How Long Is a Short Essay?

If you’re wondering how long a short essay should be in words or pages, you probably don’t have a specific length requirement. The words “short,” “brief,” “concise,” or “succinct” here can imply two things — based on what you’re supposed to write. It can be a usual essay they give in schools or a supplemental admissions response to a prompt. Let’s discuss the first case — the school assignment.

According to Janet D. Stemwedel, a philosophy professor at San Jose State University, the answer is:

A short essay is 500 words long, which is about two pages with double spacing and one page with single spacing.

That number is based on the assumption that you use Times New Roman font (12pt) with standard margins. Various formatting styles have different requirements for those elements. Hence, always check if you must adhere to a particular set of instructions before writing.

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Let’s consider another example. Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences provides some short essay samples that are personal statements and application essays written by students who wanted to apply for various programs. After looking through them (link in the references section), you can see that all of them are pretty much the same — about 500 words. Within that limit, the applicants had to explain why they wanted to pursue their educational careers in that college.

As for a common short essay, it has a traditional structure: an opening (hook, thesis, etc.), a body section, and a conclusion. In 500 words, you can develop and present an idea adequately, which means your paper will consist of 3–5 paragraphs. That’s generally ample to give background information, incorporate one central point, and wrap it up with a conclusion.

5-Paragraph Short Essay

Usually, five paragraphs are an unspoken minimum for a short essay to accomplish its objectives. This number of sections allows you to introduce your topic or claim, discuss or prove it, and provide the reader with a rational conclusion.

Note: To find out more about the five-paragraph structure, see our article — How to Structure an Essay.

20-60-20 is the best ratio for each main element. Your opening and closing paragraphs should be about the same length. And, the largest chunk should be taken by three body paragraphs.

What About a Short Answer Essay?

You will typically have to write this as a brief supplemental essay when applying to college. It should be smaller than a normal brief essay with an average length of 150–250 words.

Often, you won’t find any precise requirements for short answer essays (like a clearly stated word limit). But, if you’re sending it online, the system won’t let you exceed the recommended number — you just won’t be able to submit it.

One paragraph is a standard length for your answer, and whoever is examining it should be able to read it in about sixty seconds. That’s why you need to make the most out of every word. If your answer is lacking in length, it won’t be meaningful, and if it’s longer, they may even skip reading it.

A “short” essay doesn’t imply worse quality or less effort. Conversely, you need to make every word count and pay special attention to grammar, style, punctuation, and tone.

If you’re allowed to write a 250-word answer, it means the school wants to know more about your personality. Be sure to make your writing compelling for that overworked admissions board officer who has already read hundreds of these answers.

What’s the most suitable length for a brief answer essay? Well, aim for 125–150 words if the instructions don’t implicitly say to write more. This range is enough to elaborate on one of the extracurricular activities or your personal experience.

When composing it, don’t overthink what to tell the board about — be yourself. The foremost goal of this small essay is to show who you truly are and what values you have. It’s easy to see when a person is dishonest. A story about volunteering will not necessarily have a stronger effect than a piece about your science fair project.

Differences Between a Short Essay and a Short Answer

The table below summarizes and compares a regular short essay and an application answer to a question.

CriteriaShort EssayShort Answer
Target AudienceUsually, someone unfamiliar with the topic.Admissions board officer or an expert in the subject.
Length500–600 words or one double-spaced page150–250 words (one paragraph)
ContentFocused on one particular issue. The data can be taken from different sources, but the author must show their analysis and understanding of the topic.Succinct but engaging. Tells about one's personal experience or shows the author's expertise in a narrow field of knowledge.
FormatFive paragraphsOne paragraph

Final Tips on Succinct Essays

  • Don’t overuse extensive quotes. First, such citations will take up lots of space in your essay, so might not have enough words left to write the actual piece. Express opinions of other people using your own words or use short quotes with further analysis.
  • If you can pick the topic, don’t choose something that’s too broad — narrow it down so that you can write about adequately within the 500-word limit.
  • Beware of plagiarism. Don’t disguise the viewpoints of others as your own. Besides getting a low grade, you also risk failing the entire course and being subjected to administrative penalties.

We hope now you have a better idea about short essays and their length. If you have more questions, try using our navigation or search bar.


How to write a short essay?

A 5-paragraph structure would be the most common one for this word limit. Hence, to write a short essay, you can follow the guide we linked to earlier in the article. It describes in detail every step involved in essay writing, regardless of length.

What topics are good for a short essay?

It depends on your essay type. If you’re writing an admissions essay, they will give you one or several prompts. Otherwise, go for a topic the discussion of which can fit the word count.

What famous short essays should I read?

When it comes to opinion pieces, the word “short” implies a broader range — somewhere between 200 and 2000 words. Some of the best short non-fiction essays are: “Phoning It In” by Stanley Bing, “Beer Can” by John Updike, “Of Revenge” by Francis Bacon, “Shooting an Elephant” by George Orwell, “Assassins of The Mind” by Christopher Hitchens, “A Dog’s Eye View of Man” by James Thurber.

The list of references

  1. Short Essay Guidelines — by Professor Stemwedel
  2. Short Essay Samples — Penn State College of Earth and Mineral Sciences

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