Essay Lengths

Every so often when I’m writing the GRE essays, I’ll think: Should I really be writing so much?

I tend to get carried away. And when that happens, it would be great to know if all this extra writing is actually helping me score better or hurting my AWA score. Of course, I want to impress the essay graders, but I want to do it the right way.

Students often ask me, how long their GRE essays should be because there is no concrete information out there about the “perfect” length of a GRE essay, and even if there is, much of that data is conflicting.

Some say essays aren’t graded mostly on length but the higher grades for a longer essay is a mere correlation between essay length and grades.

When it comes to the Analytical Writing section, essay length is very important, so if you are planning to get a perfect score, you might as well do it right.

But before we come down to the ideal length for an essay, let’s first crush this shocking myth that has been around for sometime:

Myth #1: Longer essays are the only way!

On the GRE, essay length is not only one of the factors taken into consideration. You have to check a host of other factors, if you are looking to get a perfect score. All the following factors affect your overall AWA score:

Clarity in Ideas – This is the most basic of all considerations. What are you trying to say? What’s your main point? This should be very clear by the time the grader finishes off reading the essay. Substance and content of your essay matters more than any other factor. Also, every logically supporting reason or example that you make use of should ultimately connect to this main idea. If it isn’t explicit, you are losing points!

Structure – The way an article is formatted, has a massive impact upon its readability. It’s important to break up your essay into paragraphs so the essay graders can easily scan it.

The general structure is to start with an introductory paragraph followed by 3-4 body paragraphs and finish off with a conclusion paragraph. So, make sure there are at least 5-6 paragraphs in your essay.

Sentence Variety – Consecutive sentences with the same structure and length can sound monotonous and lifeless. Instead of sounding repetitive and boring, use sentence style skillfully.

You should vary the sentence flow and the rhythm by switching between short and long sentences. You should also make use of transitional and signal words to vary sentence openings.

Vocabulary – Another myth about GRE essays is that the usage of GRE words in the essay has a correlation with the essay score. Not really! As long as you use proper grammar and defend your point intelligently and use precise vocabulary to convey meaning effectively, you should be alright. It is not needed that you use heavy vocabulary or GRE words.

Language and Grammar –  Though ETS says you may have minor errors in the essay copy that do not interfere with overall meaning and coherence, the time you make your first error, the grader will notice it and this can have a negative impact on your AWA score. So, make sure your essay is as spotless as possible, and eliminate all errors before submitting.

Reasoning – You should include as many logically compelling reasons as you can to support your stance.

One of the most important aspects about a compelling essay is its ability to convince the reader by means of sound logical reasoning. So, you should be able to connect your ideas properly to the central theme or idea of the essay, and convince the reader to agree to your point of view. If the essay doesn’t sound logical or reasonable, you will pay the penalty, no matter how long the essay is.

By no means am I saying that essay length isn’t important. I am only saying that essay length on the GRE isn’t the only thing you should be concerned about. I am also saying that essay length is just one of the factors out of many others that influence your AWA score.

Myth #2: ETS uses e-Rater software which grades essays on their content length

This is the most egregious of the myths, and it’s been around for a long time.

Recently, I read a post on Quora which asks “Do humans readers grade my GRE essays?” The top answer said, “They don’t.” His/her point was that a computer software called ‘e-rater’ scans your essay based on preset rules (natural language processing algorithms) and prints out a score, using a 6-point holistic scale.

That’s just not true.

In fact, E.T.S. claims this grading software is used today, along with human raters, to grade GRE and TOEFL examinations, and without human raters in various practice tests.

I want you to understand that if ETS were to use an automated essay grader to evaluate your essay then don’t you think gaming a software would be too easy? You must keep in mind that there is a human reader who will also grade your essay along with the e-rater, and both their scores are averaged to obtain the final AWA score. So, even if you try and game the software, the human reader will give you the actual score you deserve, which will bring down the average. So, there is no point in trying to game the e-rater. Instead, you should try other tactics, such as using impressive AWA quotes, or writing coherent paragraphs, which will naturally raise your score.

So to sum things up, both of these myths should be shunned in favor of a more strategic approach to essay length. Longer is not necessarily better. Shorter is not necessarily better. And human readers do actually read your essays.

So what’s the ideal length?

I see students wondering about this all the time and I am sure you are here to find out the same.

ETS has written about the ideal length nowhere, and still remains tight lipped on this. Also, there is no word limit as such. But there seems to be a pattern that appears on GRE sample essays that come along with the ETS official guide to the GRE.

When closely observed, there is a significant increase in the number of words from a 5.0 graded essay and a 6.0 graded essay.

Longer is usually better

To analyze further on this topic, we have done a bit of research, and found out an interesting relation between essay length and the final score. If you look at the statistics below, you will have to concur with me. Longer essays usually score better on every essay topic.

If you are a long-essay fan and insist to pen a high scoring AWA essay on the GRE, you should write anywhere between 500-600 words. Don’t ask me why. The research shows that’s how it is, and if it true for a sample of 500 students, it must be true on a larger scale as well.

A column chart with average word count for essays from 500 students

As you can see, the longer the essay, the higher the grades. Notice that a 5+ point essay has length exceeding 500 words. Another interesting fact is, it seems as if 600 is an upper limit for word count. If you go beyond 600 words, you can see how the scores go down. This isn’t surprising, though. Almost no student on this planet can write a perfect 800 word essay under pressure in 30 minutes. If someone is shooting for a high word count, they are surely sacrificing on quality. So, it’s safe to say that 500-600 is what you should be looking at.

Now It’s Your Turn

In the end, I warn you against getting stuck up on essay length. If you focus on word count only, then you would be scribbling gibberish and unnecessary sentences hoping to get a perfect 6.0 score. The essay substance and content matters more than the essay’s length.

There’s no magic number on word count that’s going to get you the perfect AWA score. At the same time, the statistics from the above analysis proves that longer essays tend to get higher scores.

If you’re still looking for word count, an essay that has around 500 – 600 words with around 5 paragraphs, and quality content, seems to be the ideal GRE essay length.

How long are your regular essays? What differences have you noticed between a long essay and short ones? Let us know your thoughts in the comments section.

As a former college admissions officer who read over 3,000 essays every admissions cycle, I can’t stress enough that students should consider quality over quantity when drafting college essays. My colleagues have previously written blog posts encouraging students to draft essays in their everyday voice, and to avoid replacing normal words with cousins from the thesaurus. The bigger picture here is to tell your own story as clearly and concisely as you can. The same goes for the length of your personal statement—hone in on the specific message you want to convey and deliver it as succinctly as you can.

Admission officers prioritize content over quantity. I never met an admission officer who literally counted the words in a college essay. Outliers in either direction were immediately noticed, though—writing 250 words when the space accommodates 650, or submitting 2-3 pages when a single page was requested—can send a bad first impression. But the difference between 280 words and 315 words, or 512 words and 627 words, will go completely unnoticed. Admission officers do notice, however, the clarity of your thought and the effectiveness with which you convey your ideas. If your message was well-said in 250 words but the maximum was 300, so you added 50 words of fluff, those 50 words are diluting the strength of your message.  Similarly, if you wrote a 500-word piece you’re proud of but the maximum is 300, please don’t go line-by-line to delete extra words; instead, reconsider the scope of your essay, because you may have selected a larger topic than can be thoughtfully addressed within the word count.

For those of you still concerned about the literal word count: The most common “personal statement” length is in the ballpark of 500 words. The three standardized application portals—the Common App, the Universal App, and the Coalition App—all request personal statements capped at 650 words, but that’s the absolute limit, at which point your writing will be cut off.  I consider 500 the “sweet spot,” but don’t stress if you write an essay closer to 430 or 620 that you’re honestly proud of.  Many colleges also ask for short answer responses, sometimes called supplemental prompts or personal insight questions, in the range of 150, 250, or 350 words; in this case, aim for the suggested length and be aware of the hard limits on either end, but don’t stress if you’re over or under by 10-15%.

Comments

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *