?

  • Acronyms. You may know what the NC MAC Conference is, but I don’t. Make it easy for me.

  • Special Awards or Certifications. You may know how ridiculously hard you worked to earn a Level 8 Certification in Violin, but if you don’t explain it to me, I won’t have a clue.

What else?

You tell me. Anything that may give the reader a more full understanding of who you are. 

10. Stuff that’s made it hard for you to get more involved in extracurriculars.

I have students, for example, who take two buses, plus the Metro to get to school, commuting almost 2 hrs each way. Others have their parents drive them that far. This means extracurriculars have been tougher for them than for others. But how would the colleges know that unless you told them? In the additional info section.

Additional Reasons
My thanks to counselor and former UC Berkeley reader, Randolf Arguelles, for reminding me of the next three:

11. Any physical or learning disabilities

Note: These should be diagnosed by a health professional. Specify what and how long.


12. Parents’ disability or unemployment

Again, specify what and how long.


13. Significant work hours while in HS

Note that this is particularly important if you contributed to family income to help pay bills and (see #10) it impacted your ability to be more involved with extracurriculars.

The following details are important to include in your application somewhere, but I’d recommend trying to work them (and their impact on you) into your main essay:

  • Single-parent household

  • Low income family or large family with many dependents, straining family income

  • If the language spoken at home is other than English

  • If you will be the first generation in your family to attend college

14. ambiguous Acronyms, awards and any missing grades

Don't just write "Active Member, AMBT" or "Treasurer, CMBE Club" in your Activities List without explaining what those acronyms mean. 

Don't just write "Recognition in Biology" or "Commendation for Writing" in your awards section without giving some context: how many given, out of how many students? In short: what does your award mean? If there's not room in your Awards section, this is a good place to explain.

My math grade for second semester of 10th grade is missing because I enrolled in an online course when the class was discontinued at my school.

In short, don’t be afraid to use this section!

Finally, what if I feel like I’m struggling to come up with stuff to add?

It’s your call, but if it starts to feel like you’re scraping the bottom of the barrel with your Activities (stuff you kinda’ did, or just did once), stop. Take a breath. Remember what I said at the start: you do not have to use the Additional Info section. In fact, see if you can be really succinct and fit all your information into the areas provided by the Common App. It’s possible! And your college reps will thank you.

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