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How Long Should a College Essay Be? | Word Count Tips

Published on September 29, 2021 by Kirsten Courault . Revised on June 1, 2023.

Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit. If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

You should aim to stay under the specified limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, if you write too little, it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a thoughtful and developed essay.

Table of contents

Word count guidelines for different application types, how to shorten your essay, how to expand your essay, other interesting articles, frequently asked questions about college application essays.

Each university has a different suggested or required word count depending on which application portal it uses.

Some application portals will allow you to exceed the word count limit, but admissions officers have limited time and energy to read longer essays. Other application portals have a strict limit and will not allow you to exceed it.

For example, in the Common App , the portal will not allow you to submit more than 650 words. Some colleges using the Common App will allow you to submit less than 250 words, but this is too short for a well-developed essay.

For scholarship essays , diversity essays , and “Why this college?” essays , word count limits vary. Make sure to verify and respect each prompt’s limit.

Don’t worry too much about word count until the revision stage ; focusing on word count while writing may hinder your creativity. Once you have finished a draft, you can start shortening or expanding your essay if necessary.

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On some application portals, you can exceed the word limit, but there are good reasons to stay within it:

  • To maintain the admissions officer’s attention
  • To show you can follow directions
  • To demonstrate you can write concisely

Here are some strategies for shortening your essay.

Stay on the main point

It’s good to use vivid imagery, but only include relevant details. Cut any sentences with tangents or unnecessary information.

My father taught me how to strategically hold the marshmallow pierced by a twig at a safe distance from the flames to make sure it didn’t get burned, ensuring a golden brown exterior.

Typically, my father is glued to his computer since he’s a software engineer at Microsoft. But that night, he was the marshmallow master. We waited together as the pillowy sugary goodness caramelized into gooey delight. Good example: Sticks to the point On our camping trip to Yosemite, my family spent time together, away from technology and routine responsibility.

My favorite part was roasting s’mores around the campfire. My father taught me how to hold the marshmallow at a safe distance from the flames, ensuring a golden brown exterior.

These college essay examples also demonstrate how you can cut your essay down to size.

Eliminate wordiness

Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay. If a word doesn’t add value, cut it.

Here are some common examples of wordiness and how to fix them.

Use a paraphrasing tool

If you want to save time, you can make use of a paraphrasing tool . Within the tool you can select the “short” mode to rewrite your essay in less words. Just copy your text in the tool and within 1 click you’ll have shortened your essay.

If you’re significantly under the word count, you’re wasting the opportunity to show depth and authenticity in your essay. Admissions officers may see your short essay as a sign that you’re unable to write a detailed, insightful narrative about yourself.

Here are some strategies for expanding your essay.

Show detailed examples, and don’t tell generic stories

You should include detailed examples that can’t be replicated by another student. Use vivid imagery, the five senses, and specific objects to transport the reader into your story.

Reveal your feelings and insight

If your essay lacks vulnerability or self-reflection, share your feelings and the lessons you’ve learned.

Be creative with how you express your feelings; rather than simply writing “I’m happy,” use memorable images to help the reader clearly visualize your happiness. Similarly, for insight, include the follow-up actions from your lessons learned; instead of claiming “I became a hard worker,” explain what difficult tasks you accomplished as a result of what you learned.

If you want to know more about academic writing , effective communication , or parts of speech , make sure to check out some of our other articles with explanations and examples.

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  • Paraphrasing


  • How to end an email
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Most college application portals specify a word count range for your essay, and you should stay within 10% of the upper limit to write a developed and thoughtful essay.

You should aim to stay under the specified word count limit to show you can follow directions and write concisely. However, don’t write too little, as it may seem like you are unwilling or unable to write a detailed and insightful narrative about yourself.

If no word count is specified, we advise keeping your essay between 400 and 600 words.

If you’re struggling to reach the word count for your college essay, add vivid personal stories or share your feelings and insight to give your essay more depth and authenticity.

If your college essay goes over the word count limit , cut any sentences with tangents or irrelevant details. Delete unnecessary words that clutter your essay.

You can speed up this process by shortening and smoothing your writing with a paraphrasing tool . After that, you can use the summarizer to shorten it even more.

There is no set number of paragraphs in a college admissions essay . College admissions essays can diverge from the traditional five-paragraph essay structure that you learned in English class. Just make sure to stay under the specified word count .

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Ideal College Application Essay Length

Can you go over the Common App length limit? How long should your essay be?

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The 2019-20 version of the  Common Application has an essay length limit of 650 words and a minimum length of 250 words. This limit has remained unchanged for the past several years. Learn how important this word limit is and how to make the most of your 650 words.

Key Takeaways: Common Application Essay Length

  • Your Common Application essay must be between 250 words and 650 words.
  • Don't assume shorter is better. A college requires an essay because they want to learn more about you.
  • Never go over the limit. Show that you can follow instructions and that you know how to edit.

How Strict Is the Limit?

Many wonder whether they can go over the limit, even if only by a few words. What if you feel that you need more space to communicate all of your ideas clearly?

650 words is not a lot of space in which to convey your personality, passions, and writing ability to the people in admissions offices—and the title and any explanatory notes are also included in this limit. The holistic admissions processes of most schools prove that colleges really do want to get to know the person behind your test scores and grades . Since the essay is one of the best places for showcasing who you are, is it worth it to go over?

Most experts recommend adhering to the limit. The Common Application will even prompt its applicants if they exceed the word count to prevent them from going over. Most admissions officers have stated that, while they will read all essays in their entirety, they are less inclined to feel that essays over 650 accomplish what they set out to do. In short: any of the prompts can and should be answered in 650 words or fewer.

Choosing the Right Length

If everything from 250 to 650 words is fair game, what length is best? Some counselors advise students to keep their essays on the shorter end, but not all colleges place the most value in succinctness.

The personal essay is the most powerful tool at your disposal for showing readers your personality without meeting them. If you've chosen a focus that reveals something meaningful about you, you're probably going to need more than 250 words to create a thoughtful, introspective, and effective essay. However, it isn't essential to hit the 650 mark, either.

From the Admissions Desk

"There is no need to meet the full word count [650] if the essay captures what the student would like to share. Visually, you want to make sure the essay looks complete and robust. As a general rule, I would suggest the essay be between 500-650 words."

–Valerie Marchand Welsh Director of College Counseling, The Baldwin School Former Associate Dean of Admissions, University of Pennsylvania

Each of the Common App essay prompts creates different writing challenges, but no matter which option you choose, your essay should be detailed and analytical, and it should provide a window into some important dimension of your interests, values, or personality. Ask yourself: Will the admissions officers know me better after reading my essay? Chances are, an essay in the 500- to 650-word range will accomplish this task better than a shorter essay

In general, the length of an essay does not determine its effectiveness. If you have answered the prompt in its entirety and feel proud of your work, there is no need to stress about any particular word count. Do not pad your essay with filler content and tautologies to stretch it out, and on the flip side, don't leave important sections out in the interest of keeping the essay brief.

Why You Shouldn't Go Over the Essay Length Limit

Some colleges will allow you to exceed the limit set by the Common Application, but you should avoid writing more than 650 words in all cases for the following reasons:

  • College students adhere to guidelines : If a professor assigns a five-page paper, they don't want a 10-page paper and you don't have 55 minutes to take 50-minute exams. The message that you send to a college when you write a powerful essay in 650 words or fewer, even when they accept longer submissions, is that you can succeed under any conditions.
  • Essays that are too long can leave a negative impression: Essays over 650 may make you appear over-confident. The word counts have been established by experts for a reason and writing more than you are allowed might make it seem like you think what you have to say is more important than other applicants, who have to follow the rules. Avoid seeming self-important by stopping yourself from going overboard.
  • Good writers know how to edit and cut : Any college writing professor would tell you that most essays become stronger when they are trimmed. There are almost always words, sentences, and even entire paragraphs that don't contribute to an essay and can be omitted. As you revise any essay you write, ask yourself which parts help you to make your point and which get in the way—everything else can go. Use these 9 style tips to tighten up your language.

College admissions officers will read essays that are too long but may consider them to be rambling, unfocused, or poorly-edited. Remember that your essay is one of many and your readers will wonder why yours is longer when it doesn't need to be.

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  • How to Write a College Essay

College admissions experts offer tips on selecting a topic as well as writing and editing the essay.

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Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App, an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools.

For college applicants, the essay is the place to showcase their writing skills and let their unique voice shine through.

"The essays are important in part because this is a student's chance to really speak directly to the admissions office," says Adam Sapp, assistant vice president and director of admissions at Pomona College in California.

Prospective college students want their essay, sometimes called a personal statement, to make a good impression and boost their chances of being accepted, but they have only several hundred words to make that happen.

This can feel like a lot of pressure.

"I think this is the part of the application process that students are sometimes most challenged by," says Niki Barron, associate dean of admission at Hamilton College in New York, "because they're looking at a blank piece of paper and they don't know where to get started."

That pressure may be amplified as many colleges have gone test optional in recent years, meaning that ACT and SAT scores will be considered if submitted but are not required. Other schools have gone test-blind and don't consider such scores at all. In the absence of test scores, some admissions experts have suggested that more attention will be paid to other parts of an application, such as the essay.

But just as each applicant is unique, so are college admissions policies and priorities.

"Being test optional hasn't changed how we use essays in our selection process, and I wouldn't say that the essay serves as a substitute for standardized test scores," Barron wrote in an email. "A student's academic preparation for our classroom experience is always front and center in our application review process."

On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court ruled against college admissions policies that consider an applicant's race. The ruling, though, does not prohibit students from writing essays on how their race has affected them, which experts say could significantly affect how students approach this portion of their applications.

Essay-writing tips offered by experts emphasize the importance of being concise, coherent, congenial, unique, honest and accurate. An applicant should also flex some intellectual muscle and include vivid details or anecdotes.

From brainstorming essay topics to editing the final draft, here's what students need to know about crafting a strong college application essay.

Getting Started on the College Essay

How long should a college essay be, how to pick a college essay topic, writing the college essay, how the affirmative action ruling could change college essays, editing and submitting the college essay.

A good time for students to begin working on their essays is the summer before senior year, experts say, when homework and extracurricular activities aren't taking up time and mental energy.

Starting early will also give students plenty of time to work through multiple drafts of an essay before college application deadlines, which can be as early as November for students applying for early decision or early action .

Students can go online to review essay requirements for the colleges they want to apply to, such as word limits and essay topics. Many students may start with the Common App , an application platform accepted by more than 1,000 schools. Students can submit that application to multiple schools.

Another option is the Coalition Application, an application platform accepted by more than 130 schools. Students applying through this application choose from one of six essay prompts to complete and include with their application.

In addition to the main essay, some colleges ask applicants to submit one or more additional writing samples. Students are often asked to explain why they are interested in a particular school or academic field in these supplemental essays , which tend to be shorter than the main essay.

Students should budget more time for the writing process if the schools they're applying to ask for supplemental essays.

"Most selective colleges will ask for more than one piece of writing. Don't spend all your time working on one long essay and then forget to devote energy to other parts of the application," Sapp says.

Though the Common App notes that "there are no strict word limits" for its main essay, it suggests a cap of about 650 words. The Coalition Application website says its essays should be between 500 and 650 words.

"While we won't, as a rule, stop reading after 650 words, we cannot promise that an overly wordy essay will hold our attention for as long as you'd hoped it would," the Common App website states.

The word count is much shorter for institution-specific supplemental essays, which are typically around 250 words.

The first and sometimes most daunting step in the essay writing process is figuring out what to write about.

There are usually several essay prompts to choose from on a college application. They tend to be broad, open-ended questions, giving students the freedom to write about a wide array of topics, Barron says.

The essay isn't a complete autobiography, notes Mimi Doe, co-founder of Top Tier Admissions, a Massachusetts-based advising company. "It's overwhelming to think of putting your whole life in one essay," she says.

Rather, experts say students should narrow their focus and write about a specific experience, hobby or quirk that reveals something personal, like how they think, what they value or what their strengths are. Students can also write about something that illustrates an aspect of their background. These are the types of essays that typically stand out to admissions officers, experts say. Even an essay on a common topic can be compelling if done right.

Students don't have to discuss a major achievement in their essay – a common misconception. Admissions officers who spoke with U.S. News cited memorable essays that focused on more ordinary topics, including fly-fishing, a student's commute to and from school and a family's dining room table.

What's most important, experts say, is that a college essay is thoughtful and tells a story that offers insight into who a student is as a person.

"Think of the college essay as a meaningful glimpse of who you are beyond your other application materials," Pierre Huguet, CEO and founder of admissions consulting firm H&C Education, wrote in an email. "After reading your essay, the reader won't fully know you – at least not entirely. Your objective is to evoke the reader's curiosity and make them eager to get to know you."

If students are having trouble brainstorming potential topics, they can ask friends or family members for help, says Stephanie Klein Wassink, founder of Winning Applications and AdmissionsCheckup, Connecticut-based college admissions advising companies. Klein Wassink says students can ask peers or family members questions such as, "What are the things you think I do well?" Or, "What are my quirks?"

The essay should tell college admissions officers something they don't already know, experts say.

Some experts encourage students to outline their essay before jumping into the actual writing, though of course everyone's writing process differs.

The first draft of an essay doesn't need to be perfect. "Just do a brain dump," Doe says. "Don't edit yourself, just lay it all out on the page."

If students are having a hard time getting started, they should focus on their opening sentence, Doe suggests. She says an essay's opening sentence, or hook, should grab the reader's attention.

Doe offered an example of a strong hook from the essay of a student she worked with:

"I first got into politics the day the cafeteria outlawed creamed corn."

"I want to know about this kid," she says. "I’m interested."

The key to a good college essay is striking a balance between being creative and not overdoing it, Huguet says. He advises students to keep it simple.

"The college essay is not a fiction writing contest," Huguet says. "Admissions committees are not evaluating you on your potential as the next writer of the Great American Novel."

He adds that students should write in the voice they use to discuss meaningful topics with someone they trust. It's also wise to avoid hyperbole, as that can lose the readers' trust, as well as extraneous adverbs and adjectives, Huguet says.

"Thinking small, when done right, means paying close attention to the little things in your life that give it meaning in unique ways," he says. "It means, on the one hand, that you don’t have to come up with a plan for world peace, but it also means thinking small enough to identify details in your life that belong only to you."

The Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action has left some students feeling in limbo with how to approach their essays. Some are unsure whether to include racial identifiers while others feel pressure to exclude it, says Christopher Rim, CEO and founder of Command Education, an admissions consulting company.

"For instance, some of our Asian students have been concerned that referencing their culture or race in their essay could negatively impact them (even moreso than before)," Rim wrote in an email. He noted that many students he works with had already begun crafting their essays before the ruling came. "Some of our other students have felt pressure to disclose their race or share a story of discrimination or struggle because they expect those stories to be received better by admissions officers."

Some of the uneasiness stems from what feels like a contradictory message from the court, Rim says. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts Jr., said the ruling shouldn't be construed "as prohibiting universities from considering an applicant’s discussion of how race affected his or her life, be it through discrimination, inspiration, or otherwise." But he added that colleges may consider race only if it's tied to an applicant’s individual experiences or qualities, such as demonstrating courage against discrimination.

Personal essays shouldn't serve as a way for universities to ask students about their race as a means to admit them on such basis, Roberts added.

Rim says he expects there to be a lot of confusion from parents and students as they navigate that line when writing their essay. He says his guidance will vary with each student depending on their specific situation.

"For a student from an immigrant family, sharing their racial and cultural background may be integral to understanding their identity and values and therefore should be included in the essay," he says. "On the other hand, a student who has never meaningfully considered ways in which their race has shaped their life experience and worldview should not push themselves to do so in their essay simply because they believe it will better their chances."

While admissions officers try to learn about students via the essay, they are also gauging writing skills, so students want to make sure they submit top-notch work.

"The best writing is rewriting," Sapp says. "You should never be giving me your first draft."

When reviewing a first essay draft, students should make sure their writing is showing, not telling, Huguet says. This means students should show their readers examples that prove they embody certain traits or beliefs, as opposed to just stating that they do. Doing so is like explaining a joke to someone who's already laughed at it, he says.

"Let’s say, for example, that the whole point of a certain applicant’s essay is to let admissions officers know that she thinks outside the box. If she feels the need to end her essay with a sentence like, 'And so, this anecdote shows that I think outside the box,' she’s either underestimating the power of her story (or the ability of her reader to understand it), or she hasn’t done a good enough job in telling it yet," Huguet says. "Let your readers come to their own conclusions. If your story is effective, they’ll come to the conclusions you want them to."

After editing their essay, students should seek outside editing help, experts recommend. While there are individuals and companies that offer paid essay help – from editing services to essay-writing boot camps – students and families may not be able to afford the associated fees. Some providers may offer scholarships or other financial aid for their services.

The availability and level of feedback from free essay advising services vary. Some college prep companies offer brief consultations at no charge. Free essay workshops may also be available through local high schools, public libraries or community organizations. Khan Academy, a free online education platform, also offers a series of videos and other content to guide students through the essay writing process.

Colleges themselves may also have resources, Barron notes, pointing to pages on Hamilton's website that offer writing tips as well as examples of successful admissions essays. Likewise, Hamilton also holds virtual panel discussions on writing admissions essays.

Students have other options when it comes to essay help. They can ask peers, teachers, school counselors and family members for help polishing an essay. Huguet says it's typically wise to prioritize quality over quantity when it comes to seeking feedback on essays. Too many perspectives can become counterproductive, he says.

"While it can be valuable to have different perspectives, it's best to seek out individuals who are experts in the writing process," he says. "Instructors or professors can be helpful, particularly if they possess subject expertise and can provide guidance on refining arguments, structure and overall coherence."

Proofreaders should not change the tone of the essay. "Don't let anyone edit out your voice," Doe cautions.

And while proofreading is fair game, having someone else write your essay is not.

When an essay is ready to go, students will generally submit it online along with the rest of their application. On the Common App, for example, students copy and paste their essay into a text box.

Sapp says even though students often stress about the essay in particular, it's not the only thing college admissions officers look at. "The essay is the window, but the application is the house," he says. "So let's not forget that an application is built of many pieces."

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College Essays: How Long Should They Be?

Madeleine Karydes

Madeleine Karydes

Lead admissions expert, table of contents, your best foot forward, what about supplemental college essays.

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College Essays: How Long Should They Be?

Looking for how long college essays are ? We’ve got a few tips for you. Read on to learn how many words you should include in your college essays.

When preparing for college applications, putting your best foot forward is key. A place where you get to really be yourself is in the college essay. However, this piece tends to stump many students and can cause anxiety that can impact your overall application. Have you ever found yourself wondering how many words college essays have? You’re definitely not alone, but we wanted to share with you some tips today to help clarify some questions you may have about college essays—and, in specific, how long a college essay should be exactly. 

Remember that the word count is different from what you might be used to when it comes to your high school papers, so having questions is okay! While you may be familiar with page count when it comes to writing, word count is different—all you need to do is pay attention to the number of words you are able to submit in your essay. Additionally, instead of being scared of word count, use it as a helpful tool when developing your storyline or narrative and when coming up with ideas during the brainstorming process (we’ll dive more into this in a bit.). For now, let’s take a deep dive into how long college essays are typically and what you should pay attention to when you begin drafting your own.

How long should a main college essay be?

When it comes to how long a college essay should be , you might find yourself wondering how much you should typically write. Well, main essays usually have a word-count range between 500-600 words or less, so it’s important to keep this in mind when coming up with topics to write about and/or choosing prompts that fit your story best. (For instance, applications like the Common App will typically have a cut-off of around 650 words!) 

Admissions officers, when reviewing your application, want to learn about the highlights of your achievements, your ability to persevere, as well as who you are both as a student and as an individual, but don’t have a ton of time to do so given the large number of applications submitted during a typical admissions cycle. Given this, it’s important to stick to the 500-600 word count limit when crafting your personal statement and ensure that what you do include should showcase the best of who you are and what you’ve achieved during high school. 

Something to keep in mind:

If you end up writing too little, it could work against you during the admissions process. Admissions officers look for students who can stick to the instructions and are mindful of this while preparing their pieces for their application submission. For that reason, we highly recommend trying to stick to the higher end of the essay limit (around 500 words or so at minimum), as it will 1) Give you more of an opportunity to thoroughly develop your narrative and 2) show the readers that you have taken time to show your dedication and your due diligence when sharing your story. 

When creating the drafts of your college essays, try to write a lot more at the beginning of the process. This can allow you to work through your answers and narrow your responses down to the statements that truly matter. While you may have difficulty brainstorming meaningful topics to connect to the prompts, you’ll find that once you start writing, it can be hard to stop yourself during the process! This is great for the first few drafts, but be sure to review these a few times and ask your friends, family, and even teachers if there are sentences that could be clearer and where you could add to or take away from the narrative. 

If you’ve previewed any supplemental essays before, you’ll notice they’re typically about half of the length of main application essays. These are normally more focused questions and have about eight main topics they typically fall into: 

  • the “why” essay, 
  • the intended choice of major essay, 
  • the “describe an extracurricular” essay, 
  • the community essay, 
  • the intellectual essay,
  • the short and sweet essay, 
  • and the imaginative essay. 

While these may differ slightly based on the school and/or even the specific major you’re applying to, generally, one of these topics can be found on most applications requiring the submission of supplemental essays. 

So, how long should these college essays be?

Supplemental essay questions will usually ask for a word count range of around 20-650 words, depending on what is being asked, so be sure to review the question and truly understand what is required of you.

When it comes to an extracurricular-focused essay, for example, these will likely ask for a more in-depth and longer response, so you’ll have more room to go into detail about the different extracurricular activities you participated in and the impact you were able to make while you participated. On the other hand, imaginative essays like Stanford’s “How did you spend your last two summers?” question only provide 50 words or less to describe something meaningful you were able to accomplish.

These essays tend to trip students quite often, so be sure to really think long and hard about something specific you would like to talk about and narrow your drafts down to the true essence of this past time or activity. This is your time to truly show the best of your story and who you are as a person to the admissions committee, so take your time and make it count!

I’m applying to the UCs, so what about personal statements?

When it comes to the University of California (or UCs for short) personal insight questions, there’s a specific set of questions already available for you to review online! As noted on the website, there are eight prompts to choose from, although you are only asked to respond to four. When it comes to the length of these responses, you only have a maximum of 350 words to work from per response, so it is important to make sure to include everything you need in a concise and clear manner to make the most out of these short-answer questions. 

While many of the questions may connect with your own personal story, some may not. With this in mind, be sure to take the time to work through the list of available questions and weigh every one to make sure you’ll be able to make the word count matter as much as possible in your answer. Try to pick questions you’ll be able to answer as sincerely as possible, and you’ll likely find that answering these questions within the word count may become harder than you think! Once you develop drafts, try to narrow down the words you have so your point comes across clearly and concisely and ensures you are getting your point across as efficiently as possible.

How can word counts help me in my drafts?

Now you may be thinking, how can using word counts help me better develop my essays? As we’ve sprinkled throughout, there are various ways to use word count as a tool to help guide you along the essay writing process.

First and foremost, word counts provide a bit of a guideline for how to approach your essays and how much content you should incorporate into each response. While at first, you’ll find yourself writing quite a lot with some topics, shortening your responses can help ensure your storyline flows well, is as concise as possible, and removes unnecessary tangents you may find yourself following during the brainstorming process. Additionally, being mindful of the target word count when you begin the drafting process will allow you to plan your writing accordingly and should help make the process seem a bit less daunting.  – Bear in mind word count when picking something to write!

What about if I’m not given a word count?

While most of the time you’ll receive a range of word counts to follow when crafting your personal essays, some schools may not provide a word count at all. In this case, it is recommended that you should stick to around 400 to 600 words for your response to make the most out of the prompt without creating too long of a narrative. Again, remember that your readers are reading thousands of other applications during the admissions cycle, so making your essay stick concisely is key to making your student profile stand out from the competition! 

Final thoughts

Now that you have a clearer idea of how many words are in a college essay , it’s time to put this into effect. If you’re looking for more guidance in writing your admissions essays or editing them, Empowerly ’s team of experts is here to help you every step of the way. Your story matters, so it’s important to put your best foot forward when preparing for the next stage of your academic journey. It’s your chance to show the admissions committee the best of who you are, and we’ll be here to support you at each step along the way. 

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How Long Should Your College Essays Be?

how long are college essays

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how long are college essays

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How Long Should Your College Essays Be?

For the most part, colleges tell you exactly how long your college essays should be, but what happens when they don’t? In this article, we will go over the reason behind word limits and what to do if a college you’re applying to does not provide a word limit.  

Why is there a word limit? 

Because most colleges receive such a large volume of essays, they don’t have time to read through multi page essays from every student.  If you’re having trouble staying within a given word limit, you might begin to feel frustrated. Maybe you are asking yourself, “why is there a word limit?” Rest assured that colleges don’t just come up with these word counts randomly. They know how long it should take for the average student to answer the given questions.    

Additionally, having a word count can be beneficial to you, even if you don’t initially realize it. Without a word limit, you might find yourself feeling anxious that you didn’t say enough or that you said too much. A word count can help you gauge how much detail you should go into and help reassure you that you said what you wanted to say within the guidelines. 

How to draft your essay with a word count 

Word count is a limitation to factor into your college applications, but it shouldn’t be what dictates how you answer essay questions. Write the first draft of your essay without a word limitation. Simply write down what it is you would like to convey and how. This will give you a good starting point from which you can tailor your essay to be either longer or shorter.  

You can use some of the questions below if you find that your essay is getting too long or too short.  

Is your essay too short? 

  • Did you mention all necessary details and clearly convey your message?  
  • Is there an added point that you would like to make that could strengthen the core of your essay? 
  • Is there another essay question that you could answer in addition to the one you just answered? 

Having an answer that you struggle to make long enough isn’t always a bad thing. If you can get your point across in fewer words, while not compromising the core of your essay, that’s okay. However, you should certainly check back through your answer a few times. The last thing you want to do is submit an answer that is too short and doesn’t fully answer the question asked.  

Don’t miss: How to end a scholarship essay

Avoid “fluffy filler”

You might feel tempted to use a lot of filler words in order to hit a certain word count, but this isn’t the best strategy. College admissions officers want to read engaging responses to get to know you. With such limited space to show off who you are, it’s important to take advantage of the space you have. If you’ve entirely answered the essay and are short on words, try incorporating an added point that ties well to your essay. 

Is your essay too long?  

  • Are there any details that could be omitted without changing the core of your essay?  
  • Is there anything you said that could be inferred and doesn’t need to be explicitly said? 
  • Did you use any filler words or is there wording that you could change to be more concise?  

Having an answer that is too long means you probably very thoroughly explained your answer, which is a good thing. But it also might mean that you went off track a bit and mentioned some things that weren’t necessary.  

Scan back through your article and try to be as concise as possible with your writing. If you can’t find anywhere to make cuts, have a family member or friend read through it for you and offer an outside perspective.  

Okay, but what happens if your essay really is too long, and you absolutely cannot cut it down… 

What happens if you exceed the word limit?  

If you exceed or come in just below the word limit by a few words and you’re sending your essay through a PDF or attached file, it’s not the worst thing. College admissions officers probably won’t notice that they had to read ten, or potentially even twenty extra words. The same goes for if you are below the word count.  

However, if you have to answer the essay question within a textbox, or a provided space, you may be unable to submit your answer unless it falls somewhere within the word count. So, keep that in mind as you move forward. You may not have any other choice but to revise your answer to make it fit the word count.  

Related: Tips for a successful college application

Additional resources

We have plenty of resources to help you with essay writing, so before you start writing. Learn some tips on writing 250 word essays as well as 500 word essays. Maybe you need help starting your essay? Learn how to  start a scholarship essay (with examples!)  One of the hardest things to do is write about one’s self. We can help you there too! Learn how to write an essay about yourself and wow whoever reads your essay! 

Key Takeaways

  • Word counts aren’t meant to be an added challenge to the college application process 
  • Before writing your essay, verify if you will be sending it via PDF, Word document, or if you will need to type it directly into a designated space 
  • Write the first draft of your essay without a word count in mind and then critique your essay from there 
  • If possible, give yourself a few different times to sit down and write various versions of your essay  

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How long should a college essay be?

Bonus Material : PrepMaven’s 30 College Essays That Worked

If you’re a high school student preparing to apply to top schools, you might already know that one of the most important parts of the application process is your college admissions essay. Because the personal essay is so crucial, you’ll want to make sure you perfect it before sending it out to admissions committees. 

We’ve helped thousands of students gain admission into selective colleges through college essay coaching, and in this blog post we’ll guide you through how the length of your essay affects your chances of admission. 

By using this guide alongside our other college application essay guides on brainstorming and formatting , you can perfect your college application essay and maximize your chance of acceptance. 

Another great starting point is our collection of 30 real, proven sample essays that worked to secure top-tier admissions for our past students, which you can download free below. 

Download Thirty College Essays that Worked

Jump to section:

What is the word limit on the Common App Personal Statement? How long should your final essay be? How long should your first draft be? How do you cut to get to the word count? How do you add more to get to the word count? Next steps

What is the word limit on the Common App Personal Statement?

The Common App’s personal essay has had the same maximum word count for years: you get 250-650 words for the entire essay. While you don’t have to hit this limit exactly, the Common App portal will not accept anything longer than 650 words. Any part of the college essay beyond the 650 words will simply not paste in.

Though the Common App is by far the most common college application essay, accepted by the majority of universities, there are a few other personal essay word limits you should be familiar with. 

how long are college essays

The University of California system is the most important other one to know: it asks you to respond to four “Personal Insight Questions,” each of which has a maximum of 350 words. 

Other college application essays you’ll write, like supplemental essays, will vary widely in length, though will often cap you at somewhere between 150 and 250 words. Of course, you’ll have to ensure you double-check each essay question’s specific maximum and minimum word count. 

How long should your final essay be?

how long are college essays

We can’t stress this enough: the best common application essay responses are at or near the maximum word count . The personal essay is your chance to tell the admissions committee about what makes you unique, and it should actually feel difficult to condense your personality and interests into a mere 650 words. 

With very rare exception, the most successful college admissions essays are between 600 and 650 words. If your personal essay comes out shorter than that, you’re simply not maximizing the opportunity provided to you. In other words, you need to really sit down and think about what could be expanded, what else you could say to make a strong impression on admissions officers. 

Below, we’ll talk about the different stages of the drafting process. Even though the personal statement should end up close to 650 words, that does not mean your first draft should be at the same length. We’ll also offer some advice on how to both shorten and expand your admissions essay.

This advice is backed by decades of experience in crafting successful college application essays, but it is general advice. If you want personalized essay coaching on your specific essays, there’s no better way to get it than by reaching out to us here and getting connected with one of our expert college essay counselors. 

And be sure to read over these real sample essays and note how long each one is: you’ll notice most of the best essays come close to the word count. 

How long should your first draft be?

how long are college essays

The easiest way to set yourself up for a college admissions essay that hits the word count is to start long. The truth is that it’s easier to shorten an essay than to add to it. The best way to ensure you don’t find yourself under the word count for your final essay is to start with a first draft that exceeds the word count. 

When we work with students, we advise them to start with a first draft of 850 or more words. We know: that sounds like a lot of writing, but this approach has a ton of benefits for the final product. For one thing, writing more than you have to at first lets you warm up and sharpen your writing skills. 

For another, it pushes you to get all of your ideas on paper. There may be ideas that you don’t initially want to include in your admissions essay: maybe you think they’re unresponsive to the essay question, or maybe you think they wouldn’t interest college admissions officers. 

how long are college essays

But the only way to actually know if these ideas will work is to get them on paper. Writing a long first draft ensures you don’t leave any potentially good ideas behind. One of the best things you can do for the first draft of your admissions essay is to get all your ideas on paper, then have someone–like, say, one of our phenomenal admissions essay counselors–read your first draft and tell you what’s worth keeping. 

The truth is that most students will need to cut lots of the things from their first draft of the college admissions essay. If you start your first draft at or near the word count, that’ll make it harder to hit that sweet spot of just under 650 words. 

Your essay’s length might look something like this through the drafting process: 

  • Draft 1: around 850 words
  • Draft 2: around 750 words
  • Draft 3: around 650 words
  • Draft 4 and on: just below 650 words. 

Of course, this is just a sample: your own process might be faster or slower, but the gradual shortening of the essay through the drafting process is nearly universal. 

In a nutshell: start with a long first draft, and cut from there as you redraft. 

How do you cut to get to the word count?

So, let’s say you’ve written the first draft of your college admissions essay and gotten to around 900 words. Well done! But now how do you get it down under the maximum word count? How do you decide what deserves to get cut from the essay, and what absolutely has to make its way to college admission officers?

how long are college essays

You can think of this process as consisting of three stages:

Start by identifying what is central to your essay. What moments or reflections are absolutely crucial for you to tell your story? Anything not totally necessary to your essay should be on the chopping block. Remember: it is far better to go into detail on a few ideas than to talk about lots of things but without specificity. 

This is the chopping stage: in essence, you eliminate entire moments/sections/paragraphs from your essay. You’re deciding that these elements of your essay simply don’t need to be there. This stage, which is one of the most important in the editing process, should reduce your word count significantly. 

Next, you trim. If you’re certain that all of the content you have in your draft needs to be there for your college admissions essay to work but the draft is still above the word count, you need to trim your existing ideas down to size. 

When we trim essays, we’re not generally removing any of the content. Instead, we’re tactically cutting two words here, a word there. This is precise fine-tuning: can you flip the sentence structure to save yourself two words without losing the flow? Can you cut a helping verb without messing with the grammar of the sentence?

The trimming stage can take a long time, but you’ll be surprised how much you can shorten an essay even if you’re working just one to two words at a time. 

how long are college essays

Of course, there’s nothing worse than cutting something that might have wowed an admission committee, or taking out precisely the wrong word in an effort to shorten a sentence. The best way to avoid those mistakes is with an experienced second-opinion: our essay coaches have been through this process themselves, and will be happy to help you avoid any crucial mistakes in these drafting stages. 

If you look at the below essays, you might want to think about all the work that went into ensuring none of this brilliant content got cut out along the way. 

How do you add more to get to the word count?

Ideally, you won’t have this problem: if you follow our initial drafting advice, you’ll be worried about cutting, not adding. 

But if you’re already in the later drafting stages and are struggling with getting up to the maximum word count, there are a few things you can do without adding new content. 

The biggest is simply to add more detail! This is, at the end of the day, what makes a strong college admissions essay: the specific, vivid details from your own life. It’s basically the time-tested adage of “show don’t tell.” 

Instead of saying, for example, “I was nervous as I prepared to perform in the school play,” you’d be better off writing something like, “As I waited my turn to take the stage, I felt my knees grow weak. Was I going to make a fool of myself out there? Had I really rehearsed my role enough?” And so on: it’s the same basic information, but more detailed, more interesting, and longer. 

how long are college essays

Ultimately, all suggestions on adding to reach a word count will circle around this same basic idea: more detail. But again, we recommend sidestepping this whole problem by beginning with long drafts overflowing with specific details and content. 

If you’re preparing to write your college essay, your next steps are pretty straightforward. First, make sure you’re well-prepared by reading our guides on brainstorming and essay formatting. Then, read over a few sample essays from the 30 real college essays we’ve collected below. Then: write that long first draft!

We know, we know: it’s easy to say “Write a first draft of 850+ words,” but it can be a lot harder to actually do it. That’s why we’ve got a brilliant team of college essay tutors, all of whom have been accepted to elite universities and all of whom are ready to help you craft the perfect application essay as soon as you reach out. 


Mike is a PhD candidate studying English literature at Duke University. Mike is an expert test prep tutor (SAT/ACT/LSAT) and college essay consultant. Nearly all of Mike’s SAT/ACT students score in the top 5% of test takers; many even score above 1500 on the SAT. His college essay students routinely earn admission into their top-choice schools, including Harvard, Brown, and Dartmouth. And his LSAT students have been accepted In into the top law schools in the country, including Harvard, Yale, and Columbia Law.

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Blog > Application Strategy , Essay Advice > College Essay Requirements: Everything You Need to Know

College Essay Requirements: Everything You Need to Know

Admissions officer reviewed by Ben Bousquet, M.Ed Former Vanderbilt University

Written by Kylie Kistner, MA Former Willamette University Admissions

Key Takeaway

College essays, also called personal statements, are essays that most colleges require students to write as part of their applications for admission.

We have a giant comprehensive guide on how to write college essays . But this post goes a little more in detail on the specific requirements you should meet when writing your personal statement for college.

Most students write a college essay for a centralized application system called the Common Application. The Common Application has its own standardized requirements for you to meet.

But you’re not just looking at logistical requirements like length and prompt choice. You also need to know answers to those intangible questions about what a college essay should actually DO.

In this post, we’ll start with the basics and end with a detailed discussion about those unspoken requirements for what your college essay needs to look like.

How long should a college essay be?

A college essay should be within the assigned word count requirements. The maximum word length for the Common Application personal statement (and other systems, like Coalition) is 650 words . That’s almost a page and a half single-spaced or nearly three pages double-spaced if you’re writing on a word processor.

What happens if you go under the word limit on a college essay?

To be clear, you do not have to write exactly 650 words to write a good Common Application essay.

A good rule of thumb that we use with our students is to get to about 80% of the word count. For the Common App essay, that would mean your goal should be to get to at least 520 words.

If you’re in the 520 to 650 range, it’s unlikely that an admissions officer would even think about your word count.

But if your essay doesn’t hit the 520 mark, then the length starts to raise some questions.

In particular, admissions officers might start scrutinizing whether you put enough time and effort into your essay. Don’t add words just to add words, but make sure your essay is fully developed enough to fall within the word length requirements.

What happens if you go over the word limit on a college essay?

Several things might happen if your essay is too long. You might be automatically cut off by the application system. Even if you are able to submit your essay, an admissions officer might stop reading when they notice that it’s too long. Or, worse, if your essay is over the word count because your language is long and rambling, you might bore an admissions officer.

For these reasons, it’s best to stay at or below the word limit.

If your essay is just a little too long, try these tips for cutting words:

  • Cut any unnecessary tangents that don’t contribute to the overall theme of your essay.
  • Eliminate cliche phrases or unnecessary idioms.
  • Delete filler phrases like “in order to” or unnecessary adverbs like “really” or “very.”

If your essay is way over the word count, there’s a good chance you’re trying to do too many things at once. Take a step back and make sure your essay only has one main focus (and see our college essay writing guide for tips).

Can I submit an essay I’ve written for another class?

One of the Common Application prompts often looks something like this:

Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

If that’s a prompt option, then you may be wondering whether you can save yourself a lot of time and hassle and submit an essay that you’ve already written, maybe even an essay from one of your classes.

While doing so is technically allowed by the prompt, we do not advise that you submit an essay you’ve written for something previously.

Why do we not recommend this?

Because personal statements have such a specific purpose (more on that in a minute), anything you’ve already written likely won’t fit the bill.

School assignments and past essays won’t say nearly enough about who you are. Admissions officers might enjoy a history essay you wrote about the French Revolution, but it probably won’t give them the information they need to confidently admit you.

Who reads college essays anyway, and what do they expect of you?

College essays are most commonly read by admissions officers. Admissions officers work for the undergraduate office of admission at the institution you’re applying to. While different offices have different practices, these admissions officers are generally full-time university employees. They often did not attend the university at which they work, though sometimes they did.

College admissions officers are generally assigned a regional territory, so they work with students and read applications from that territory. That means that if you go to most college admissions pages, you should be able to find your admissions counselor by inputting your geographic information. If you want, you can reach out to this person with any questions about the institution or application process.

Now on to the bigger question: what do they expect of you?

What an admissions officer expects from your college application essay depends on the kind of institution for which they work. Admissions officers at schools with lower acceptance rates, for example, will have higher expectations than those at schools with higher acceptance rates.

But across the board, there are a few things admissions officers expect from your college essays.

These expectations come from unspoken understandings of what a college essay should say and do.

The next section breaks down the five biggest college essay writing requirements you should try to follow.

College Essay Conventions

College essay requirements are about more than responding to a prompt and meeting a certain word count. They’re also about fulfilling the expectations that readers have of college essays. College essays are all about creating a cohesive narrative across your application. To help you accomplish that, there are a few conventions you should be aware of.

Tell a meaningful story about who you are

Why do college essays exist? They are an opportunity to tell admissions officers something about who you are as a person. As we know from our time as admissions officers ourselves, it can be difficult to truly understand who a person is from facts and figures alone. Transcripts and test scores tell us very little about your values, goals, and personality.

College essays should therefore communicate something meaningful about who you are. And when we say “meaningful,” we really mean it. College essays aren’t surface-level stuff. They get to the core of your background and motivations.

That doesn’t mean you have to write about your deepest, darkest secrets. But it does mean that you have to go below the surface to reveal a genuine personal insight.

Write vulnerably and authentically.

This tip is an extension of the previous one. To write a meaningful essay, you’ll need to write vulnerably and authentically.

Some college essays are just pleasantries that are so generic they could have been written by anybody.

The best college essays are ones that are written in your own voice. They open up a part of you that is normally reserved for close family and friends. They skip the formalities and get straight to the heart of why you are who you are.

It can be hard to write honestly for an audience full of faceless admissions officers who hold your fate in their hands. But it will be worth it.

Craft an essay that focuses on your strengths.

Here’s the thing. You can’t write just any old essay for your college essay. Your essay needs to be strategic. And to be strategic, it needs to revolve around your strengths.

Your college essay should showcase your strengths because you want to give the admissions officers who read your essays as many reasons as possible to admit you.

This isn’t to say that your essay should brag about all your accomplishments. Instead, being strengths-based means that whatever story you tell should leave admissions officers with a positive impression of who you are. They should be able to pick you out of a crowd and say, “Wow, this student is a really strong scholar/entrepreneur/artist/friend/caregiver/etc.”

By highlighting your strengths, you’ll show admissions officers why you belong on their campus.

Find the correct tone.

“Tone” refers to the overarching voice and vibe of an essay. Some college essays have serious tones, while others are lighthearted or funny.

The correct tone for your essay will depend on the topic you choose and the strengths you want to convey.

Most importantly, however, your tone should always end on some kind of positive, hopeful note.

It’s okay to write about difficult or serious topics, but they shouldn’t weigh your essay down and leave your admissions officer feeling uneasy afterward. Similarly, a lighthearted essay shouldn’t be so flippant that it forgets to do its job as a college essay.

Finding the correct tone is a balancing act.

Adhere to the length and stylistic requirements.

It’s worth reiterating that adhering to the rules and requirements outlined by the application is an important part of college essay writing. You want to leave your admissions officers with the best impression possible.

That means that taking each part of your application seriously is important. Try to present yourself as a professional and thoughtful person who knows how to follow the rules.

Doing so will emphasize that you are a mature student ready to take on the challenges of attending college.

Writing a college essay is really different than writing an essay for school, so sticking to these tips will help keep you on track.

College essay requirements can be tricky to navigate. But following the guidelines and meeting your readers’ expectations will help you write a standout essay.

And if you want to learn even more about how to write a college essay, check out our guide to college essays and our Essay Academy program. 👋

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  • How Long Should a College Admissions Essay Be?

Sarah Farbman

  • January 23, 2024

Student writing a college admissions essay

Throughout the process of applying to college, students must follow many steps and jump through what can feel like ten million hoops before (and even after!) hitting that submit button. But one part of the process looms large in the minds of students and parents alike: the college admissions essay . It feels so open-ended. How long should a college admissions essay be? What should you write about? How should your tone sound? How do you know if your reader will like what you wrote? 

A lot of these questions are subjective and personal, but one is much more clear-cut: essay length. In this post, we’ll go over how long your essay should be, how strict these guidelines are, and what to do if your writing doesn’t fall within the word limit provided.

How long should a college admissions essay be?

College admissions essays vary in length, but you’ll most likely be asked to write somewhere between 150 and 650 words per essay. That’s about a quarter of a page to one full page, double-spaced.

Sometimes, the word limit will be given to you right in the prompt. Take a look at this example from Villanova University:

“Why do you want to call Villanova your new home and become part of our community? Please respond in about 150 words.”

Often, the prompt itself may not state the word limit, but if you’re submitting your application through an online form like the Common App, the word limit will appear in tiny letters underneath the box where you’re supposed to paste your answer. Take a look at this screenshot from the Common App page for the University of Colorado Boulder.

As you can see, the maximum number of words the form will accept is 250, and it won’t allow you to submit fewer than 25 words, even if you want to.

Are college admissions essay word limits flexible?

So now you know how to find the word limits, but how closely do you have to stick to them? Is it okay to write less?

If a college gives you a range of words, your writing should definitely fall within that range. For example, Tufts University asks you to pick one of three topics and write between 200-250 words. In this case, you should write at least 200 words. In this case, writing fewer than 200 words could give the wrong impression for a couple of reasons.

  • You may give the impression that you don’t have a lot to say. Since college is, after all, an educational venture, schools are looking for thoughtful applicants who like to mull over new ideas. If you write too little in what is already supposed to be a pretty short piece of writing, you’re not providing the college with evidence that you like to embrace your nerdy side!
  • It might seem like you’re not good at following directions or feel that the rules don’t apply to you. Following directions is a significant part of the college application process, partly because there are just so many moving pieces and partly because you want to show that you’re a respectful applicant.

If the prompt only gives an upper limit, aim to write no fewer than 50 words under that limit. So, if the prompt asks you to write up to 450 words, try to write no fewer than 400 words. Again, this will help give the impression that you’re a thoughtful student who takes your time and considers your ideas carefully.

Remember: the point of your college application is to help your reader get to know you and to make a case for why you’d be an excellent fit for a given college or university. Readers already have so little to go on. You want to take every opportunity available to you to share with the reader more information and more evidence that you’re a great student!

What if you go over the word limit?

While some students may struggle to fill an essay, most students have the opposite problem, especially on first drafts; they blow that word limit out of the water!

It is totally, 100% acceptable to exceed that word limit, even by a lot, on your first draft. In fact, it’s crucial when drafting to take away those word limits and just let yourself write without any limits or judgment. That’s often how we, as writers, find our best ideas and figure out what we’re really trying to say.

However, it’s important not to exceed the given word limit on your finished product. For one thing, many colleges use a web-based form, often the Common Application , to collect applications. These forms will not allow you to submit more than the given number of words.

Even if you’re submitting your application in a format that does allow you to technically include as many words as you like, say, as a PDF or Word attachment, admissions readers may well stop reading after they hit the word limit.

Remember, admissions readers must read A LOT, usually under a stringent time limit. They may only have ten or fifteen minutes to read your entire file, including all your essays and letters of recommendation. And then they have to make some notes and repeat the whole exercise with someone else’s file, over and over, all day, for months. A pressed admissions officer simply doesn’t have the time to read the extra words you wrote!

Don’t worry, though, even if your first draft is significantly longer than it’s supposed to be. First drafts are often repetitive and wordy. Most students find that once they have a good idea of what they’re trying to say, it’s reasonably easy to cut words. 

First, review your draft and ensure you only present each idea once. Then, see if reorganizing the paragraphs would allow you to streamline your ideas to cut words. Finally, see if specific phrases can be replaced with shorter synonyms. You’ll see the words start to fall away pretty quickly.

So really, how long should a college admissions essay should be?

How long should a college admissions essay be? Most essay prompts will tell you either the range they’re looking for (e.g., “Respond in 200-250 words”) or the hard upper word limit. You’ll find this either written out right in the prompt or in little gray letters below the part of the application where you’re supposed to paste your answer.

If you don’t see a word limit anywhere on the prompt, don’t fret! Look around the college’s website for an FAQ section. If you still don’t see the answer you’re looking for, call the admissions office and ask!

It’s vital to stick fairly closely to the word limit given. Certainly, do not go over!

Need more advice on your college applications?

The team at Great College Advice has extensive experience in guiding students along the road from high school to college. We provide individually tailored, one-on-one advising to help young people achieve their educational ambitions. If you’d like more information about our services, contact us for a free consultation. Or just pick up the phone and call us at 720.279.7577.  We’d be happy to chat with you.

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how long are college essays

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how long are college essays

how long are college essays

How Long is an Essay

how long are college essays

How Long is an Essay?

High school essays typically range from 300-1000 words, focusing on a 5-paragraph structure. College admission essays are brief, 200-650 words, showcasing personal interests. Undergraduate essays vary, spanning 1500-5000 words, depending on course and institution specifics. Graduate admissions require more detailed essays of 500-1000 words, while graduate-level essays often extend from 2500-6000 words, reflecting deeper research and analysis.

The question of how long should an essay be– whether you are a pro or not–should come from something OTHER than your liking 💯. 

Sure, you can always follow your heart whenever you want to put your sentiments and purpose into words. It is, however, another truth that there is an external factor that always determines how effective you are as an essayist: the WORD COUNT.

Let us not all lie. No matter how good or bad we are at writing things, word count always matters. This factor may come into play when it becomes one of the criteria for judging one’s written output or a measure of someone’s writing prowess if it is made out of a career. Thus, one thing is for sure: even if it sucks, we always consider how long should an essay be.

But just like any other factor influencing good writing, managing an ideal word count for essays can be quite a breeze. All you have to do is pan out your purpose, know your audience, and be strategic in monitoring your word count. All of the know-how, and many others, will be discussed thoroughly in this blog, so stick around to see the magic!

How Long is an Essay Considering the Factors that I Have to Follow?

Factors everywhere. A good result cannot be determined well and objectively without these factors. Sure enough, good writing, while considering its word count, can be a walk in the park if one considers the following factors that regulate an ideal (or sometimes, required) word count.

Academic essay varies depending on multiple factors. Asking the “WHY” on something provides you with a clear way how you can finish it. In writing, this “why,” which represents your intention or purpose, gives you an outline of how you may navigate the entire process– and manage your word count as well.

Once you have set your writing goals before the writing process, you can prepare the right information that you will inject into the sections of your manuscript, as well as an approach (more than two is fine; do not be shy!) that will serve as your structure. Writers have different purposes– dictated or not, explicit or implicit, thus producing different preferences for word count.

One may have many demands in its purpose, making the word count a bit overboard. Some do not demand that much, translating to a permissible count. One thing is for sure, though: purpose drives your writing journey, so whether you measure your essay length or not, it must be clearly stated on the paper!

When we say that your feelings matter so much in your writing, that has to be minimized considerably because maintaining word count and determining how many words should an essay be sometimes depends on the people who read and use it.

A specific group of people always know what they want in a writing piece– either they like it long and extensive or short yet succinct. With this reality (arguing about it will not give you good marks) in mind, you have to be a sucker for their preferences.

The good thing about this, though, is you already have some ideas on how you will create your piece (versus thinking about it from scratch), and your horizons will widen since you will craft a piece that reflects other people’s liking. A little note when considering the audience as one of your considerations for word count is that they are already giving you a favor.

Nature of the Writing Task

Along with the wish to maintain an average essay word count, you must know WHAT you are writing about. Mostly common among academic institutions, the nature of a writing task may come off as explicit through the name itself (is it a traditional expository essay? A narrative report? A critical essay?) or implicit through the specifications of the task (Should there be an outline to adhere in the task? Should one use a specific structure or approach to the creation of a text?).

Determining how many words should there be in an essay will largely depend on what you are writing about, and the elements and features of these various tasks may shorten or lengthen the word count.

In Studyfy, however, you can see these factors come into play and create a concoction of a text like no other. With a tailor-fit custom essay writing service that offers a variety of academic, business, and personalized research papers that vary in word count depending on your purpose, you can yield personal success in your sheer convenience. 

How Long is an Essay in High School?

In high school, essays typically vary in length based on the assignment type, ranging from 500 to 1500 words for narratives, 800 to 1500 words for expository essays, 500 to 1000 words for reflective essays, and 600 to 1200 words for process essays. Always follow your teacher's guidelines.

High school is the period in education where students’ lower and higher-order thinking skills (LOTS/HOTS) are put into practice, and essays and other related written tasks are manifestations of their learning of these skills.

Although there is a tendency for students to ask someone “to write an essay for me ” because of being overwhelmed with too much information, writing an essay in high school is the best starting point for students to practice writing and presenting information by counting what is important and relevant.

The following is the list of common essay types and their ideal word count:

Narrative Essays

Its primary purpose is to narrate a specific event or describe a scenario using quotations, vivid descriptions, and imagery to convey the situation in writing accurately. Although adjectives, literary devices, and other strategies for vivid conveyance may mean a considerable amount of words to be injected into the piece, the essay length of a narrative text may range from 500-1500 words. 

Expository Essays

Typically following the traditional and rigid 5-paragraph format, these essays present information about a topic or clarify a particular concept, phenomenon, or entity. While some sources may put the count range from 300-1000 words, the extensiveness of this essay type may enlarge the range from 800-1500 words.

Reflective Essays

Also known as reflection entries, these essays are beneficial for developing students’ metacognitive skills, as they are expected to recall personal thoughts and experiences about a certain topic. A typical reflective essay falls within the range of 500-1000 words, depending on how downright or deep your reflection is. 

Process Essay

These kinds of essays are pretty common in Science courses, such as Biology, Chemistry, and Physics. Sometimes, coupled with a diagram or chart, a process essay explains how a certain practice, concept, or phenomenon happens step-by-step.

While some process essays may be words because some steps have to be elaborated for clarity, most are straightforward and do not need to be intricate since they are practical and mass-oriented. Because of this, process essays range from 600-1200 words.

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How Long is an Essay in College? Ideal Essay Length and Word Count

In college, essay lengths vary widely. Admission essays are typically 200-650 words, undergraduate essays range from 1500-5000 words, graduate admission essays are around 500-1000 words, and graduate-level essays can span 2500-6000 words. Always adhere to your assignment's specific word count guidelines.

To say that the essays in college get a lot more difficult than in high school, well– it is more complicated than that. Now that you are expected to have harnessed the necessary skills to process and interpret certain information, you now have to deal with types of writing tasks that are often extensive and time-consuming, to say the least.

Admission Essay

Impressing the admissions committee with a personalized essay is the number one goal, and guess what: You do not need a long string of words to do that. How long should essays be without using too many words in a college acceptance letter?

An admission college essay can be as short as a word count of 200-650 words, while graduate admission letters are more detailed with 500-1000 words. A quick tip: Show your personality and make an impact by clinching them with a few yet powerful or attention-catching quips. 

Critical Review Essay

Critiquing a text, film, book, or any other body of literature may require every bit of your research effort and HOTS. You have to dissect the subject into components and make sense of these components while making sure that you find gaps, associations, and relevance to a particular “lens” that helps a seemingly oblivious observation to become apparent.

It is thus safe to say that your word count may go bonkers, with an ideal range of 1500 to 3000 words, depending on the structure of your paper and the approach to criticism.

Persuasive Academic Essay

A persuasive college essay may land you a good harnessing of marketing and sales skills. This essay enables you to take a stand and advocate something for your audience to do the same thing by presenting credible and evidence-based claims and arguments.

A unique thing about persuasive college essays is that they use the technique called “Call to Action” to magically turn readers’ attention to your claim realistically and feasibly. Considering the elements that must be included in this essay, an 800-1500 word count is preferred.

Comparative Analysis Essay

Comparing and contrasting two ideas, phenomena, or concepts may take a while to provide total comprehensibility. Since the points of comparison may exceed the usual threshold, the word count may also swell up. Still dependent on the elements being compared in this analysis essay, the ideal word count is 1800-3000 words.

This writing task encapsulates the various documentation, research, and analysis of a specific case or scenario, most preferably something peculiar or novel. When creating a case study, it is somewhat impossible to be concise in describing the locale of the scenario.

You have to exhaust your vocabulary and presentation skills to convey the case into analysis effectively. With that being said, its ideal word count is 2000 to 3500 words, depending on the case’s complexity.

College Essays: Help is Near

College writeups can be difficult to do, and to pay for an essay may take a bit of shame and courage. However, the feeling of shame will change to relief if you know that a custom writing service that serves personal writing style and needs like Studyfy gets everything covered.

All of the specifications you need to be in the write-up, plus the necessary information that is pivotal to the success of your paper, will be yours if you sign up for a Studyfy service!

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FAQs: How Long Should An Essay Be?

How long is a typical essay if you will be using the ibc format.

IBC format, for starters, is the basic “Introduction-Body-Conclusion” format conventionally used for essays. Just like the IMRAD format in research papers, this format is standardized and widely accepted in academic institutions and other fields.

To determine the typical word count of an essay following this format, you must understand the weight of relevance each section holds. For instance, it is typical for an introduction to weigh less than the body, which should habituate the most significant information in the essay.

The same goes for conclusion. If the IBC format follows a 20-60-20 ratio and you aim for a 150-word minimum count per section, the entire count can be 750 words minimum.

How long are essays in college, considering that it will be a lot more difficult to write one?

Difficulty may translate to a longer word count, and we understand if it has been kept as a notion in your experience as a current or future college student. If you keenly noticed the type of essays presented at the collegiate level, the minimum word count is 250 (for admission essays) while the maximum is 3500 (mostly common among case studies).

Regularly, however, typical essay writing tasks range from 800-1000 words, especially if you are talking about concept, term, or research papers that are being done at the end of a unit of work or as a terminal course requirement.

Whether an undergraduate college essay, research paper, graduate school essays, or any type of academic writing, it's important to adhere to a specific word count and word limit. As college essays tend to be lengthy, an additional challenge is to incorporate all relevant information in a clear and succinct way.

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‍ How many words should an essay have if I wanted to fill an entire page?

Although this question is a bit practical and unhinged at the same time, we are also guilty about this, as we seldom check the word count of our paper when we finish a page. From our experience, you can fit 500-700 words in a page, but the count still depends on the font size, spacing, justification, and other formatting elements of your document. 

How long is an essay supposed to be in one paragraph?

The answer is invariable since we have to consider lots of factors about the purpose and nature of the writing task. From a general approximation, however, an essay paragraph can be within a hundred words. Exceeding it may render it lengthy and too tiring to read.

How many words should a high school essay be if no one provided an outline to adhere to?

When there is no explicit instruction about the word count of a high school essay task, you might find the 150-word minimum rule per section handy, in consonance with the 20-60-20 rule discussed briefly in the first question (although this is widely used if you are following the IBC format). You may adjust the minimum word limit depending on the difficulty or nature of the task.

How Long is an Essay?

10 August, 2021

12 minutes read

Author:  Donna Moores

Making sure that you stick to the recommended amount of words is important for your academic performance. Even the slightest deviation from requirements might reduce your grade. But why let such a nuisance spoil your mark when you can just know what word count for each specific essay type is? So, how long is an essay? This question seems to be the talk of the town among students. As all students know from experience, the higher the academic level and the more specific the study area is, the stricter the course requirements are and the longer the essay should be. In the following guide, we will discuss how essay length varies depending on the academic level and what to do to find out what a proper essay length should be.

How Long is an Essay?

Essay Length Tips

Try to stick to the 80/20 rule.

The 80/20 rule indicates that an essay should have the following structure: 80% of the text should be covered in the main body, and only 20% – in the introduction and conclusion. If you want to make sure that your text is easy to comprehend – make use of this rule. Structuring the paper in such a way makes sure that the reader does not lose the key idea of your essay.

Cover a single topic sentence in one body paragraph

Another valuable tip covers the composition of body paragraphs. Namely, keep in mind that each paragraph should reveal only one topic sentence, one point, and one argument. It is inappropriate to discuss two points in the same body paragraph since the whole essay loses its coherence this way. If you feel like you have some extra points to add, it is always better to create a new paragraph for this purpose.

Take spacing into account

Spacing plays an important role in assuring you follow the word count. For instance, a single-spaced page contains 550 words, while a double-spaced page contains 275 words respectively. So, according to the spacing you choose, you can always keep track of your word count. But to make sure you are as accurate as possible, you can always check the number of words right in Microsoft Word or Google Docs.

Five – this is the minimum required number of paragraphs

A basic paper structure requires five paragraphs, where three paragraphs belong to the main body part, and the other two cover introduction and conclusion. Keeping the outlined structure in mind always proves helpful, especially when it comes to sticking to a suggested word count.

Different Essay Length for Different Academic Levels

As a rule, a middle schooler is expected to write way less than a university student. Although the essay length often depends on the assignment type rather than academic level, the difference still exists. Below we will discuss what a recommended essay length for school and university essays is.

How Long is a Middle School Essay?

Middle school is where essay writing skills are being tested professionally. How long should a college essay be? Normally, essays length for middle school students varies between 500 and 1000 words. A typical middle school essay follows a well-known essay structure: introduction, body paragraphs, and summary (five paragraphs). Main body is usually the most informative part of a school essay and takes 80% of the word count. So if your teacher asks you to deliver a 1000-word essay, keep in mind that they expect you to write 800 words of main body text. But how long is a 500 word essay, for example? Well, this wordcount equals a page and a half. Based on this length, you can count the number of pages required for your essay.

How Long is a High School Essay?

There are several things that you, as a high schooler, might want to keep in mind. First of all, the essay structure remains exactly how it was in middle school. The only difference is that your tutor will expect a more profound analysis as well as a bigger essay length. Students need to show a more professional attitude to the topic and write approximately 2000 words for each essay.

How Long is a University (Undergraduate level) Essay

Apparently, the essay length will gradually extend as soon as you enter higher academic levels. At the university stage, students are challenged with complex subjects and are asked to reflect on the knowledge they gained during the course. Usually, Bachelor students write 5-10 page papers.

University essays imply demonstrating not only the knowledge and skills obtained during the course but also showing your writing skills. Students usually get long time frames to write such papers as they require research and extensive analysis.

If you are an undergraduate student, you may expect your professor to assign a couple of 1500 -word essays that explore a particular topic.

How Long is a University (Graduate level) Essay

A graduate level essay is similar to an undergraduate one. Although it often depends on the topic, university, and course, there are a lot of similarities between university essays for students of all academic levels. For a graduate-level student, the word count is somewhere between 3000 and 6000 words. However, courses that also imply other kinds of assignments, such as lab reports or practical exercises, might have looser essay length requirements.

Other requirements apply for those who are about to write their final dissertation or a master thesis. These are assignments that ask you to write 100,000 words or even more. For this type of assignment, you will be given a couple of months to research and write a paper.

How long is each part of an essay?

The length of each essay part usually depends on the general word count for the entire paper. How long is a 1000 word essay then? If the suggested essay length equals 1000 words, then you need to devote roughly 80% of the word count to the main body part, 10% for introduction, and 10% for a conclusion. However, if you are about to prepare a 10-page paper, this does not mean that final remarks and introduction should be proportionally big. Instead, it is always a plus when you keep your introduction short and up to the point. The same concerns the conclusion part. Always make sure you use only the most relevant information and avoid pouring water just to make the text look massive.

How to Manage Essay Word Count

Trying to achieve the suggested essay length might sometimes turn out to be quite a challenge. Here are some tips to make it easier for you:

Create an outline

Creating an outline before starting to write a final draft can do you good. First of all, having a clear plan indicates how many words you should write for each essay part. This approach will prevent you from extra editing work as well as give your text a transparent structure and message. You will get an idea of how to use the space that you have and avoid adding unnecessary information throughout the text.

Review the extant literature

To write better papers, it is always recommended to acknowledge the topic you’re working on. The reason why a lot of essays get poor grades is hidden in the insufficient topic understanding, so make sure you do solid research.

Make use of examples

Using examples in the text always proves to be a good idea. First, this approach enriches the text and gives it a lively tone. Additionally, referring to examples helps a lot when it comes to extending the word count. If you need to write 100 more words but have no idea of  what to add – add examples! Also, you may include some facts, data, or basically any evidence.

Revise your paper

Revising proves helpful when it comes to reducing the essay length. If you wrote 1500 words instead of 1000 – simply review the text and search for the information which sounds extra. Once you take a fresh look at your essay, you will certainly find entire sentences that do not fit in or just don’t make a lot of sense.

Can I go under the suggested length?

Going under a suggested length isn’t a crime as long as you’re close to the suggested word count. In other words, it is fine to write 900 words if the suggested length is 1000, but writing less than 900 words might affect your grade. Nonetheless, we suggest that you try to get as close to the required word count as possible – your tutor will appreciate it. If you are struggling to extend your text, here is what you can do:

  • Take a look at your essay points and try to provide more clarifications on their regard.
  • Use new paragraphs to shed light on the problem but from a different perspective.
  • Search for evidence and add it to body paragraphs.

Can I go over the suggested length?

As a rule, no one expects you to fit into exactly 500, 1000, or 2000 words. The standard acceptable deviation usually equals 10% of the text. This means that if the paper’s instructions ask you to write 2000 words, it will be fine if you go up to 2200 words.

However, this rule might not hold true in some cases, which is why we advise you to consult your professor on this matter.

We also recommend all students make the word count as close to the required one as possible. Exceeding the standard length always equals more time spent on evaluating the assignment, so try to compress your essay by using the following techniques:

  • Check whether your arguments are in line with the thesis statement and don’t. hesitate to get rid of extra information.
  • Make sure each body paragraph reveals one point only.
  • Reduce sentence length so that each sentence fits in a single line.

What if there are no length guidelines?

It might be the case that your paper does not provide any writing instructions at all. In this case, you can manage the situation in several ways:

Simply search for the requirements online

If no strategy seems to work – just google it. You will easily find social media posts and forum answers on how to write a specific kind of essay. Besides, you can visit your chair’s website and look for essay length requirements there. It sometimes happens that professors don’t indicate any word count because the information about it is available on the website.

Make conclusions based on the paper description

Take a look at your essay instructions. If they say that you should write a paper with three brief body paragraphs, it means that each paragraph should equal 150-200 words. If the paper asks you to develop your ideas in well-developed paragraphs, you will certainly need to write at least 400 words for each.

If you aren’t sure – contact the administration

If you couldn’t find the information regarding world limits but still feel like it is important to stick to rules, get in touch with the admissions office. They might not tell you exactly how long your paper should be; but they will tell you what an average, acceptable word count is.

How Can Handmadewriting Help You?

If you’re having a hard time coming up with an optimal word count or just don’t know how to fit all your ideas into a single essay, we are glad to help! At Handmadewriting essay writer service, we care about your grades as much as we care about the quality of our service. If you need to write a small 500-word essay or a 10-page report, we can help you achieve your academic goals. Place your first order and explore all the benefits of college essay writing!

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how long are college essays

A Guide to College Application Essay Timelines

This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by Robert Crystal and Christopher Kilner in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.

What’s Covered

Make a plan.

  • September and October

November and December

Anyone can write an excellent essay if they have enough time, and it’s important to prioritize writing a strong essay because it plays such an outsized role in the application process. With sufficient time and preparation, you can also decrease your word count and produce a piece of writing that is brief and high quality. “If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter,” is a phrase often attributed to many famous scholars and statespeople. The best thing that you can do to set yourself up for success is to plan ahead, giving yourself plenty of time to engage in the writing process and produce multiple drafts of your essay.

It is most helpful to use the summer before your senior year of high school—or the year during which you are applying—to prepare your college application essays, with the goal of completing at least your personal statement by early September. The following timeline roughly outlines the steps of the writing process that you should take each month to achieve this goal.

For more guidance on writing your personal statement, read our article on how to write the Common Application essays for 2022-2023 .

Review the Common Application essay prompts for the most recent application season. These prompts often remain the same as the previous year. Pick a few essay prompts that resonate with you, and start to contemplate them as you go through your day. Maybe you can use your daily bus ride or afternoon stroll to brainstorm possible topics for the prompts that interest you. It is always helpful to have a journal, a note-taking app on your phone, or scratch paper on hand where you can record your ideas. 

In addition to journaling about potential material for your essays, it’s helpful to practice thinking about and articulating your responses to various questions about who you are and how you think and view the world. Here are a few examples:

  • What are your core values? How did you develop this system of values? 
  • What motivates you? How do you motivate yourself? 
  • What are you passionate about? If you could study anything, what would you want to learn more about? 
  • What issues in your local community or at the city, state, national, or global level are most concerning to you?
  • What are your short-term goals and long-term dreams and aspirations? Where would you like to see yourself in five or 10 years? What are lifetime goals that you have?

For more brainstorming questions, read “ 7 Questions to Help You Start Writing Your College Essays .”

Your goal for May is to outline and write a complete rough draft of your personal statement. The hardest part of writing your essay is committing something to paper, and the best draft is often a bad first draft. Everything becomes easier once you have words to edit. Your first draft does not need to be amazing or even passable; it can be completely awful, and it will still be better than a blank page.

Use June to edit the rough draft that you produced in May. This is where you will dive into the process of constructing your narrative. Then, you should aim to produce at least three or more additional drafts. These will likely be the most time-intensive drafts that you produce.

At this point in the process, you should work on developing your ideas mostly on your own. You do not need to share your essay with anyone else unless you feel confident that your draft is ready for others to review or that you cannot progress without outside input. 

You should continue producing new drafts of your personal statement. This means you should read aloud your essay from beginning to end and make changes to word choice, grammar, sentence structure, paragraph structure, and content. You should do this every three or so days. 

Now is a great time to share your drafts with a close family member, friend, teacher, or high school counselor. In addition to showing your essays to members of your inner circle, you should prioritize finding a neutral third party to review your essays and provide critical feedback. This third party should be someone familiar with the college admissions process, such as a current college student, a recent college graduate, or a college consultant, like a CollegeVine Advisor . 

Ask each person who reads your essay to provide written feedback, or have a conversation with them about their impressions, suggestions, and questions. Of course, too many cooks can spoil the broth, as the saying goes. Show your essay to enough people to get a broad range of opinions but not so many that you feel overwhelmed or confused.

This month should be devoted to incorporating feedback from people who have read your essay and doing the final polishing work that will take your essay to the next level. By the end of August, you should have a final draft of your personal statement that you would feel confident submitting.

September and October 

Work on and complete your supplemental essays in preparation for meeting the early action and early decision deadlines.

Work on and complete your supplemental essays in preparation for meeting the regular decision deadline.

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Sat / act prep online guides and tips, 177 college essay examples for 11 schools + expert analysis.

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College Admissions , College Essays


The personal statement might just be the hardest part of your college application. Mostly this is because it has the least guidance and is the most open-ended. One way to understand what colleges are looking for when they ask you to write an essay is to check out the essays of students who already got in—college essays that actually worked. After all, they must be among the most successful of this weird literary genre.

In this article, I'll go through general guidelines for what makes great college essays great. I've also compiled an enormous list of 100+ actual sample college essays from 11 different schools. Finally, I'll break down two of these published college essay examples and explain why and how they work. With links to 177 full essays and essay excerpts , this article is a great resource for learning how to craft your own personal college admissions essay!

What Excellent College Essays Have in Common

Even though in many ways these sample college essays are very different from one other, they do share some traits you should try to emulate as you write your own essay.

Visible Signs of Planning

Building out from a narrow, concrete focus. You'll see a similar structure in many of the essays. The author starts with a very detailed story of an event or description of a person or place. After this sense-heavy imagery, the essay expands out to make a broader point about the author, and connects this very memorable experience to the author's present situation, state of mind, newfound understanding, or maturity level.

Knowing how to tell a story. Some of the experiences in these essays are one-of-a-kind. But most deal with the stuff of everyday life. What sets them apart is the way the author approaches the topic: analyzing it for drama and humor, for its moving qualities, for what it says about the author's world, and for how it connects to the author's emotional life.

Stellar Execution

A killer first sentence. You've heard it before, and you'll hear it again: you have to suck the reader in, and the best place to do that is the first sentence. Great first sentences are punchy. They are like cliffhangers, setting up an exciting scene or an unusual situation with an unclear conclusion, in order to make the reader want to know more. Don't take my word for it—check out these 22 first sentences from Stanford applicants and tell me you don't want to read the rest of those essays to find out what happens!

A lively, individual voice. Writing is for readers. In this case, your reader is an admissions officer who has read thousands of essays before yours and will read thousands after. Your goal? Don't bore your reader. Use interesting descriptions, stay away from clichés, include your own offbeat observations—anything that makes this essay sounds like you and not like anyone else.


Technical correctness. No spelling mistakes, no grammar weirdness, no syntax issues, no punctuation snafus—each of these sample college essays has been formatted and proofread perfectly. If this kind of exactness is not your strong suit, you're in luck! All colleges advise applicants to have their essays looked over several times by parents, teachers, mentors, and anyone else who can spot a comma splice. Your essay must be your own work, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with getting help polishing it.

And if you need more guidance, connect with PrepScholar's expert admissions consultants . These expert writers know exactly what college admissions committees look for in an admissions essay and chan help you craft an essay that boosts your chances of getting into your dream school.

Check out PrepScholar's Essay Editing and Coaching progra m for more details!

Want to write the perfect college application essay?   We can help.   Your dedicated PrepScholar Admissions counselor will help you craft your perfect college essay, from the ground up. We learn your background and interests, brainstorm essay topics, and walk you through the essay drafting process, step-by-step. At the end, you'll have a unique essay to proudly submit to colleges.   Don't leave your college application to chance. Find out more about PrepScholar Admissions now:

Links to Full College Essay Examples

Some colleges publish a selection of their favorite accepted college essays that worked, and I've put together a selection of over 100 of these.

Common App Essay Samples

Please note that some of these college essay examples may be responding to prompts that are no longer in use. The current Common App prompts are as follows:

1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. 2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? 3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? 4. Reflect on something that someone has done for you that has made you happy or thankful in a surprising way. How has this gratitude affected or motivated you? 5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. 6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more?

7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one you've already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design.

Now, let's get to the good stuff: the list of 177 college essay examples responding to current and past Common App essay prompts. 

Connecticut college.

  • 12 Common Application essays from the classes of 2022-2025

Hamilton College

  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2026
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 7 Common Application essays from the class of 2018
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2012
  • 8 Common Application essays from the class of 2007

Johns Hopkins

These essays are answers to past prompts from either the Common Application or the Coalition Application (which Johns Hopkins used to accept).

  • 1 Common Application or Coalition Application essay from the class of 2026
  • 6 Common Application or Coalition Application essays from the class of 2025
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2024
  • 6 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2023
  • 7 Common Application of Universal Application essays from the class of 2022
  • 5 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2021
  • 7 Common Application or Universal Application essays from the class of 2020

Essay Examples Published by Other Websites

  • 2 Common Application essays ( 1st essay , 2nd essay ) from applicants admitted to Columbia

Other Sample College Essays

Here is a collection of essays that are college-specific.

Babson College

  • 4 essays (and 1 video response) on "Why Babson" from the class of 2020

Emory University

  • 5 essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) from the class of 2020 along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on why the essays were exceptional
  • 5 more recent essay examples ( 1 , 2 , 3 , 4 , 5 ) along with analysis from Emory admissions staff on what made these essays stand out

University of Georgia

  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2019
  • 1 “strong essay” sample from 2018
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2023
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2022
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2021
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2020
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2019
  • 10 Harvard essays from 2018
  • 6 essays from admitted MIT students

Smith College

  • 6 "best gift" essays from the class of 2018


Books of College Essays

If you're looking for even more sample college essays, consider purchasing a college essay book. The best of these include dozens of essays that worked and feedback from real admissions officers.

College Essays That Made a Difference —This detailed guide from Princeton Review includes not only successful essays, but also interviews with admissions officers and full student profiles.

50 Successful Harvard Application Essays by the Staff of the Harvard Crimson—A must for anyone aspiring to Harvard .

50 Successful Ivy League Application Essays and 50 Successful Stanford Application Essays by Gen and Kelly Tanabe—For essays from other top schools, check out this venerated series, which is regularly updated with new essays.

Heavenly Essays by Janine W. Robinson—This collection from the popular blogger behind Essay Hell includes a wider range of schools, as well as helpful tips on honing your own essay.


Analyzing Great Common App Essays That Worked

I've picked two essays from the examples collected above to examine in more depth so that you can see exactly what makes a successful college essay work. Full credit for these essays goes to the original authors and the schools that published them.

Example 1: "Breaking Into Cars," by Stephen, Johns Hopkins Class of '19 (Common App Essay, 636 words long)

I had never broken into a car before.

We were in Laredo, having just finished our first day at a Habitat for Humanity work site. The Hotchkiss volunteers had already left, off to enjoy some Texas BBQ, leaving me behind with the college kids to clean up. Not until we were stranded did we realize we were locked out of the van.

Someone picked a coat hanger out of the dumpster, handed it to me, and took a few steps back.

"Can you do that thing with a coat hanger to unlock it?"

"Why me?" I thought.

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame. Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally. My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed. "The water's on fire! Clear a hole!" he shouted, tossing me in the lake without warning. While I'm still unconvinced about that particular lesson's practicality, my Dad's overarching message is unequivocally true: much of life is unexpected, and you have to deal with the twists and turns.

Living in my family, days rarely unfolded as planned. A bit overlooked, a little pushed around, I learned to roll with reality, negotiate a quick deal, and give the improbable a try. I don't sweat the small stuff, and I definitely don't expect perfect fairness. So what if our dining room table only has six chairs for seven people? Someone learns the importance of punctuality every night.

But more than punctuality and a special affinity for musical chairs, my family life has taught me to thrive in situations over which I have no power. Growing up, I never controlled my older siblings, but I learned how to thwart their attempts to control me. I forged alliances, and realigned them as necessary. Sometimes, I was the poor, defenseless little brother; sometimes I was the omniscient elder. Different things to different people, as the situation demanded. I learned to adapt.

Back then, these techniques were merely reactions undertaken to ensure my survival. But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The question caught me off guard, much like the question posed to me in Laredo. Then, I realized I knew the answer. I knew why the coat hanger had been handed to me.

Growing up as the middle child in my family, I was a vital participant in a thing I did not govern, in the company of people I did not choose. It's family. It's society. And often, it's chaos. You participate by letting go of the small stuff, not expecting order and perfection, and facing the unexpected with confidence, optimism, and preparedness. My family experience taught me to face a serendipitous world with confidence.

What Makes This Essay Tick?

It's very helpful to take writing apart in order to see just how it accomplishes its objectives. Stephen's essay is very effective. Let's find out why!

An Opening Line That Draws You In

In just eight words, we get: scene-setting (he is standing next to a car about to break in), the idea of crossing a boundary (he is maybe about to do an illegal thing for the first time), and a cliffhanger (we are thinking: is he going to get caught? Is he headed for a life of crime? Is he about to be scared straight?).

Great, Detailed Opening Story

More out of amusement than optimism, I gave it a try. I slid the hanger into the window's seal like I'd seen on crime shows, and spent a few minutes jiggling the apparatus around the inside of the frame.

It's the details that really make this small experience come alive. Notice how whenever he can, Stephen uses a more specific, descriptive word in place of a more generic one. The volunteers aren't going to get food or dinner; they're going for "Texas BBQ." The coat hanger comes from "a dumpster." Stephen doesn't just move the coat hanger—he "jiggles" it.

Details also help us visualize the emotions of the people in the scene. The person who hands Stephen the coat hanger isn't just uncomfortable or nervous; he "takes a few steps back"—a description of movement that conveys feelings. Finally, the detail of actual speech makes the scene pop. Instead of writing that the other guy asked him to unlock the van, Stephen has the guy actually say his own words in a way that sounds like a teenager talking.


Turning a Specific Incident Into a Deeper Insight

Suddenly, two things simultaneously clicked. One was the lock on the door. (I actually succeeded in springing it.) The other was the realization that I'd been in this type of situation before. In fact, I'd been born into this type of situation.

Stephen makes the locked car experience a meaningful illustration of how he has learned to be resourceful and ready for anything, and he also makes this turn from the specific to the broad through an elegant play on the two meanings of the word "click."

Using Concrete Examples When Making Abstract Claims

My upbringing has numbed me to unpredictability and chaos. With a family of seven, my home was loud, messy, and spottily supervised. My siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing—all meant my house was functioning normally.

"Unpredictability and chaos" are very abstract, not easily visualized concepts. They could also mean any number of things—violence, abandonment, poverty, mental instability. By instantly following up with highly finite and unambiguous illustrations like "family of seven" and "siblings arguing, the dog barking, the phone ringing," Stephen grounds the abstraction in something that is easy to picture: a large, noisy family.

Using Small Bits of Humor and Casual Word Choice

My Dad, a retired Navy pilot, was away half the time. When he was home, he had a parenting style something like a drill sergeant. At the age of nine, I learned how to clear burning oil from the surface of water. My Dad considered this a critical life skill—you know, in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed.

Obviously, knowing how to clean burning oil is not high on the list of things every 9-year-old needs to know. To emphasize this, Stephen uses sarcasm by bringing up a situation that is clearly over-the-top: "in case my aircraft carrier should ever get torpedoed."

The humor also feels relaxed. Part of this is because he introduces it with the colloquial phrase "you know," so it sounds like he is talking to us in person. This approach also diffuses the potential discomfort of the reader with his father's strictness—since he is making jokes about it, clearly he is OK. Notice, though, that this doesn't occur very much in the essay. This helps keep the tone meaningful and serious rather than flippant.


An Ending That Stretches the Insight Into the Future

But one day this fall, Dr. Hicks, our Head of School, asked me a question that he hoped all seniors would reflect on throughout the year: "How can I participate in a thing I do not govern, in the company of people I did not choose?"

The ending of the essay reveals that Stephen's life has been one long preparation for the future. He has emerged from chaos and his dad's approach to parenting as a person who can thrive in a world that he can't control.

This connection of past experience to current maturity and self-knowledge is a key element in all successful personal essays. Colleges are very much looking for mature, self-aware applicants. These are the qualities of successful college students, who will be able to navigate the independence college classes require and the responsibility and quasi-adulthood of college life.

What Could This Essay Do Even Better?

Even the best essays aren't perfect, and even the world's greatest writers will tell you that writing is never "finished"—just "due." So what would we tweak in this essay if we could?

Replace some of the clichéd language. Stephen uses handy phrases like "twists and turns" and "don't sweat the small stuff" as a kind of shorthand for explaining his relationship to chaos and unpredictability. But using too many of these ready-made expressions runs the risk of clouding out your own voice and replacing it with something expected and boring.

Use another example from recent life. Stephen's first example (breaking into the van in Laredo) is a great illustration of being resourceful in an unexpected situation. But his essay also emphasizes that he "learned to adapt" by being "different things to different people." It would be great to see how this plays out outside his family, either in the situation in Laredo or another context.

Want to build the best possible college application?   We can help.   PrepScholar Admissions combines world-class admissions counselors with our data-driven, proprietary admissions strategies. We've guided thousands of students to get into their top choice schools, from state colleges to the Ivy League. We know what kinds of students colleges want to admit and are driven to get you admitted to your dream schools. Learn more about PrepScholar Admissions to maximize your chance of getting in:

Example 2: By Renner Kwittken, Tufts Class of '23 (Common App Essay, 645 words long)

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver. I saw it in my favorite book, Richard Scarry's "Cars and Trucks and Things That Go," and for some reason, I was absolutely obsessed with the idea of driving a giant pickle. Much to the discontent of my younger sister, I insisted that my parents read us that book as many nights as possible so we could find goldbug, a small little golden bug, on every page. I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Then I discovered a real goldbug: gold nanoparticles that can reprogram macrophages to assist in killing tumors, produce clear images of them without sacrificing the subject, and heat them to obliteration.

Suddenly the destination of my pickle was clear.

I quickly became enveloped by the world of nanomedicine; I scoured articles about liposomes, polymeric micelles, dendrimers, targeting ligands, and self-assembling nanoparticles, all conquering cancer in some exotic way. Completely absorbed, I set out to find a mentor to dive even deeper into these topics. After several rejections, I was immensely grateful to receive an invitation to work alongside Dr. Sangeeta Ray at Johns Hopkins.

In the lab, Dr. Ray encouraged a great amount of autonomy to design and implement my own procedures. I chose to attack a problem that affects the entire field of nanomedicine: nanoparticles consistently fail to translate from animal studies into clinical trials. Jumping off recent literature, I set out to see if a pre-dose of a common chemotherapeutic could enhance nanoparticle delivery in aggressive prostate cancer, creating three novel constructs based on three different linear polymers, each using fluorescent dye (although no gold, sorry goldbug!). Though using radioactive isotopes like Gallium and Yttrium would have been incredible, as a 17-year-old, I unfortunately wasn't allowed in the same room as these radioactive materials (even though I took a Geiger counter to a pair of shoes and found them to be slightly dangerous).

I hadn't expected my hypothesis to work, as the research project would have ideally been led across two full years. Yet while there are still many optimizations and revisions to be done, I was thrilled to find -- with completely new nanoparticles that may one day mean future trials will use particles with the initials "RK-1" -- thatcyclophosphamide did indeed increase nanoparticle delivery to the tumor in a statistically significant way.

A secondary, unexpected research project was living alone in Baltimore, a new city to me, surrounded by people much older than I. Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research. Whether in a presentation or in a casual conversation, making others interested in science is perhaps more exciting to me than the research itself. This solidified a new pursuit to angle my love for writing towards illuminating science in ways people can understand, adding value to a society that can certainly benefit from more scientific literacy.

It seems fitting that my goals are still transforming: in Scarry's book, there is not just one goldbug, there is one on every page. With each new experience, I'm learning that it isn't the goldbug itself, but rather the act of searching for the goldbugs that will encourage, shape, and refine my ever-evolving passions. Regardless of the goldbug I seek -- I know my pickle truck has just begun its journey.

Renner takes a somewhat different approach than Stephen, but their essay is just as detailed and engaging. Let's go through some of the strengths of this essay.

One Clear Governing Metaphor

This essay is ultimately about two things: Renner’s dreams and future career goals, and Renner’s philosophy on goal-setting and achieving one’s dreams.

But instead of listing off all the amazing things they’ve done to pursue their dream of working in nanomedicine, Renner tells a powerful, unique story instead. To set up the narrative, Renner opens the essay by connecting their experiences with goal-setting and dream-chasing all the way back to a memorable childhood experience:

This lighthearted–but relevant!--story about the moment when Renner first developed a passion for a specific career (“finding the goldbug”) provides an anchor point for the rest of the essay. As Renner pivots to describing their current dreams and goals–working in nanomedicine–the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” is reflected in Renner’s experiments, rejections, and new discoveries.

Though Renner tells multiple stories about their quest to “find the goldbug,” or, in other words, pursue their passion, each story is connected by a unifying theme; namely, that as we search and grow over time, our goals will transform…and that’s okay! By the end of the essay, Renner uses the metaphor of “finding the goldbug” to reiterate the relevance of the opening story:

While the earlier parts of the essay convey Renner’s core message by showing, the final, concluding paragraph sums up Renner’s insights by telling. By briefly and clearly stating the relevance of the goldbug metaphor to their own philosophy on goals and dreams, Renner demonstrates their creativity, insight, and eagerness to grow and evolve as the journey continues into college.


An Engaging, Individual Voice

This essay uses many techniques that make Renner sound genuine and make the reader feel like we already know them.

Technique #1: humor. Notice Renner's gentle and relaxed humor that lightly mocks their younger self's grand ambitions (this is different from the more sarcastic kind of humor used by Stephen in the first essay—you could never mistake one writer for the other).

My first dream job was to be a pickle truck driver.

I would imagine the wonderful life I would have: being a pig driving a giant pickle truck across the country, chasing and finding goldbug. I then moved on to wanting to be a Lego Master. Then an architect. Then a surgeon.

Renner gives a great example of how to use humor to your advantage in college essays. You don’t want to come off as too self-deprecating or sarcastic, but telling a lightheartedly humorous story about your younger self that also showcases how you’ve grown and changed over time can set the right tone for your entire essay.

Technique #2: intentional, eye-catching structure. The second technique is the way Renner uses a unique structure to bolster the tone and themes of their essay . The structure of your essay can have a major impact on how your ideas come across…so it’s important to give it just as much thought as the content of your essay!

For instance, Renner does a great job of using one-line paragraphs to create dramatic emphasis and to make clear transitions from one phase of the story to the next:

Suddenly the destination of my pickle car was clear.

Not only does the one-liner above signal that Renner is moving into a new phase of the narrative (their nanoparticle research experiences), it also tells the reader that this is a big moment in Renner’s story. It’s clear that Renner made a major discovery that changed the course of their goal pursuit and dream-chasing. Through structure, Renner conveys excitement and entices the reader to keep pushing forward to the next part of the story.

Technique #3: playing with syntax. The third technique is to use sentences of varying length, syntax, and structure. Most of the essay's written in standard English and uses grammatically correct sentences. However, at key moments, Renner emphasizes that the reader needs to sit up and pay attention by switching to short, colloquial, differently punctuated, and sometimes fragmented sentences.

Even with moving frequently between hotels, AirBnB's, and students' apartments, I strangely reveled in the freedom I had to enjoy my surroundings and form new friendships with graduate school students from the lab. We explored The Inner Harbor at night, attended a concert together one weekend, and even got to watch the Orioles lose (to nobody's surprise). Ironically, it's through these new friendships I discovered something unexpected: what I truly love is sharing research.

In the examples above, Renner switches adeptly between long, flowing sentences and quippy, telegraphic ones. At the same time, Renner uses these different sentence lengths intentionally. As they describe their experiences in new places, they use longer sentences to immerse the reader in the sights, smells, and sounds of those experiences. And when it’s time to get a big, key idea across, Renner switches to a short, punchy sentence to stop the reader in their tracks.

The varying syntax and sentence lengths pull the reader into the narrative and set up crucial “aha” moments when it’s most important…which is a surefire way to make any college essay stand out.


Renner's essay is very strong, but there are still a few little things that could be improved.

Connecting the research experiences to the theme of “finding the goldbug.”  The essay begins and ends with Renner’s connection to the idea of “finding the goldbug.” And while this metaphor is deftly tied into the essay’s intro and conclusion, it isn’t entirely clear what Renner’s big findings were during the research experiences that are described in the middle of the essay. It would be great to add a sentence or two stating what Renner’s big takeaways (or “goldbugs”) were from these experiences, which add more cohesion to the essay as a whole.

Give more details about discovering the world of nanomedicine. It makes sense that Renner wants to get into the details of their big research experiences as quickly as possible. After all, these are the details that show Renner’s dedication to nanomedicine! But a smoother transition from the opening pickle car/goldbug story to Renner’s “real goldbug” of nanoparticles would help the reader understand why nanoparticles became Renner’s goldbug. Finding out why Renner is so motivated to study nanomedicine–and perhaps what put them on to this field of study–would help readers fully understand why Renner chose this path in the first place.

4 Essential Tips for Writing Your Own Essay

How can you use this discussion to better your own college essay? Here are some suggestions for ways to use this resource effectively.

#1: Get Help From the Experts

Getting your college applications together takes a lot of work and can be pretty intimidatin g. Essays are even more important than ever now that admissions processes are changing and schools are going test-optional and removing diversity standards thanks to new Supreme Court rulings .  If you want certified expert help that really makes a difference, get started with  PrepScholar’s Essay Editing and Coaching program. Our program can help you put together an incredible essay from idea to completion so that your application stands out from the crowd. We've helped students get into the best colleges in the United States, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale.  If you're ready to take the next step and boost your odds of getting into your dream school, connect with our experts today .

#2: Read Other Essays to Get Ideas for Your Own

As you go through the essays we've compiled for you above, ask yourself the following questions:

  • Can you explain to yourself (or someone else!) why the opening sentence works well?
  • Look for the essay's detailed personal anecdote. What senses is the author describing? Can you easily picture the scene in your mind's eye?
  • Find the place where this anecdote bridges into a larger insight about the author. How does the essay connect the two? How does the anecdote work as an example of the author's characteristic, trait, or skill?
  • Check out the essay's tone. If it's funny, can you find the places where the humor comes from? If it's sad and moving, can you find the imagery and description of feelings that make you moved? If it's serious, can you see how word choice adds to this tone?

Make a note whenever you find an essay or part of an essay that you think was particularly well-written, and think about what you like about it . Is it funny? Does it help you really get to know the writer? Does it show what makes the writer unique? Once you have your list, keep it next to you while writing your essay to remind yourself to try and use those same techniques in your own essay.


#3: Find Your "A-Ha!" Moment

All of these essays rely on connecting with the reader through a heartfelt, highly descriptive scene from the author's life. It can either be very dramatic (did you survive a plane crash?) or it can be completely mundane (did you finally beat your dad at Scrabble?). Either way, it should be personal and revealing about you, your personality, and the way you are now that you are entering the adult world.

Check out essays by authors like John Jeremiah Sullivan , Leslie Jamison , Hanif Abdurraqib , and Esmé Weijun Wang to get more examples of how to craft a compelling personal narrative.

#4: Start Early, Revise Often

Let me level with you: the best writing isn't writing at all. It's rewriting. And in order to have time to rewrite, you have to start way before the application deadline. My advice is to write your first draft at least two months before your applications are due.

Let it sit for a few days untouched. Then come back to it with fresh eyes and think critically about what you've written. What's extra? What's missing? What is in the wrong place? What doesn't make sense? Don't be afraid to take it apart and rearrange sections. Do this several times over, and your essay will be much better for it!

For more editing tips, check out a style guide like Dreyer's English or Eats, Shoots & Leaves .


What's Next?

Still not sure which colleges you want to apply to? Our experts will show you how to make a college list that will help you choose a college that's right for you.

Interested in learning more about college essays? Check out our detailed breakdown of exactly how personal statements work in an application , some suggestions on what to avoid when writing your essay , and our guide to writing about your extracurricular activities .

Working on the rest of your application? Read what admissions officers wish applicants knew before applying .

Want to improve your SAT score by 160 points or your ACT score by 4 points?   We've written a guide for each test about the top 5 strategies you must be using to have a shot at improving your score. Download them for free now:

The recommendations in this post are based solely on our knowledge and experience. If you purchase an item through one of our links PrepScholar may receive a commission.

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Anna scored in the 99th percentile on her SATs in high school, and went on to major in English at Princeton and to get her doctorate in English Literature at Columbia. She is passionate about improving student access to higher education.

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Score 800 on SAT Reading

Score 800 on SAT Writing

Series: How to Get to 600 on Each SAT Section:

Score 600 on SAT Math

Score 600 on SAT Reading

Score 600 on SAT Writing

Free Complete Official SAT Practice Tests

What SAT Target Score Should You Be Aiming For?

15 Strategies to Improve Your SAT Essay

The 5 Strategies You Must Be Using to Improve 4+ ACT Points

How to Get a Perfect 36 ACT, by a Perfect Scorer

Series: How to Get 36 on Each ACT Section:

36 on ACT English

36 on ACT Math

36 on ACT Reading

36 on ACT Science

Series: How to Get to 24 on Each ACT Section:

24 on ACT English

24 on ACT Math

24 on ACT Reading

24 on ACT Science

What ACT target score should you be aiming for?

ACT Vocabulary You Must Know

ACT Writing: 15 Tips to Raise Your Essay Score

How to Get Into Harvard and the Ivy League

How to Get a Perfect 4.0 GPA

How to Write an Amazing College Essay

What Exactly Are Colleges Looking For?

Is the ACT easier than the SAT? A Comprehensive Guide

Should you retake your SAT or ACT?

When should you take the SAT or ACT?

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College Applications: How to Begin

Find the right college for you..

Applying to college is a big job. It can feel overwhelming. However, you can make the process much easier by breaking it down into small steps. Here's how.

How to Start Applying for Colleges

The good news is that most U.S. universities follow the same standard application process. If possible, begin the following four-step approach several months before the submission deadline.

  • Understand the common terminology you'll see during the application process. Learning how to apply to college involves having a good grasp of such things as frequently used acronyms, supporting documents, and government departments.
  • Review the appropriate application timeline you should follow when signing up for college. Every school has its own deadlines, but you may have certain milestones to hit during your senior or even junior year.
  • Discover the individual components of a complete application . For example, schools usually ask for supplemental application materials like letters of recommendation, transcripts, and written essays.

how long are college essays

  • Create a real and a virtual folder for storing documents.
  • Print a checklist to track your progress on each part of the application.
  • Build a spreadsheet to stay on top of submission deadlines.
  • Your Social Security number.
  • Your high school code.
  • A copy of your high school transcript.
  • Your score report from a college admission test.
  • Make sure you’ve included all required information and that the information filled out on the forms is accurate and spelled correctly.
  • Confirm that any required attachments are the correct files and have been properly uploaded.
  • Double-check that you filled out all fields and followed all instructions.
  • Take a deep breath. Click submit !

Where do I start with college applications?

The first step is to do your research. Knowledge is power. Knowing what to expect from the application process makes a difference. Research the schools you're interested in applying to. Learn as much as you can about their admissions process.

What are the steps in the college application process?

Keep in mind that signing up for college is a multistep process. Among other key steps, you must fill out a standard application, acquire crucial support documents, and write personal essays. Although schools have different requirements, here are the main steps of the college application process:

  • Create a list of colleges you're interested in.
  • Research and visit schools to narrow down the list.
  • Fill out the FAFSA®, and consider finances and scholarship opportunities.
  • Get letters of recommendations, if required.
  • Take college admission tests.
  • Write your college application essay, if required.
  • Complete your online application(s).
  • If any of your target schools have their own institutional applications, complete those.
  • Check and recheck your application documents before submitting them.

What should I do before I fill out my college application?

How do you apply for college without wasting time? Advisers often recommend gathering relevant documents before you begin. You can knock out the informative sections in one go, reducing your chances of making an error. Some of the basics you need include:

  • Identity cards and Social Security number.
  • School transcripts.
  • Test scores.
  • List of extracurriculars.
  • List of awards and achievements.
  • Recommendation letters, if required by the college.
  • Application and school portal login credentials.

What are the most important parts of a college application?

College admissions officers consider many factors when reviewing applications. Among the most important factors are your grades and the courses you took.

The best approach to have when completing applications is to treat every part as important. Put your best foot forward in all areas. Make every part shine.

Now you're informed, inspired, organized, and ready to begin. For more on the college admissions process, visit Applying to College: FAQs .

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English and Math Placement

woman sitting at computer

Placement in Math and English Courses by High School GPA

Unweighted high school gpa – english placements:.

  • HS GPA between 2.75 to 2.89
  • HS GPA between 2.9 to 3.19
  • HS GPA between 3.20 and above

Unweighted High School GPA – Math placements:

  • HS GPA 2.89 and below
  • HS GPA 2.90 to 3.04
  • HS GPA 3.05 to 3.29
  • Keystone Algebra Score – 1500 or higher
  • HS GPA 3.30 and above with a grade of "C" or higher in Algebra II or higher level math (If no Algebra or higher level math, placement will be in FNMT 118)
  • HS GPA 3.50 and above with a grade of "C" or higher in Trigonometry or Calculus (If no Trigonometry or Calculus, placement will be in FNMT 118)

Applicants with a High School GPA older than 5 years must take the ACCUPLACER Math Portion.

Any student can take the ACCUPLACER Math Portion to see if they can place at a higher level math course.

College Level Math by Pathways:

Note: FNMT 118 is required for students who need to take Pre-Calculus (MATH 161)

Placement Test Options

By taking the ACCUPLACER tests, applicants will be placed in the most appropriate English and Math courses as indicated by their ACCUPLACER test results.  There are three options for testing.  

Accuplacer Test Takers Must Be:

  • Applicants with a HS GPA of 2.74 and below
  • GED students
  • Students who cannot obtain a high school transcript
  • English as a Second Language (ESL) students will take their ACCUPLACER placement and be placed in Pre-ESL or ESL courses 

Remember to bring a valid photo ID.

Main Campus

Monday through Friday: You can test in-person anytime between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m. No need to make an appointment.

Northeast Regional Center

Wednesday through Friday: You can test in-person anytime between 9 a.m. and 2 p.m.

Click here to complete a form to see if you’re eligible to receive a placement test voucher through Accuplacer and Examity. After you complete the form and we determine that you are eligible, we’ll send you a test voucher within 2 business days. Look for an email from Accuplacer/Examity with the subject line REMOTE VOUCHER NOTIFICATION.

Click here to make sure your computer is compatible with Examity .

Please note that to test virtually, you must have a computer with a webcam and audio capabilities. Tablets, cell phones and chrome books are not compatible with the test.

This service is offered Monday through Friday during business hours.

Send your full name, J number, date of birth and phone number to assessmentcenter [at] ccp.edu . Add that you’d like to take the test virtually with a CCP proctor.

Click here to make sure your computer is compatible with Accuplacer .

Students can alternatively submit the following to meet placement:

  • SAT score: A minimum score of 560 in English and 510 in mathematics, taken within the last five years
  • ACT score: A minimum of 21 in English and 21 in mathematics, taken within the last five years
  • Keystone Algebra Score (HS Transcript): A score of 1500 or higher
  • AP English Lit/Com Exam: A score of 4 or 5 on the AP Exam
  • AP Calculus AB or Calculus BC exam: A score of 4 or 5 on the exam, taken within the last five years
  • IBT (internet based TOEFL): A minimum score of 77 overall and a 20 in writing, taken within the last two years
  • IELTS score: A minimum of 6.0 overall and a 6.0 in writing, taken within the last two years
  • An official transcript from an accredited U.S. college or university: indicating you have earned a U.S. college degree or have passed college-level English or math with a grade of “C” or higher
  • All documents (transcripts and test scores) submitted for placement should be sent to the Transfer Credit and Placement Office at traneval [at] ccp.edu (traneval[at]ccp[dot]edu)

Taking and Preparing for the Placement Test

Take a practice accuplacer placement test.

Because the test determines your first year course load, it is very important that you familiarize yourself with the test format, test questions, and test strategies and that you practice taking the test. To do so, we highly recommend that you:

Visit the official ACCUPLACER site

Download the free ACCUPLACER Study app

Test Structure

Please take a moment to look at the test descriptions below. They will help give you an idea of what to expect on the actual placement test. Overall, the placement test consists of two parts: an English or ESL part and a Math part.

If your primary spoken language is other than English, you may be asked to take the ESL part, which includes ESL Listening, ESL Writing and ESL Reading Skills sections.  

On the other hand, if you are a native English speaker, you will be asked to take the English part, which includes English Writing (Writeplacer) and English Reading Comprehension (Next-Generation Reading) Sections.

Finally, the Math Part consists of three sections:

  • Next-Generation Arithmetic
  • Next-Generation Quantitative Reasoning Algebra, and Statistics (QAS)
  • Next-Generation Advanced Algebra and Functions (AAF)

Depending on your performance, you may be asked to take one, two, or all three sections of the Math test.

All parts and sections of the placement test are computer-based, and offered at the Main Campus and Regional Centers. No computer skills are required. You simply use the mouse to click on the answer.

English and ESL Writing Sections

In the English or ESL writing sections, you will have 60 minutes to write about a topic you will be given that day. Topics are chosen randomly.  The writing sample is then scored by ACCUPLACER; if necessary, it may also be reviewed by members of the English Department who are trained to read and evaluate placement essays. Your essay will be read by at least one faculty member, who will rescore your essay for placement. The combined scores of the faculty reader and ACCUPLACER, together with your score on either the Next-Generation Reading or ESL Reading Skills section, will be used to determine your placement in English classes.

For how the essays are evaluated and for sample practice questions as well as scored writing samples, please download the set of or the set of ESL Sample Essays.

Reading Comprehension, ESL Reading Skills, ESL Listening and the Math Sections (computerized):

The Next-Generation Reading, ESL Reading Skills, and ESL Listening sections are comprised of 20 questions each and are untimed, allowing you to work at you own pace.

The Math Part begins with either the Next-Generation Arithmetic or QAS section and may progress to AAF, depending on your skills. Each math section may consist from 17 to 25 questions.

Taking the Test

While the sections are untimed (except the English or ESL Writing section, which is limited to one hour), you should plan on spending at least two hours taking the tests. 

You will have two options for taking the ACCUPLACER test:

  • In-person. A limited number of appointments are available for in-person testing. Please contact the Assessment Center by email at assessmentcenter [at] ccp.edu (assessmentcenter[at]ccp[dot]edu) to schedule an in-person test.
  • Online with remote proctoring via Zoom. If you want to take the test online, applicants should check their CCP email for an email from the Admissions Office with directions on how to schedule a remote testing appointment.

When you have finished the required sections of the placement tests, you will receive your placement results and instructions on how to login to your Online Orientation. The Online Orientation will provide information on financial aide, registration, payment options and college resources.

Test Prep Sites

Besides the official ACCUPLACER site and the study APP, other test prep sites for the Placement Test may be accessed on the internet by typing "ACCUPLACER Practice" from any browser search field. A number of sites will be listed, some for English and some for Math. Any of the free sites provide valuable practice opportunities; there is not need to use any site for which you need to pay a fee. Some of the better sites are as follows

  • https://www.mometrix.com/academy/accuplacer-test/
  • http://owl.excelsior.edu/essay_zone/
  • http://www.purplemath.com/modules/index.htm
  • http://accuprep.pccc
  • http://www.accuplacerpractice.com

Placement Levels and Courses

Based on your performance on the placement test, and depending on your specific English language and mathematics abilities and needs you will be placed in one of CCP’s college-level courses or pre- college-level courses.

Please review below the CCP placement levels and courses and visit the relevant department links to view brief course and program descriptions.

English Placement Levels and Courses Your placement in English courses is based on how you perform in the English Writing and the Reading Comprehension sections. The set of pre-college and college English levels and courses that you may be placed in are shown in the chart below.

If you are placed in ABE, you will able to retest upon successful completion of the ABE classes. Learn more about ABE classes .

If you are placed in Level 2 and pass the courses at that level with a grade of "Pass," you automatically move to College Level courses ENGL 101 and ENGL 098.

ESL Placement Levels and Courses Your placement in ESL courses is based on the combination of how you perform in the ESL Reading Skills section, the ESL Writing Section, and the ESL Listening. The set of pre-college and college ESL courses that you may be placed in are shown in the chart below.

If you place in Pre-ESL, you must contact the ESL Institute and pass their highest ESL level before retesting. You will need to bring a letter of completion to the Assessment Center in order to retest. For more information, please visit the ESL Institute .

All ESL Reading, ESL Writing, and ESL Listening/Speaking courses are part of a series and have to be taken sequentially depending on where you are initially placed.

Math Placement Levels and Courses

Your placement in mathematics courses is based on how you perform in the Arithmetic, Elementary Algebra, and/or College-Level Math sections.  The set of  pre-college and college math courses that you may be placed in are listed in the chart below.

The Foundational Math courses and Math courses are part of a series and have to be taken sequentially depending on where you are placed. 

Bonnell Building, Room BG-14


Fall and Spring Semesters: 

Monday through Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m

Summer Semesters: 

Monday through Thursday, 8 a.m. to 5:30 p.m  


2024 Audre Lorde Prize winners announced

The Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies (WGSS) program has announced the winners of the 2024 Audre Lorde Prize.

The awards are named in honor of Audre Lorde (1934-1992), an intersectional feminist writer and civil rights activist who wrote the foundational text "Sister Outsider" (1984). Awards are given annually.

Designed to recognize excellence in scholarship in women, gender and sexuality studies at the undergraduate level, these winning submissions displayed excellent liberal arts scholarship and creativity, according to the judges.

The winners were selected in three categories by outside judges.

Long analytical essay

First place: Lainey Terfruchte , "Escaping from Myth: Denver’s Reclamation of Love in Toni Morrison’s Beloved" (instructor: Dr. Ashley Burge). Terfruchte is a senior from Bloomington, Ill., majoring in creative writing and English.

Second place: Bethany Abrams , "Sinning as Empowerment: Reclaiming God as a Black, Queer Woman in Alice Walker’s The Color Purple" (instructor: Dr. Ashley Burge). Abrams is a senior from Tinley Park, Ill., majoring in creative writing, English and psychology.

Honorable mention: Krisha Silwal , "Navigating Nepal's Legal Requirements for Transgender Inclusion Beyond Labels" (instructor: Dr. Kiki Kosnick). Silwal is a sophomore from Kathmandu, Nepal, majoring in business analytics; economics; and women, gender, and sexuality studies.

Short analytical essay

First place: Paige Meyer , "Inside the Glass Closet: Analyzing the Representation of Queer Romantic Relationship in the Literature of Virginia Woolf" (instructor: Dr. Laura Greene). Meyer is a senior from St. Peter, Minn., majoring in sociology and anthropology and women, gender, and sexuality studies.

Second place: Kazi Uzayr Razin , "The Future is Here" (instructor: Dr. M Wolff). Razin is a sophomore from Dhaka, Bangladesh, majoring in engineering (B.S.E.).

Honorable mention: Audre Lewis , "Care Ethics for Neurodiverse Students — Rethinking the Approach to Accommodations" (instructor: Dr. Jane Simonsen). Lewis is a senior from Denver, Colo., majoring in women, gender, and sexuality studies.

Creative expression

First place: Ava Jackson , "Exploring the Stereotypes of Gender and Sexuality in Ballet and its Impact on the Dance Community" (instructor: Dr. Jennifer Heacock-Renaud). Jackson is a junior from Oak Park, Ill., majoring in English; psychology; and women, gender, and sexuality studies.

Second place: Allison McPeak , "Mad Young Creature: A Photostory" (instructor: Dr. Jennifer Popple). McPeak is a junior from St. Charles, Ill., majoring in English and theatre.

Honorable mention: Sarah Welker , "We All Bleed the Same Blood" (instructor: Dr. Jennifer Popple). Welker is a sophomore from Tinley Park, Ill., majoring in art and graphic design.

If you have news, send it to [email protected] ! We love hearing about the achievements of our alumni, students and faculty.

Caitlin Clark and Iowa find peace in the process

An Iowa associate professor breaks down the numbers to display Caitlin Clark's incredible impact on women's college basketball. (2:08)

how long are college essays

ON A COLD, snowy Monday night in January, Caitlin Clark walked into a dimly lit restaurant in Iowa City and looked around the room for her parents. They smiled from a back table and waved her over. It was her 22nd birthday. Three teammates and the head Iowa Hawkeyes manager were with her, and soon everyone settled in and stories started to fly -- senior year energy, still in college and nostalgic for it, too.

That meant, of course, tales of The Great Croatian Booze Cruise.

In summer 2023, as a reward for their Final Four season, the Iowa coaches arranged a boondoggle of an international preseason run through Italy and Croatia, grown-ass women, pockets thick with NIL money to burn. They saw places they'd never seen, spoke strange languages and walked narrow cobblestone streets. "One of the best nights was when we got bottles of wine and just sat on the rooftop of the hotel," Caitlin said.

On the last free day of the trip, they proposed a vitally important mission to head manager Will McIntire, who now sat at the birthday table next to me.

They needed a yacht.

Like a real one, the kind of boat where Pat Riley and Jay-Z might be drinking mojitos on a summer Sunday. So McIntire found himself with the hotel concierge looking at photographs of boats. He asked Caitlin about the price of one that looked perfect.

"Book it right now," she said.

They climbed aboard to find a stocked bar and an eager crew. The captain motored them out to nearby caves off the coast of Dubrovnik where the players could snorkel and float on their backs and stare up at the towering sky. They held their breath and swam into caves. They looked out for one another underwater. When stories of the Caitlin Clark Hawkeyes are told years from now, fans will remember logo 3s, blowout wins and the worldwide circus of attention, but players on the team will remember a glorious preseason yacht day on crystal blue waters, a time when they were young, strong and queens of all they beheld. They'll talk about the color and clarity of the sea. A color that doesn't exist in Iowa. Or didn't until Caitlin Clark came along.

The Booze Cruise lived up to its name. After the stress of a Final Four run and the sudden rise of Caitlin's star, it was a chance to be a team and have nobody care and to care about nobody else. Many of their coaches didn't even find out about the yacht until the team got home.

"It was just what we needed," McIntire said at the birthday dinner table. It was the kind of night parents dream of having with their grown children. Often three conversations were going at once. Caitlin's dad, Brent, was telling McIntire about the wild screams and curses that come from their basement when one of their two sons is playing Fortnite.

"You should hear her play Fortnite," McIntire said, pointing to Caitlin.

"Is she good?" Brent asked.

"No," he laughed.

Caitlin told a story about her freshman year roommate almost burning the dorm down trying to make mac and cheese without water. She and Kate Martin told one about both of them oversleeping the bus at an away game -- they awoke to both their phones ringing and someone knocking on the door as they made eye contact and shouted "S---!" in unison.

There was one about Caitlin in full conspiracy-theory rage, too, convinced that Ohio State had falsified her COVID-19 test result to keep her out of a game.

"This is rigged!" she told her mom on the phone. "They're trying to hold me out!"

Anne took over the narration.

"Call the AD!" she said, imitating her daughter.

"I did not say that!" Caitlin said.

There was the time Caitlin needed to pass a COVID-19 test for games in Mexico. She showed up in the practice gym, throwing her mask on the ground while waving her phone and crowing, "I'm negative, bitches!" ... until one of her teammates looked at the email and realized Caitlin had read it wrong, so she quickly grabbed her mask and bolted. As the stories flew, Caitlin smiled, loving to hear her teammates, happy to be with them.

We raised glasses again and again, and her dad beamed. Her mom kept thanking her teammates for taking such good care of her. They toasted to Caitlin, to CC, to 22 and to Deuce-Deuce. The waitress brought over a framed collage she had made, along with a note thanking Caitlin for inspiring "girl power."

Caitlin's mom made a final toast.

"Happy birthday," she said.

"Happy birthday, Caitlin," Kate Martin said, turning to her left and asking her, "What was the best thing that happened in Year 21?"

Caitlin thought about it for a second.

"Final Four," she said.

Everyone clinked their glasses.

"Not even the booze cruise?" one of them asked.

They all laughed.

"Booze cruise!" everyone shouted.

MY INTRODUCTION TO Caitlin Clark's world began in September over breakfast with Hawkeyes associate head coach Jan Jensen, who grew up on an Iowa farm before building a basketball legend of her own.

We met at an old-guard Jewish deli while Jensen was on a brief Los Angeles recruiting trip, flying in from Alaska that morning and flying back home that night. We ogled the cake case with the towering meringue pompadours but settled on something healthy, along with about a million refills of coffee. Jensen held a cup in her hands and summed up the challenge now of being Caitlin Clark.

"She's figuring out how to really live with getting what she's always wanted," she said.

Jensen smiled before she continued.

"She wants to be the greatest that ever was."

She pointed at me as if to underline her meaning.

"I believe that in my heart," she said.

Jensen averaged 66 points a game in high school in the days when girls played 6-on-6. She is in Iowa's girls high school basketball Hall of Fame. Her grandmother, Dorcas Andersen Randolph, who went by "Lottie" because she scored a lot of points, is too. Jensen still has her uniform. She sees Caitlin standing on the shoulders of generations of women like Lottie.

She also understands Caitlin is standing on no one's shoulders.

"She's uncensored," Jensen said. "So many times women have to be censored."

Jensen leaned across the table again.

"There is something in her," she said. "Unapologetic."

To Jensen, Caitlin seems immortal; young, talented, dedicated, rich, famous and on the rise.

"She's 21," she said.

A magic age, her confidence and talent startling to older people like me and Jensen.

"Don't ever let anyone steal that from her," Jensen said. "Protecting that is the coach's job."

Jensen spoke with pride of Caitlin's 15 national awards, but she also said she is so talented, and driven, that she sometimes struggles to trust her teammates. This would be the work of this season and the epic battle of Caitlin's athletic life. She sees things other people do not see, including her teammates. She imagines what other people even in her close orbit cannot imagine, has achieved what none of them have achieved and has done so because she listens to the singular voice in her head and her heart. She must protect that and nurture it. At the same time, she is learning that her power grows exponentially when it lives in concert with other people. A great team multiplies her. A bad team diminishes her. The trust her coaches ask her to have in her teammates, especially new ones, comes with great personal risk. Believing in her coaches requires faith and courage. For their part, the Iowa coaches know that they are holding a rare diamond and are constantly reminding themselves their job is to polish, not to ask her to cut to their precise specifications. It's an effort, possession by possession, game by game, practice by practice, to meld two truths, to find the right balance, to elevate.

"It's a work in progress," Jensen said.

After last season's run to the NCAA title game, the Hawkeyes lost their star center, Monika Czinano, who's now playing pro ball in Hungary. She started every game Caitlin had ever played except one, and her dominance in the post taught Caitlin how successful teammates created space and opportunities at other spots on the floor. She still talks to Monika. Her trust in Monika's replacements is the Hawkeyes' most fragile place this year and will say a lot about whether this team can return to the Final Four.

"That's gonna be the struggle for her," Jensen said.

This idea would, in the coming five months, create two narratives for me, one public, one private, one about a superstar standing on center stage surrounded by an ever-growing mania, and another about a young woman trying to find herself, trying to decide how and who she wanted to be , in the center of that madness.

The waitress warmed up our coffee.

Jensen said she'd introduce me to Caitlin as soon as there was time in her schedule. Then she slipped out of our booth and headed out for a scouting visit at a nearby high school. I had a meeting with Priscilla Presley for another project later that day across town. We talked about life in the fishbowl with Elvis. She told me about how only a handful of memories remained hers alone even all these years later. I thought about Caitlin somewhere 30,000 feet in the air on a plane home from New York City after she received her final award of the 2023 season.

THIS IS A STORY about being 21. Do you remember turning 21?

At 18 you feel immortal but just three years later, a crack has opened in that immortality. You feel the gap between ambitions held and realized. You're aware that wanting things badly enough won't always be enough. You guard against bad energy and thoughts and hold fast to every ounce of confidence. That's when life really begins.

The size of Caitlin Clark's stage and the scale of her dreams and the reach of her talent leave little margin for error. She is chasing being the best of all time, which is an isolating thing. She isn't scared to voice her ambitions even when they separate her from the people she loves. Her teammates dream of merely making a WNBA roster. Kate Martin did the math for me one evening. There are 12 teams. Each team has 12 roster spots. College basketball might be a bigger public stage than the professional league, but it is much easier. The normal dream of a 21-year-old women's college basketball player, then, is the nearly impossible task of finding just one of 144 spots on a WNBA team, which has nothing to do with normal. A lofty dream might be to win one national award, not 15. When Caitlin gave her Associated Press Player of the Year trophy to her parents, her mom looked inside and gasped -- some of the metal on the inside was already peeling and rusting.

"What happened?" she asked Caitlin.

Caitlin shrugged sheepishly.

"The managers got it," she said.

It turns out the trophy, her mom said with a shake of the head, holds two beers. (Actually, the managers fact-checked -- it's two hard seltzers.) Caitlin is grateful for the awards but got tired of traveling around to get them, not because she didn't appreciate the attention but because she seemed to sense that her survival and continued success would depend in part on her closing the book on last season. The past is dangerous to an ambitious 21-year-old. It was a struggle to get her on the plane to New York City to accept the AAU's prestigious Sullivan Award. She asked whether it couldn't simply be mailed to her instead. In the end, she and her family had 12 hours in the city so she wouldn't miss any class. Michael Jordan talks about this -- the speed at which things come at you, the way, when you look back, it becomes hard to remember what happened where and when. That's Caitlin Clark's world right now, and inside she feels both like a superstar and like the little girl begging her father to expand the driveway concrete so she'd have a full 3-point line to shoot from. She references her childhood a lot in public, revealing comments hiding in the plain sight of news conferences and one-on-one interviews.

"I feel like I was just that little girl playing outside with my brother," she says.

The Clarks landed in New York and went straight to their hotel. Thirty minutes later, Caitlin hit the lobby dressed for the show. She signed autographs, posed for pictures, received the Sullivan Award, took more pictures, gave a speech and took more pictures. The family had just a few hours to sleep before heading to the airport for the flight home. But it was her first trip to New York City, and Caitlin said she wanted to see Times Square and get a slice of pizza. They went out and took a photograph, everyone together, then watched as Caitlin ordered a pepperoni slice, which arrived greasy on a stack of cheap paper plates. She folded it like a veteran. In the morning, they flew home. Caitlin rode with her headphones on. She likes Luke Combs. Turned up. Hearts on fire and crazy dreams. The next day she'd be at morning practice and then take her usual seat in Professor Walsh's product and pricing class.

IN MID-OCTOBER, I got to Iowa City in time for the second practice of the year. I ran into head coach Lisa Bluder in the elevator down to the Carver-Hawkeye practice gym, and she laughed about how two fans from Indiana just showed up at the first practice and were walking onto the court taking selfies. Bluder had to stop practice and politely ask, you know, what the hell? They explained they had traveled far to see Caitlin Clark in person.

At 8 a.m., practice began, and almost immediately Caitlin was vibrating with anger at the referees, who were actually team managers with whistles. The whole team looked out of sorts -- "little sh--s," one of their assistants called them during a water break -- and Caitlin fought her temper as several of her young teammates made mistakes. The main object of her scorn was a sophomore named Addison O'Grady , No. 44, who had become a bit of a punching bag. And all the while she raged at what she thought was the terrible job being done calling fouls and traveling.

"Stop letting him ref!" she barked to Jensen about a manager on the baseline. "He's not calling anything!"

She jacked up a 3.

"I don't love that 3," Bluder told her. "You were in range, no doubt. But you were not in rhythm and were contested."

Now Caitlin started talking to herself. What is the offense right now? This is a pretty regular thing, Caitlin Clark talking to Caitlin Clark, scolding her, cursing her, complaining to her, because who else could understand?

"Call screens," she muttered.

"We must call screens," Bluder yelled. "Somebody's gonna get hurt. Somebody's gonna get rocked."

Then Caitlin touched her leg gingerly, which set off a chain reaction of anxiety and hushed attention. She took herself out of an end-of-game drill to rest it. Then, unable to resist, ended up in the drill anyway.

At the end of practice, Bluder described the long road awaiting them if they wanted a return to the Final Four. The promised land, she called it. Everyone on the team knows that Caitlin has given all of them a challenge, yes, but also a gift. An opportunity to breathe rare air. Caitlin's best requires their best, and if they give it, they might just be able to beat anyone.

"Caitlin's got a hell of a lot of pressure," Bluder told them. "I get it."

But it was more than that.

"We are her," she said.

I MET WITH CAITLIN a few minutes later. We found some chairs in the Iowa film room.

"I'm trying to learn about myself as a 21-year-old," she said. "About how I react to situations, what I want in my life, what's good for me, what's bad for me."

The back wall of the film room featured larger-than-life portraits of the Hawkeyes, with Caitlin dominating the center of the collage. She gets the absurdity. Most every person walking around on the planet is a watcher. A consumer of the lives and adventures of others. Caitlin was like that, standing in line as a little girl to meet a hero like Maya Moore. In her bathroom at home in Des Moines she kept a caricature she got at an amusement park that shows her wearing a UConn uniform. But during last year's NCAA tournament, when she averaged 31.8 points and 10.0 assists in leading Iowa to the championship game, she became one of the watched .

"... and I'm 21 years old!" she said, shaking her head and shrugging her shoulders with a grin, as if to say: Buy the ticket, take the ride.

"I don't f---ing know."

She's a household name now. Nike puts her on billboards like Tiger or Serena. She is the best women's college basketball player in the country, and one of the best college basketball players period . She has designs on best ever, a fraught thing to want. She admires Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan, apex predators, and her ambition and talent live within her in equal measure alongside her youth and inexperience. She is striving for agency and intent in the glare of a white-hot spotlight. Luke Combs commented on her social media a few hours ago. She got free tickets and backstage passes to see him over the summer and also got tickets to Taylor Swift's "The Eras Tour." She invited the biggest Swifties on the team, trying to use her new superpowers for good. The Hawkeyes are forever asking her to DM their celebrity crushes and invite them to games. She laughs and tries to explain why she can't get Drake to Iowa City. A local newspaper reporter recently asked her about LSU's Angel Reese being in a Sports Illustrated swimsuit spread, a trap question asking her to comment on the marketability of their bodies.

She earns seven figures and has deals with Bose, Nike and State Farm. The Iowa grocery store chain Hy-Vee, another corporate partner, sometimes pays for her private security at public events.

Meanwhile, her mother still does her laundry.

"I'm trying to learn about myself," Caitlin repeated.

"At the same time I have to be the best version of myself. I have to be the best version of myself for my teammates, and for the fans, and for my family ... "

She laughed again.

"Yeah," she said, pausing to find the right words, feeling the weight of the coming season.

"Yeah," she said again.

Having been to the Final Four last year doesn't make another Final Four easier. It makes it harder. Fame is a warm saccharine glow that obscures the terminal velocity of expectation. "That adds to the tension," she said. "Every failure feels that much more intense. And every success also feels that much more intense. So it's about finding balance."

She sounded like an old soul, knowing how precious these days of glory are and how they are already slipping between her fingers. But that might just be because a middle-aged man was the one doing the listening. Most likely she is experiencing time in an altogether different way, so that right now, all at once, she is living with last year's almost , with this season's grind and hope, and with the knowledge that if everything goes right there is a future in which every year will be harder than the one before, and every season the watchers will be ready to replace last year's model with some newer, shinier object.

"When I leave this place, I don't want people to forget about me," she said.

THAT SAME MONTH, Brent and Anne Clark, who could only look at each other in wonder, parked in the West 43 lot next to the football stadium, where that afternoon their little girl would be playing an exhibition outdoors at Kinnick Stadium in front of the largest audience to ever watch a women's college basketball game.

"It's wild," they kept saying over and over.

"This is all she ever wanted!" Anne said as we set up the food and drinks. "She's asked for years: 'Can we please do a tailgate?'"

Brent stopped and listened to the band practicing inside the stadium. They played "Wagon Wheel." He found a spot where the sun felt warm on his face.

"So what's up with these sandwiches?" asked Caitlin's older brother Blake.

Her younger brother Colin hooked up the portable speaker. He's a freshman at Creighton, where he has found a community of his own. He and his sister adore each other. When he was a baby, the family called her "Caitie Mommy" because she took such good care of him, and now Brent and Anne love to see him celebrate her success. The first track he played was AC/DC's "Back in Black," the Hawks' football walkout song. Anne reached for a cardboard cutout of Caitlin's beloved golden retriever, Bella, a leftover from her freshman season when COVID-19 meant no fans in the seats.

Brent threw a football with one of the young family friends. Around him other fathers did the same with their sons and daughters, many of them wearing No. 22 jerseys, girls and boys.

"Look at all these little girls going in," Anne said.

Some football players walked through the parking lot, and nobody paid them much mind. Former Iowa and NFL star Marv Cook stood talking with Brent about Caitlin and her teammates when the football guys went past.

"They're not the only show in town anymore," Cook said.

The Clark car was packed with Hy-Vee fried chicken sandwiches, cookies, a cooler of beer and soda, these strange pickle-ham-cream cheese concoctions, the most Midwestern thing you've ever seen in your whole life -- "soooo gross!" Caitlin said later.

The lieutenant governor of Iowa stopped by to pay his respects.

"Hawk Walk!" he said.

Everyone went to form a line of cheering fans as the Iowa bus parked and the players went into the stadium. Anne Clark worked herself close holding up the cutout of Bella so Caitlin could see. One of the little girls next to Anne treated her like a Mama Swift sighting at a show.

"She touched me!" she screamed to her friends.

Caitlin went into the football locker room to get ready. Outside, the stadium pulsed with energy. Walter the Hawk swooped down from the press box. Then the dozens of speakers ringing the main bowl started thumping. "Back in Black" again. The whole place shook. Caitlin stepped into the light pouring into the mouth of the tunnel.

"I-O-W-A!" the crowd chanted.

"Let's hear it for No. 22, Caitlin Clark!" the announcer called.

Someone started an M-V-P chant.

The wind blew across the court. Caitlin even air-balled a free throw. Nobody cared. She got a triple-double. Stayed focused. With a minute left she threw a pass that center Addi O'Grady fumbled. Caitlin twirled around and hung her head but went back to her on the next possession.

The game ended in a blowout, and then Caitlin started working her way down the front row of the sideline, more than 50 yards of little girls and boys. They took selfies and asked her to sign their shirts. One young boy held a sign that said, "Met you at Hy-Vee."

"Thank you for coming!" Caitlin yelled.

As she finally ran into the tunnel, she jumped up and high-fived a young girl.

"No way!" the girl said.

Caitlin made it to the locker room, where she had stored a gift a very sick child had given her. The kid was a patient at the children's cancer ward across the street and was serving as an honorary captain. She'd had her own baseball card made, and on the back she'd been asked to name her favorite Hawkeye. Caitlin Clark, she said.

"I'll keep that forever," Caitlin said.

She left the stadium through a side door, got on the back of a golf cart with her boyfriend and headed to the basketball arena, where her parents waited with an enormous bag of freshly washed and folded clothes.

ONE MORNING LAST YEAR I drove across Des Moines to see where all this began. Although Caitlin hasn't been a student at Dowling Catholic for almost four years, her presence -- and her family's presence -- remains palpable in the halls. Her older brother won two state titles in football. Her younger brother won a state title in track. Caitlin's grandfather, her mom's dad, was the beloved football coach there for years. Once after an emotional game he gathered his team at midfield and burned Des Moines Register articles about his team he didn't like.

Caitlin comes by her fire honestly.

I parked and met the basketball coach, Kristin Meyer, in the lobby adjacent to the chapel. We walked through the library to her office. She told me a story that stuck with me. In 10th grade, Caitlin got a reading assignment about empathy. She didn't know what the word meant. Meyer tried and failed to explain. She realized then that she had a team of girls who wanted to enjoy playing sports -- "for fun," Caitlin would tell me later -- and one ponytailed Kobe Bryant.

The summer before her freshman season, the team went to a camp at Creighton. Caitlin threw a three-quarter-court bounce pass that hit a teammate in the hands. That same game, she bopped down the court and threw a perfect behind-the-back pass. Also in rhythm and on the money.

"I would go back and watch film and just rewind and watch again and watch again," Meyer said.

When Caitlin saw a player come open, or more often realized that a player would be coming open momentarily, look out! The ball was in the air and flying at their heads. This made her teammates nervous, and they'd shut down, which Caitlin didn't understand. Soon she just stopped passing.

"It was hard for her to understand what other people would feel," Meyer said.

Caitlin was, in real time, learning how to use her gift. This is an old story among basketball greats. Magic Johnson threw passes that even James Worthy couldn't catch. Caitlin's task was to see the gulf between her potential and her reality and close that distance. Often she got impatient. With herself and others. When someone made a mistake, or if she thought a referee or a coach was being unfair, she'd have tantrums. Mostly she seemed unaware of how her body language and mood impacted the people around her. She'd throw her arms in the air in disgust, or clap loudly, and waves of nervousness would pass through the team. Of course that cut both ways. When she praised a teammate, the coaches would see that player swell with pride. "If Caitlin gave me a compliment," one of her teammates said, "I felt like I was the best player in the gym."

Meyer started showing her film of her body language, something the Iowa coaches still do. They'd sit down and watch in silence as Caitlin stomped and gestured.

"High school basketball was honestly harder for me than college," Caitlin told me. "I mean that in the most positive, respectful way to my teammates. The basketball IQ wasn't there. At the end of the day they didn't care if we won or lost, really. It wasn't gonna affect their life that much. They just didn't get it on the same level."

Meyer watched a Bobby Knight video in which he called the bench the greatest motivator. That resonated. So when Caitlin would fire some wild shot she could see in her mind but not quite execute with her body, Meyer would sit her. Three times in high school Caitlin got technical fouls and she'd immediately come out, once for an entire quarter. As soon as she hit the chair she'd start agitating -- "Can I go back in?" "Can I go back in?!" "CAN I GO BACK IN?" -- until Meyer relented.

"When I used to get technical fouls in high school," Caitlin said, "I did not want to come out of the locker room after the game because I know my mom would be mad. But if I got one during an AAU tournament, I don't think my dad would tell my mom. He knew my mom would not be happy, but he understood it from a competitive standpoint."

Her dad played basketball and baseball in college. He sees a lot of himself in her.

"To her everything is a competition," Brent Clark said. "I was that way when I was her age. I was really ..."

He thought for a moment.

"Emotional," he said finally.

He wishes his own parents would have punished him more for his outbursts in youth sports. He remembers with shame crying in a dugout.

"I get her," he said. "I can relate. I see a lot of that fire. She's just much better at controlling it than I ever was."

Brent and Anne want most of all for Caitlin's spirit to never be squashed. Her grandfather the Dowling Catholic football coach used to say, "It's a lot easier to tame a tiger than it is to raise the dead."

Brent and I sat at a little sandwich place near his office, where he is a senior executive at an agricultural industrial parts company. He laughed talking about the Dowling Catholic Powder Puff girls' football game.

"What did she play?" I asked.

He looked at me like I was an idiot.


He laughed at the memory of taking Caitlin out in the back yard and watching her throw a perfect pass, a dart, 20 yards on the fly.

"You couldn't have thrown a better spiral."

Caitlin, like most children, watched her parents much more closely than they realized. "They balance each other really well," she said. "The biggest thing is he's always been a constant. I literally cannot say one time my dad has raised his voice at me. My mom is somebody I talk to every single day. My life would be a mess if it weren't for her. She's one of my best friends."

Caitlin led the state in scoring a couple of times, but Dowling never won a state title during her career. Her senior year the team didn't even make the state tournament. She could shoot the Maroons into games and sometimes out of them. But nobody worked harder in the gym. She wanted to be great. When someone got in the way of that, even if that someone was her, she struggled to manage her emotions. An engine as rare as hers threw out a ton of exhaust.

Caitlin and I talked about high school one morning. Both Jensen and Kate Martin told me they didn't think she had any true friends outside her tight-knit family before she got to Iowa. They didn't mean she wasn't popular, or didn't have a group to hang with, only that there was no one in her orbit who was wired like her. Legends like Tiger Woods and Joe DiMaggio often seemed alone too, even surrounded by huge crowds, solitary citizens living in a world of their own ambitions and fears.

"Were you lonely?" I asked.

She thought about it.

"I would say I was lonely in the aspect of no one understood how I was thinking," she said. "I wasn't surrounded by people who wanted to achieve the same things as me."

Letters from college coaches stacked up at her house in those days. Her parents kept them from her until late in the process, trying instinctively to protect as much of her childhood as they could. I think they knew even then. Her dream school was, like everyone else, UConn. She was growing up and learning for the first time about being watched, about reputation. A lot of college coaches watched the same body language sequences Meyer did. Most didn't mind. Dowling's open gyms filled with the best of the best coaches in the country. One absence was conspicuous, though.

"Geno never came," Meyer said.

CAITLIN'S FAMILY, IT'S important to note here, is quite Catholic. She went to Catholic school from kindergarten through graduation. Anne comes from a big, loud, fun Italian family, and if you look in Caitlin's fridge at the apartment she shares with teammate Kylie Feuerbach , you'll almost certainly find some frozen red sauce meals made by her mom or grandma.

Her brother Blake is always texting her reminders to say her rosary and go to the church near campus, conveniently located across the street from Iowa City's great dive bar, George's -- which is where Coach Bluder and her staff go to celebrate big wins. My friend Annie Gavin, whose father is the famous wrestling coach Dan Gable, goes to that church and reports that more Sundays than not, she sees Caitlin in the pews. Blake wore his St. Benedict bracelet to the Final Four last year and did four decades of his rosary at the hotel and the last round in the arena just before tipoff.

You see where this is going.

Anne Clark grew up the daughter of a Catholic high school football coach. What do you imagine she thinks is the greatest, most magical university in the world?

"For a while I thought she was gonna end up at Notre Dame," Meyer said.

Meyer told me that Caitlin remained pretty calm during her recruitment -- except when Notre Dame coach Muffet McGraw came to town.

Her list of choices winnowed to two. The Hawkeyes and the Fighting Irish. She'd also looked at Iowa State, Texas and both Oregon schools. The lack of interest from UConn stung. "Honestly," she said, "it was more I wanted them to recruit me to say I got recruited. I loved UConn. I think they're the coolest place on Earth, and I wanted to say I got recruited by them. They called my AAU coach a few times, but they never talked to my family and never talked to me."

Bluder and Jensen had been worried about the Irish from the beginning. Jensen got to Brent Clark when Caitlin was in the seventh grade and told him they'd offer her a scholarship right now. Then she promised to stay away until he was ready to talk. She also predicted exactly how the rest of the nation would awake to the magic of his daughter, which gave her credibility as the years went on.

When Caitlin was playing in Bangkok with Team USA in 2019, Jensen and Bluder flew to games around the world so Caitlin could see they made the effort.

"My family wanted me to go to Notre Dame," Caitlin said. "At the end of the day they were like, you make the decision for yourself. But it's NOTRE DAME! 'Rudy' was one of my favorite movies. How could you not pick Notre Dame?"

Everyone in her high school wanted her to choose Notre Dame. Every year the top two or three students went to South Bend. It was ingrained in the culture. When she went on a campus visit, she wanted to love it. In fact, she got frustrated with herself for not loving it.

Notre Dame it would be. She called McGraw. It was the "smart" choice.

Next she called Bluder to break the bad news.

Bluder was at a field hockey game.

She stepped away from the field and called her staff.

"We're not gonna get her," she said.

Then the Iowa coaches waited for the dagger of an official announcement. For some reason it never came. Jensen had seen second-guessing before. She texted Caitlin's assistant AAU coach to see if it would be appropriate for her to reach out.

"I think I'd call her if I were you," the coach told Jensen.

So she did.

"What's up?"

"I haven't seen anything."

"Yeah, I've changed my mind."

Caitlin wanted to come to Iowa but thought her mom didn't want her to turn down Notre Dame. The AAU coach called Bluder and asked if Caitlin were to change her mind, would there be a spot for her. Three or so days later Caitlin again faced two phone calls. The first was terrifying. She needed to tell McGraw she had changed her mind.

"I'm 17 years old," she said, "and I'm sitting in my room and I'm sweating my ass off. I'm about to call her. She is an intimidating individual. She was really understanding. She kinda knew. She was great. Then I called Coach Bluder."

Dave and Lisa Bluder sat in the cozy basement of a fancy local restaurant. A fireplace warmed the room. They'd just sat down and ordered a drink.

"I can remember the exact table," Bluder said.

Her phone rang.

"Do you have a few minutes to talk?" Caitlin asked.

She committed on the spot. Bluder went back inside and ordered a bottle of champagne. Then she and Dave got another bottle and caught a ride to Jensen's house to celebrate some more. Caitlin remained in her bedroom, still nervous. She had made her two calls, but there was one more person who needed to know the news.

"Caitlin commits to us but didn't tell her mom," Jensen said laughing.

Her parents both call the family meeting that followed "emotional" and say they realized, truly in that moment, that their daughter had a vision for herself more ambitious and nuanced than any they could conjure. She seemed vulnerable and brave, and they deferred to her judgment.

Caitlin Clark was going to be a Hawkeye, and she told reporters her goal was to take Iowa to the Final Four. Some people rolled their eyes, but a bar had been set. Caitlin and I talked about this moment, the way that it felt like part of her search was to find other young women who cared about the game as much as she did. I asked her if this moment felt like the first decision she'd made completely herself.

"For sure," she said.

I asked if this was also the first time she had ever defied her mother, whom she adores -- a critical step on the path from childhood to adulthood. She stopped cold. It seemed like she'd never really thought about it before but now saw it clearly, from the high ground of the life she has built from talent and desire.

"Probably," she said finally.

THESE DAYS CAITLIN and her teammates travel around Iowa City in a pack, a tight-knit crew, as her celebrity pushes them further and further into their insular little world, which revolves around the riverside apartment complex where most of them live. They know everything about each other -- such as, say, that Caitlin's fake name for orders and hotel rooms is Hallie Parker from "The Parent Trap" -- and this past Halloween, they dressed in costumes and climbed up balconies to sneak into teammates' apartments to scare each other. Sydney Affolter nearly had a heart attack when she approached her sliding balcony door to find, staring at her, a full gorilla costume with a giddy Kate Martin inside.

These women are Caitlin's tribe, and they have been since she arrived on campus in fall 2020. The starting five for the first game of her career was the same as the starting five in the national championship game three years later. Monika Czinano, the center, a dominant force on the court, with a quirky Zen off it. "Well, I live on a floating rock," she'd say with a shrug after a tough loss. McKenna Warnock holding down the 4 with physicality and smarts, and Gabbie Marshall playing alongside with power and finesse. Caitlin ran point from her very first practice, while Martin began to shape the whole team in her competitive image, the daughter of a high school football coach who brought intensity to every part of the game.

"What she found is people who also put their entire life into basketball," Martin said.

Caitlin's teammates meanwhile discovered her talent came with impatience and temper. She blew up at practice. A lot of throwing her hands up in the air, stomping off the court and simply refusing to pass the ball to an open teammate if she didn't believe they'd deliver. It was the first time in her life she'd had to play with teammates who would not simply be run over. Warnock got in her face. So did Martin. The coaches pulled her aside. She's open. You have got to pass her the ball. Caitlin's answer, like a logical toddler, left them stuttering to find a response. Why would I pass her the ball when I'm taking more shots in the practice gym?

"I had expectations of them and they weren't meeting them," Caitlin said.

Because of COVID-19, all this occurred in private in the early days. A lot of the freshman year dust-ups happened in empty arenas. Her teammates came to understand that they were dealing with someone like Mozart. She wasn't rude, nor necessarily nice, just a different species. At one point that year a sports psychologist came in to work with the team. She started going around the room and asking the players when they felt stressed and anxious and how they reacted to those feelings. One by one, the young women described familiar symptoms and scenarios: sweaty hands, a fear of the free throw line, struggling with breathing, anxiety about the last possession.

Finally it was Caitlin's turn. She seemed a little embarrassed.

"I never am," she said.

Everyone in the room somehow understood she was being more vulnerable than cocky.

"Stone cold," one witness told me. "It was so cool."

I pressed her once on how she must have seemed to her teammates that first year. "People know I'll have their backs and I'll ride for them every single day," she said. "Obviously there is a switch that flips when I step on the court like I want to kill someone. I'm here to cause havoc. Some of the biggest challenges are I have all this emotion, I'm a freshman and I'm starting and how do I channel this? At times they were definitely like, 'Why is this girl a psycho?'"

The Hawkeyes lost games they should have won that year, still figuring out a way to have both a team and a superstar. The coaches put together video sessions completely devoted to her reactions. They had few notes about her actual play. She simply moved at warp speed, and even her most gifted teammates needed time to adjust. To learn how to breathe her air, to speak her language, to cross dimensions from their old world into the new one she was creating.

"If you see a practice, you might figure that out," Jensen told me once. "You gotta have whatever that is. You gotta be playing the game at Caitlin's pace. It's all processing. She's a half-second ahead."

The coaches saw her learning, too, looking to pass out of double- and triple-teams. Bluder kept telling them to give her latitude. Their main job, as she saw it, was to make sure they never put "her light under a bushel."

One day last year I sat down with Jensen to watch film of Caitlin's outbursts, which they had put together in reels.

"She does a lot of twirling," Jensen said with a sigh.

A twirl, a stomp off the court, slamming her hands into a wall. A reaction when the mistake was someone else's and not often enough a "my bad" when it was hers.

"She's not touchy-feely," Jensen said. "You're gonna meet her where she is."

The Iowa coaches didn't baby their prodigy. After one particularly bad performance, Caitlin caught a full barrage of anger and blame in the postgame locker room. She took it in public, but when she got into the car with her mom, she burst into tears. Not because of the yelling but because she wondered if she wanted something different than everyone else around her.

"Our goals are not aligned," she told her mom.

The Hawkeyes won 20 games and lost 10 her freshman year. They got beat in overtime at home by Ohio State. They beat No. 7 Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament. Caitlin won national co-freshman of the year. That helped with credibility.

"I want her in my foxhole," Martin said. "That's the type of player you want at the end of a game in a battle."

Maybe earlier than anyone, Martin realized that Caitlin's emotional outbursts were a byproduct of a young woman trying to marshal forces too powerful to fully control. Caitlin could take them to glory if they could help her be her best self. They all needed one another. Her teammates' understanding grew. They saw her get the blame for all the losses and knew the ball would always be in her hands with the game on the line. At a team meeting that season, when hurt feelings over Caitlin's lack of trust had come to the surface, it was Martin who rose to speak.

"I got something," she said.

The team fell silent.

"Everybody thinks they want to be Caitlin," she said. "I don't know if you want to be Caitlin."

The women knew immediately what she meant.

"The crown she wears is heavy."

The other four starters slowly accepted their role as The Caitlinettes. They won two games in the NCAA tournament before getting beat in the Sweet 16 by UConn. The headlines the next day back in Iowa would ratchet up the pressure -- Are the Hawks Ahead of Schedule? -- but in the postgame chaos Caitlin saw a familiar face approaching. It was Geno Auriemma. He told her how great she'd played and thanked her for her contribution to their sport. It felt like a victory. He finally saw what Bluder had seen all along. "He could see the greatness in me when I was a freshman," she said, "before everything unfolded when I was a junior."

That offseason Caitlin tried out for Team USA. Possession to possession, shot to shot, she played free and bold. Head coach Cori Close, whose day job was coaching the UCLA Bruins , saw the confidence immediately. "Women have been socialized to not want to take all the shine," she said. "She is an elite competitor who isn't scared to step into the moment."

But every team Caitlin had been on during the tryouts had lost its scrimmage, and after tryouts Close pulled her aside and put a question to her simply: "Do you want to be a really talented player who gets a lot of stats, or do you want to win?"

Caitlin made the roster, led the team to gold and was named MVP. "To Caitlin's credit, she really bought into that," Close said. "She went from being a really, really talented competitor to a winner."

WITHIN DAYS OF my arrival inside the Iowa basketball program, I started hearing stories about The Scrimmage. It seemed mythical the way the managers talked about it, but it really happened, on Oct. 20, 2021, just 15 days before the start of Caitlin's sophomore season.

"I watched it with my own two eyes!" former manager Spencer Touro said.

"The one where I went insane?" Caitlin asked.

"I think she made like five 3s in a row," Bluder said.

"I remember the scrimmage," Kate Martin said.

"How'd you hear about that?" Caitlin asked.

"I would get caught just watching her," Martin said.

"Down 25 with four minutes left," Jensen said.

"I had 22 points in less than two minutes," Caitlin said.

"She had seven 3s and a floater to tie at the buzzer," Jensen said.

"That's when I think she started to expand her game to the deep logos," Bluder said.

"There are clips," Caitlin said.

"It's a video game when she's on," Jensen said as she cued up silent footage from the actual scrimmage.

"I just start launching," Caitlin said.

"This is ... ," and Jensen starts laughing and can't stop.

"Trading 3 for 2," Caitlin said. "They're missing everything."

"... it's crazy," Jensen said, regaining her composure, watching Caitlin hit a 2, a 3, a 2 with an and-1, then another 3.

"I am making one-legged floaters," Caitlin said.

"Another off-balance 3," Jensen said, watching Caitlin grin on the film.

"She would take a couple of dribbles from half court," manager Isaac Prewitt said at a local campus restaurant over a plate of boneless wings.

"Everyone was freaking out," manager Will McIntire said, before taking a bite of his buffalo chicken wrap.

"They're going full tilt on her," Prewitt said. "They're not holding back."

"After I made my fifth 3 in a row, I ran to the bench," Caitlin said.

"You just have to let your jaw hit the floor," McIntire said.

"She's smiling now," Jensen said. "She knows."

"What is happening?" Caitlin screamed to her teammates on the bench.

"Look at the bench," Jensen said as she watched Caitlin scream at them and her teammates screaming back.

"I rarely do that," Caitlin said a little sheepishly.

"Now we're down three with 16 seconds left," Jensen said.

"Coach Abby was dying laughing," Caitlin said.

"So that tied it," Jensen said and the film finally ended, evidence that the birth of the legend really happened, was an actual thing, that none of the people in the gym that day will ever forget. Including a team of young girls who'd been invited to see a practice and happened upon the wildest one ever.

"They were going insane," Caitlin said.

"We're on the other side," McIntire said. "We are all like, oh my god."

"The coaches were just like, what the f---," Caitlin said.

Those few minutes changed the Iowa program forever. These Hawkeyes had been picked by the basketball gods to take part in something rare, something that would define them, that would be a legacy. That season they trailed by 25 points late in the third quarter against Michigan. Iowa dressed only seven players because of injuries.

Then Caitlin started firing wild, fearless 3-pointers. She made one from the logo, and during a subsequent timeout the team gathered in an excited circle around Bluder. Sharon Goodman leaned in.

"It's just like that scrimmage!" she said.

In the final six minutes, Caitlin hit four 3-pointers, scored 21 points and pulled the No. 21 Hawkeyes within five with 1:05 to go. The run stalled and the No. 6 Wolverines escaped with a win, but Iowa headed home in a kind of euphoria. The team could see the future. Weather delayed the team's flight and the players spread out around Signature Flight Service at the Willow Run private airport as highlights from the game played on every screen. Social media exploded. Caitlin Clark had just taken over a game, turning a Big Ten hostile arena into her cul-de-sac back in Des Moines.

The secret was out.

The Hawkeyes sat, just them, in a little pilot's waiting room with big recliners. Everyone groaned when ESPN aired her lone air ball. Caitlin sank into the cushions. She felt it, too. Friends and family kept sending her clips from the game as those same clips played on the three screens on the wall. She'd watched the "SportsCenter" top 10 her whole life and now she was on it. It felt like a moment. Not a mountaintop but proof to each of them that the ascent was real, that Caitlin really was stretching the canvas, exploding the usual logic about what was possible on a court and what was not. Maybe everything they thought they knew about basketball and the confines of 94 feet by 50 feet was wrong. Maybe the sophomore sitting in the oversized recliner was simultaneously breaking and remaking it.

THAT BRINGS ME to the other, inevitable remaking of her world that happened during her sophomore year. Talent like hers comes with a cost and, in our culture currently, that cost is fame. One night Iowa played a home game. Caitlin's parents, like always, drove over and cheered from the stands -- and nervously said rosaries, and screamed at officials, and paced, and switched seats if some bad energy had somehow infected their previous seating pattern -- and when the game ended, they rushed to the car to get home. Caitlin showered and changed and, close to 11 p.m., finally headed from the arena to her car. She was by herself. Two strange men approached through the shadows. Her pulse quickened.

They wanted her to sign some memorabilia.

The encounter freaked her out a little but freaked her parents out a lot, so they got with the university to work out a security plan. Looking back, Brent Clark said, they didn't understand at all what was about to happen. A legend was being born, one of those folk heroes who can only really exist in college sports: Steve McNair, Marcus Dupree, Tim Tebow, Caitlin Clark.

Fans around the conference loved to heckle her. She secretly loved the hostility because it made her games feel like the ones she'd watched on television as a child with her parents and brothers. Bluder said one Big Ten coach shouted at Caitlin during a game, "You're not as good as you think you are!"

"Were you nuclear?" I asked.

"I still am."

The Iowa coaches made progress with the body language in practice, and even if she couldn't exactly control her fiery side, Caitlin did know enough to recognize it in herself. She was becoming self-aware, learning how to maximize her unique combination of skill and drive. One day Jensen pulled up a body language clip that showed her simmering, clearly frustrated, but managing not to explode. There were victories to celebrate. The Hawkeyes won the 2022 Big Ten title and went into the tournament with high hopes, but in the second round they lost to Creighton. Blake Clark texted a photograph of the scoreboard to his sister. Motivation. All offseason, at random moments, he'd send the picture again.

"She eats that stuff up," Blake said.

LAST SEASON, CAITLIN'S junior year, arrived with enormous expectations, and she felt them. The starting five had started two full years of games together, two years of practices and team parties and late-night flights and bus rides. This was their last year together. Monika Czinano would head to the WNBA or overseas to continue her career, and McKenna Warnock was about to graduate on her pre-dentistry path and start applying to dental schools. This was Caitlin's best shot to deliver on her bold claim that they would reach the Final Four.

Before the season began, the Iowa coaches reached out to a performance consultant and author whom Caitlin had studied in high school. Brett Ledbetter first Zoomed with her on a Monday, the last week of July, and they started with the idea that the search for approval can get supercharged by her growing fame and success. Praise is a gateway drug, he told her. She talked about how she'd become addicted without even realizing what was happening.

"It really is a drug," she told him. "You're always craving it."

"How do you process what you just said?" he asked.

"I think it's scary to think about," she said.

"I think it's sad."

Two weeks later they Zoomed again. The topic was "unconditional peace," and she talked about her desire to be calm. She wanted to know which external forces made her feel full and which made her feel empty. Later she'd watch that video back with Ledbetter and find herself second-guessing her answers.

"Because?" he asked.

"I don't want to say the wrong thing," she told him. "And maybe I don't even really understand yet."

"Understand what?"

"What I'm chasing after."

There was a preseason practice on Oct. 15 when she pouted and raged. That went into the clip file. The coaches still prepared video packages of her body language and reactions. But these moments had softened, and slowed, and when confronted with them, her answers showed her growing ability to harness her gift. Bluder showed her one moment from practice when she just walked off the court into the tunnel and vanished.

"Is that a good thing or a bad thing?" the coaches asked.

"It's good," Caitlin told them.

She told her coaches that she'd felt herself about to explode and decided to have a second alone, so that she didn't negatively impact her teammates.

"I didn't slam the chair," she told them.

They liked that. She liked that they liked it.

"I didn't throw my water bottle," she told them.

They liked that, too.

"I walked away," she said, and then smiled and added, "I didn't even scream in there."

THE SEASON BEGAN and Iowa got upset on the road at K-State, then lost to UConn at a tournament in Oregon and to NC State at home. The previous year's NCAA loss to Creighton weighed heavy and all she could think about was the specter of failure hanging over this season, and her career, and over the success of her decision to choose Iowa over Notre Dame, and just a lot of other unfocused, swirling anxiety.

"What if we get upset again?" Caitlin thought.

She needed help with the chaos of living in multiple dimensions of time, juggling past, present and future all at once, with tomorrow offering the circle's second chance but also arrows from the battlement walls.

"I'm almost playing this game because I have this expectation of all I want to accomplish," she'd say later, "but I'm missing the moments in between. I've got to find peace in my life."

The Iowa coaches encouraged her to "take off her cape" in front of her teammates. That would deepen their connection, which they'd need to win the close, fierce games that loomed for the Hawkeyes. Once a week, the players met to talk honestly about their hopes and fears. "Those were highly classified conversations," Ledbetter said, "and nothing was off the table. It was remarkable where they went as a group together. One of the things she embraced is vulnerability. The way she viewed vulnerability changed in the course of the season."

He asked her to smile at people first and see how that changed the energy in the room. She did and reported back. Everyone seemed happier and friendlier and more secure. These moments weren't tied to what she could accomplish but to how she showed up in the world with and for others. The rest of the country would discover Caitlin in the coming months, seeing her emerge almost fully formed as a superstar, but her teammates were watching from the front row as she built an interior mental warrior strong enough to support the weight of her talent and the expectations it brought.

Internal motivations to be the best and external motivations to reach records and milestones, to win, to earn praise and approval, overlapped for Caitlin. Each one feeding the other. She'd trapped herself in a perpetual state of chasing, where achievements brought no peace. Her coaches and mentors helped her see the lie in those dreams. The numbers, great as they were, fun as they have been to chase, weren't speaking to her soul, weren't why she played. The encouragement and praise, from fans, coaches, teammates, friends and her parents, were a sign she was doing something at a very high level but were never enough for her to feel as if she had arrived.

"You just want more of it," she said.

"That's not going to make me feel full at the end of the day," she said during another session. "In 20 years, banners and rings just collect dust. It's more the memories."

Caitlin settled on a mantra: Find peace in the quest.

IN THE FINAL regular-season game of the 2023 season, No. 2-ranked Indiana came to Carver-Hawkeye Arena. This night would let Iowa know if it'd come together in time to make a run, and would let Caitlin know if all the hard mental and emotional work she'd put in -- in addition to all the hours in the gym and weight room, where she complained to the strength coaches that they had made her thighs get too big for all her jeans -- would result in a player and a team functioning at the same frequency. She'd worked to find peace, and tonight that meant peace inside an arena that experienced Hawk fans insist they've never heard louder.

Iowa jumped out to a 10-2 lead with a 3-pointer by Kate Martin that ripped through the net so clean and so hard the television audience could hear the popping strings. Indiana fought back. Caitlin hit a big shot and pounded her chest and she stomped to her own bench and bellowed. Her teammates shouted back. The game was tied late when the Hoosiers went to the line with less than a second left and two foul shots to take the lead. Caitlin started yelling at the officials to review the clock.

"Time! Time! Time!"

She alone realized that the officials had messed up the clock. That's the basketball IQ coaches are forever talking about. She stayed calm and the officials went to check the replay monitors and sure enough, she was right.

The referees fixed the clock. Indiana made both free throws to take a two-point lead. The Hawkeyes had a full second and a half to get off a buzzer-beater.

The No. 2 team in the country got in its defensive set.

It was time.

Caitlin rushed toward a screen at the top of the key, the clock almost out, and every one of the 15,000 people in this storied old arena knew she was taking the last shot. Her opponents knew it, too. The pass came in. The clock started: 1.5 seconds, 1.4, 1.3. Off balance but with a smooth flick of the wrist, fingers pointed toward the floor, she fired the last shot of the game. The ball dropped and the arena exploded with sound. The noise overwhelmed the television microphones into a slush of feedback. Kate Martin doubled over in awe and jubilation and Caitlin took off sprinting for the baseline just like in practice.

Iowa won three straight games to win the Big Ten tournament, beating Ohio State in the final by 33 points. Caitlin felt invincible. Her brother Blake told me one night, almost in awe, that his sister has the rare thing that powered Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. "One of her superpowers is taking things personally," he said. "The fact that you're on a basketball court with her, that's a challenge. 'You should leave this court knowing you have no right to be on it. You need to go home and go work if you want to share the court with me and my team.' That's why you see her smiling as she is absolutely dismantling Ohio State in the Big Ten championship game, just cackling as she's coming up the floor with the ball. Because it's so easy and it's just basketball."

The next morning, back in Iowa City, Caitlin got up early and decided to attend her 8 a.m. class. She'd missed a few. Once all the students had taken their seats, the professor looked out into the crowd.

"Is Caitlin Clark here?"

She was sitting in the back row. The students turned to look her way. They started clapping, the room soon echoing with cheers.

The NCAA committee gave the Hawkeyes a No. 2 seed.

THREE YEARS OF WORK with her Iowa teammates, and a lifetime of dreaming before arriving on campus, had placed Caitlin Clark on the biggest stage in her sport with the exact right combination of ruthlessness, talent and desire to make that stage her own. Athletes dream of peaking at the perfect moment and soon the entire country would know what the Hawkeyes first learned in that long ago scrimmage. She wanted her moment. She made her intentions for March known when Bluder subbed her out of the first-round blowout win against Southeastern Louisiana. Furious, she stomped past her coach on the way to the bench.

"Forty minutes, six games," she barked.

That was it: 40 minutes in a game, six games for the championship.

The second round scared them all. The Georgia Bulldogs were coming to Carver-Hawkeye. They played physical SEC basketball. Caitlin told me she hadn't felt this much pressure all season. They'd lost the year before in the round of 32 to Creighton. Blake had been sending Caitlin the scoreboard picture for a whole year. The Bulldogs played a funky matchup zone that caused problems for opponents. Iowa got off to a slow start but found its rhythm. The game stayed close, as close as four points in the final minute. The Bulldogs kept fouling hard, playing with intensity, trying to stay in the game. During a television timeout, Caitlin stood next to the referee waiting to restart play. The ref held the ball, and a Georgia defender stood next to them.

"You're not as good as you think," the Bulldogs player said.

Caitlin smiled and turned to the ref.

"Do you think I'm a good basketball player?"

The referee started laughing. The Iowa coaches knew, in that moment, that she had entered chrysalis stage. She'd become the player she had always had the potential to be. Calm, ruthless. A winner. She simply would not engage with the negativity. She hit two foul shots with a second left and the game was over.

Bluder told her team to pack for two games in Seattle, and then for two games in Dallas at the Final Four. The Hawkeyes were not going home. They flew into Seattle and walked into the hotel where the players saw a DJ booth set up in the lobby. Caitlin pulled her hood up and went up and pretended to be spinning records in a club and everyone laughed.

"Oh my god, this kid," Iowa staff member Kathryn Reynolds said with a wistful laugh. "We were on the ride of our lives."

She grinned on the bus to and from practice and scrolled through pictures of her dog, Bella. In the Sweet 16, she scored 31 in an easy win against Colorado. The managers still talk about that game, which is often overlooked in the run of clutch performances that would follow.

"She just took it over," manager Prewitt said. "It was nuts. She has that ability to flip that switch."

"Can you tell when it's coming?" I asked.

McIntire just nodded.

"Honestly as someone who guards her," he said, "it's the look she gets and the way she starts dribbling the ball. Her mojo. Her body language."

"If someone gets up on her and talks s---," Prewitt said.

"You just get a tingle," McIntire said. "OK. Some s--- is about to go down."

He laughed.

"Usually it's against us during practice," he said.

The morning of the Elite Eight, facing fifth-seeded Louisville, Reynolds, who was basically Caitlin's chief of staff to help her navigate stardom, ran into her after the morning shootaround.

"How do you feel?" Reynolds asked.

Caitlin just shrugged her shoulders.

"I feel good," she said.

Reynolds said she knew then that Iowa would win.

"You can read her eyes really well," she said. "She has it all in her face. She was just in this different space. I remember the peace during shootaround, goofy then focused. It was almost bizarre to watch how comfortable she seemed."

Caitlin believed it was the biggest game of her life.

She walked onto the court and felt no nerves or anxiety.

I must've raised an eyebrow or something when she told me that because she smiled and said, "I swear to God I would tell you."

She walked up to Reynolds.

"This is gonna be a great game," she told her. "This is gonna be awesome."

Caitlin stepped into the spotlight, famous for the first time from coast to coast, drawing record audiences to the broadcasts. In the first quarter of the Elite Eight game against Louisville, she went on fire. Hit a 3. Iowa got a stop. Hit another 3. After a turnover Caitlin pushed a 2-on-1 fast break across the center line. Once there would have been no scenario in which she didn't try to score. But she'd been trying to listen to her coaches telling her that real life cannot be lived in a total isolation. She needed to share. The defender closed, perfectly lured to get left flat-footed by a patented Caitlin juke, but instead she threw a long bounce pass that hit McKenna Warnock perfectly in stride but bounced off her hands and out of bounds. The roof would have lifted off the building had the pass led to an easy bucket. It looked, honest to goodness, like a pass Magic Johnson might have thrown in the early summer of 1988, but it earned the Hawkeyes no points. The cameras focused on Caitlin, who did not react at all. Her coaches all noticed.

During a run in the next quarter she attracted a double-team and dished to a wide-open Warnock for 3 on two consecutive game-busting possessions. Iowa never trailed again. Warnock pointed at Caitlin as they turned and ran back on defense. During the timeout that followed, Louisville coach Jeff Walz ranted and raved and screamed in the face of one of his guards like a toddler, and that's what a confident Caitlin Clark can do to a grown man: turn him into a joke of a child, red-faced, all screams and no plan to make the bleeding stop. The Hawkeyes took the lead and then went on a 9-0 run in the second quarter. Caitlin scored or assisted on every one of the points. When Iowa won she ran to Bluder and wrapped her up in a hug.

"We did it," Caitlin said.

She finished with 41 points. She had 12 assists and 10 rebounds, a triple-double, just owning the game and the vibrating electrons that created the spaces in it. The Hawkeyes were going to the Final Four.

ON THE DAY of the national semifinal against South Carolina, Caitlin watched some video of her pouting through a practice back on Oct.15. She didn't recognize that old version of herself and felt like she'd braved the storms of the season and postseason and had emerged stronger. She walked onto the court and heard the 19,288 fans screaming, faced into that noise. Something almost metaphysical happened to her. Even six months later she still struggled to believe it happened. But when she first stepped onto the court before that South Carolina game, she felt like she left one dimension behind and moved into another. She told herself that she'd worked so hard for this moment and it was now hers to own. Most of all she felt peace in the quest. Only a few rhythm masters ever reach that state of elevated consciousness. Everyone who tastes it wants more, their eyes opened to new worlds of color.

Iowa upset the undefeated, top-seeded and defending champion Gamecocks 77-73. Caitlin scored 41 points including five 3-pointers. She showed heart in the tense moments. Afterward, in a room waiting on the press to come ask her questions, she shared a private moment with Bailey Turner, the sports information director. He described her later as completely calm, empty and peaceful.

The Hawkeyes lost in the title game to LSU.

The LSU coaches had given the Tigers a devastatingly accurate scouting report on the Hawkeyes. Associate head coach Bob Starkey wrote that Caitlin would score her points and there was nothing they could do to stop her. The key was to manage how she scored those points. She averaged 27 in the Iowa wins and 30 in the losses. The key to beating the Hawkeyes, Starkey argued, was stopping Monika Czinano, who scored 19 when her team won but only 11 when they lost.

Against LSU she scored 13 and fouled out. McKenna Warnock fouled out, too. Caitlin scored 30 in the defeat.

She went to a little room beneath the arena for a news conference.

Someone asked her, "What's next for this team?"

She tried not to laugh. This question landed in her deepest anxieties. She'd been trying to face down the fear that nothing she ever did would be good enough and now here was proof that someone else thought that, too. She wanted to make time stop. Tomorrow, with its hope and danger, loomed always. Peace felt more and more like the ability to keep tomorrow out of today.

"I don't want to think about what's next," she said once. "I don't want to feel like I always have to do more and be more."

Months later, as we talked about the Final Four, I asked her if she felt like she knew herself.

"That's a journey I'm still on," she said.

She smiled.

"I'm only 21," she said.

This is a story about being 21.

"You're trying to know yourself," she said, "while you're trying to become this great person."

MODERN FAME IS a radioactive thing that corrodes everything it touches and consumes some people completely. Human beings are designed to live in small tribes, where the most important part of everyday life revolves around direct interactions. That vital way of being is undercut again and again by fame. It really messes some people up. Caitlin has been fighting to feel and be and be seen as human since high school, even as she has strived for things that can only be described as superhuman.

After Georgia and Colorado got chippy, especially when Caitlin would go on a run of logo 3s, her confidant Kathryn Reynolds told her that only she had control of her mind and that nobody could break through that barrier without her permission. She had the power to keep them at bay.

Against Louisville in the Elite Eight, Caitlin hit her sixth 3-pointer and then waved her hand in front of her face, an imitation of wrestler John Cena's can't-see-me move. It was a spontaneous nod to Reynolds' advice. Cena almost immediately tweeted at her. So did LeBron James, who called Caitlin "so COLD!" More people tuned in to ESPN to see Iowa play Louisville than had watched any regular-season NBA game on the network all season.

When LSU beat Iowa in the title game, star center Angel Reese, an intense, talented player who had 15 points and 10 rebounds in the win, made the can't-see-me gesture back at Caitlin as the clock wound down. Postgame social media lit up, some criticizing Reese for showing up an opponent, others saying that kind of criticism showed a racial double standard.

Earlier on Final Four weekend, Lisa Bluder had spoken of the competitiveness she anticipated in the semifinal against South Carolina by saying the game would be a bar fight. After the loss, Gamecocks coach Dawn Staley objected to ways she said her team had been characterized all season.

"We're not bar fighters. We're not thugs. We're not monkeys. We're not street fighters. This team exemplifies how you need to approach basketball."

The moments all intersected in the days after the tournament ended. The semiotics of race and the fires of fighting to win fueled each other. Tough talk between two elite head coaches opened onto difficult public conversations about the consequences of language. And on-court gestures from one superstar to another were interpreted by some as clashes between identities that extended beyond the game.

Even if they could see you...they couldn't guard you! Congrats on the historic performance @CaitlinClark22 and to @IowaWBB on advancing to the Final Four! @MarchMadnessWBB #WFinalFour https://t.co/QvpYDTESwb — John Cena (@JohnCena) March 28, 2023

In her postgame news conference, Reese said: "All year I was critiqued about who I was. I don't fit the narrative. I don't fit in the box that you all want me to be in. I'm too hood. I'm too ghetto. You all told me that all year. But when other people do it, you all don't say nothing."

When Iowa got home from the Final Four, Turner, the sports information director, arranged an interview for Caitlin with ESPN. Caitlin thought the questions would focus on the Wooden Award, which she had just won, but they were mostly about the end of the championship game.

"Angel is a tremendous, tremendous player," she said. "I have nothing but respect for her. I love her game.

"I think everybody knew there was going to be a little trash talk the entire tournament. It's not just me and Angel. I don't think she should be criticized."

The stakes of playing on the stage Caitlin and Angel play on are high, and they know it. "Facts," Caitlin told me later.

When the TV interview ended, she started shaking uncontrollably.

"I'm doing this in my apartment bedroom," she said.

She texted her mom and Bluder and asked how she'd done. Both told her she'd done great.

"If you do one wrong thing your life can really end," she said.

AFTER LOSING TO LSU the Hawkeyes cried in the locker room. "Bawled," Caitlin said. She and Kate Martin hugged McKenna Warnock and Monika Czinano. They'd become sisters. Two weeks of adrenaline ran out, and they awakened to lives that had changed in ways they never could have imagined on the flight out to Seattle. Now they just wanted to go home.

Everyone headed back to the team hotel to meet their families and friends. Caitlin hadn't even taken off her uniform.

She kept it together until she saw her father.

He waited for her in the lobby.

She burst into tears and buried her head in his shoulder.

"You have so much to be proud of," he told her.

"I know but still it's sad, Dad," she said.

She went upstairs and stood in the shower for a long time and let the adrenaline and stress run out with the draining water. Is this real life? She tried to understand what was different. Then she led her teammates three blocks away from the hotel to toast their season. The name of the bar was Happiest Hour, and the staff didn't seem prepared for two dozen very tired, very nostalgic, very thirsty women.

"I don't think you should write about any of this," Caitlin said with a smile, "but I'm gonna tell you anyway."

An Iowa fan asked Caitlin if he could buy the team a drink.

"Twenty-two shots!" she said.

Soon a tray showed up. Twenty-two. That night might end up being Caitlin's favorite memory from college. This group of women truly loved one another and for the rest of their lives when they looked at their Final Four rings, or came to some anniversary and saw the banner hanging in the rafters, it is that love they would remember. And evenings like the one in Dallas after they lost the biggest game of their lives but still had one another. She changed her mind about wanting people to know about that night.

"You can write about that," she said. "I don't really care."

They stayed out all night, sad, yes, but sad together, which was its own kind of joy. They told stories, about being stuck in traffic at Maryland or the shot Caitlin hit against Indiana. They all dragged themselves out of bed in time to catch an afternoon flight back to Iowa, and the team leaders kept doing head counts and asking if everyone was present and accounted for and if everyone was OK. They wore hoodies and sunglasses. Kate Martin cradled a Jimmy John's submarine sandwich in the lobby. No. 5, the Vito -- salami, capocollo and provolone. Caitlin gloated because she'd had the foresight to pack before the game. The players shared pictures and retold the stories. They limped to the plane and flew back home.

THEY WENT THEIR separate ways, and Caitlin sank into her summer. She signed millions of dollars of contracts and flew to Los Angeles to shoot big-budget commercials where a grip held an umbrella over her head to block the sun.

She tried to hold it for herself.

She couldn't believe how much free stuff she got.

"This is why the rich are so rich," she said. "They get things for free. It's so weird."

McKenna Warnock started dental school. Monika Czinano tried and failed to land one of those 144 WNBA roster spots. Kathryn Reynolds got a job offer she couldn't refuse, running a new women's softball league.

Caitlin got gifts for her teammates from her sponsors. Huge loads of free Nike gear including these rare Dunks. Bose headphones. She went to big corporate meetings with her parents following along stunned, proud, bewildered. The PGA Tour swung through Iowa, and she played with Masters champion (and native Iowan) Zach Johnson in front of packed galleries. She practiced for days before her first tee shot, not wanting to embarrass herself. The next morning, she came to an Iowa workout and, as the managers said, "torched everyone."

"It was unbelievable," Prewitt told me.

McIntire just shook his head.

"Hadn't shot a basketball in four days," he said.

"I think she does as good a job of balancing it as she can," Prewitt said.

The Iowa women's season tickets sold out for the first time ever on Aug. 2. Lisa Bluder and Jan Jensen were sitting together when they got the call from the ticket office and both women cried. They'd never ridden a wave like this one, after a lifetime dedicated to furthering their sport. They also worried about the toll all this exponentially growing attention was having on their young phenom.

I asked Jensen once how she could tell when Caitlin felt overwhelmed.

Easy, she told me.

She always hits the practice gym with a bounce, with a smile and an inner ferocity, and when she is drained, it's immediately obvious.

"When was the last time you saw her like that?" I asked.

There was a long pause.

"This summer she was really busy," Jensen said finally.

The Iowa coaches found themselves organizing the entire team practice calendar around Caitlin's travel schedule. They wanted her to be able to go receive awards and soak up the glory. But it all got to be a lot.

"She wants to be a kid, too," Jensen said. "It's summer, you know? This summer was taxing on her."

I ARRIVED A MONTH later to find Caitlin Clark trying to be all things to all people, feeling the expectations of what's next while raging at the inexperience of her new forwards and centers. She always seemed to know when I was at practice and would thank me for coming. I sense she does that with every visitor. I have written about athletes for two decades but I've never, until now, watched someone change from a solid into a liquid and a liquid into a gas. That knowledge made the whole industry of profiling great athletes seem almost silly, because whatever "makes her tick" is deeply internal and unknown, even to her. She was leaving an old life behind and learning how to fit comfortably in a new one. I found myself texting with her father all the time, and he found comfort in his own mantra. Stay hungry and humble. I began to watch her play like the Iowa coaches did, focusing on the moments during practice and games when she faced frustration, to see how she would react.

The coaches and players saw everything. Caitlin getting furious about no-calls in practice. With success has come a raised metabolism. There haven't been any fist fights inside the team but there has been a lot of preamble. Screaming and cursing. This is a championship-caliber team trying to reclaim the form that earned it that status, so that the reality inside the basement of Carver-Hawkeye often differs dramatically from the exterior reputation. The rankings all season called Iowa a top-five team, but Caitlin Clark knew better. Therefore everyone else knew, too. At one scrimmage, Caitlin's anger at the no-calls translated into bad shots -- she often fires up wilder and wilder attempts when she's mad, even now -- and she missed two-thirds of them. Nobody is harder on Caitlin Clark than Caitlin Clark.

"I suck!" she'll bark at herself on the bench.

During the scrimmage she threw a pass that bounced off Gabbie Marshall's hands. She looked over at the coaches in disgust, and they could see the fit coming. Everyone worried that they'd gone back in time to her freshman year. This again? became a refrain.

The season went on, with the public accolades growing, and I kept calling people inside the program and showing up when I could.

"What is the Caitlin patience meter currently?" I'd often ask.

"Decent," I was told once.

At that day's practice, assistant Abby Stamp told Caitlin there would be no March magic without her teammates.

"You're gonna need her," Stamp said.

"Yeah but she missed me on the cut," she replied.

A few days before, Jensen had stood up for one of her bigs. Caitlin had been barking orders, and the coach told her to settle down.

"But ..." Caitlin started.

"Stop butting me," Jensen said. "Throw her the ball."

"Throw it to her."

Caitlin wanted more than anything to go back to the Final Four, because she'd tasted the glory but also the calm and focus of stepping onto the court against South Carolina.

I asked her about the drama at practice.

"I have these new players and I'm not comfortable and they're not comfortable," she told me. "How do I navigate having patience? Giving them confidence? They don't have the confidence of minutes."

She and her crew -- Kate, McKenna, Mon, Gabbie -- had been to war together.

"The amount of huge games we were in last year," she said, starting to visibly percolate at the memory of such beautiful intensity. "WAKE UP! We're here. We're playing Louisville in the Elite Eight. We're playing Georgia in the round of 32 and it's a four-point game with 30 seconds to go!"

Her great flaw in the context of the team, she has learned, is her complete lack of a poker face. If she feels it, she wears it.

"Your one compliment to somebody can give them so much confidence," she said. "It's scary almost how much power ... Because it goes both ways. You get upset with them, they're crumbling."

She switched to third person to mock herself and rolled her eyes as she talked.

"Caitlin Clark believes in them, what more do they need?"

She snapped her fingers.

"I can never have a bad reaction," she said.

She worked hard to get better, to relearn the lessons of the past, which seemed like new problems because of her new and growing fame and the expectations that came with it, both the external ones put on her by the world and the internal ones put on her by herself. There's a John Updike quote I love about the mask eating the face that seemed to apply to what Caitlin was experiencing. The Iowa coaches were hyper aware of that possibility, that the famous Caitlin Clark would swallow the goofy girl they'd known, and they believed at the end that they had all mostly succeeded. Caitlin had managed to protect herself. Her real self.

There were positive moments that reflected all her hard work. Great moments that allowed everyone to dream of March. Once at practice Caitlin came flying down the court in transition. Addi O'Grady was wide open around the free throw line. Caitlin got to the logo and jacked up a 3-pointer, which went in. O'Grady never once yelled for the ball.

Jensen threw up her hands in disgust and yelled, "Ugh!"

Caitlin came right to her.

"The reason I didn't throw it ..." she began to explain.

Jensen cut her off and said that it was Addi's fault for not screaming for the ball and that the coaches were annoyed about that. Bluder and Jensen wanted all the centers to act like Monika Czinano and expect the ball every single trip down the court, to call for it, to deliver once she received the pass. To them Caitlin didn't do anything wrong. The center needs to demand respect. "She can detect weakness," Bluder told me. "I think she likes strong people. People that are good leaders. People who will use their voice."

The coaches also believed Caitlin taking it on herself to explain what she was seeing meant that all their messages were getting through and she was paying attention. During a later practice she threw an errant entry pass to O'Grady. The ball fell uselessly away. All the coaches turned to see what would happen next. They held their breath.

Caitlin made eye contact with Addi.

"My bad," Caitlin said.

THE HAWKEYES EXPERIENCED incredible highs and lows together.

They beat Virginia Tech.

Caitlin appeared on the ManningCast for "Monday Night Football."

They lost to K-State.

Jason Sudeikis and Sue Bird came to sit courtside. During a television timeout, Sudeikis did his Ted Lasso dance on the jumbotron and Carver-Hawkeye rocked in the reflected celebrity. Afterward Caitlin and her family took Jason out to dinner. They sat in the window at Basta on Iowa Avenue.

"He talks just like he does in the show!" Caitlin gushed to her mom after.

One night in February, forward Hannah Stuelke scored 47 points against Penn State on a night Caitlin had 15 assists. "I think our connection is amazing. I love playing with her," Stuelke said.

Three days later, Caitlin went scoreless in the fourth quarter and the Hawkeyes blew a 14-point lead in a loss to Nebraska.

Her coaches worried and hoped.

"I want her to learn how to manage all this," Jensen told me. "The NIL stuff. The popularity. The stardom. I want her to manage that and still love the game, you know?"

Everyone looked to make sure Caitlin didn't lose her sense of wonder.

"She seems like a child when we bring dogs into the facility and she gets on the floor and is rolling around with them and being a kid and screaming," Jensen said. "She goes from one extreme to the other so quickly: 'I'm this unbelievable athlete' to 'I'm this little kid.'"

They experienced success, celebrity, frustration and failure. I met the team in Columbus, Ohio, in late January. Nothing went right for the Hawkeyes. Kate Martin raged at the officials and her opponents and Caitlin ended up in the rare position of being the voice of reason, urging calm and moderation. None of their shots fell. If Iowa gets beat in March, it will be because of an afternoon like the one they had in Columbus. With a minute left I went down into the narrow hallway outside the visitors locker room. I heard a commotion but didn't see what happened. Suddenly the campus police officer who travels with the team helped a slumping Caitlin past me, her head thrown back in pain. An Ohio State student storming the court had collided with her. Caitlin's mom was on a rampage in the bowels of the arena, furious about the lack of security. We all went to the airport and flew back to Cedar Rapids, where university charter buses picked us up to drive back to campus. We parked outside the garage where the players keep their cars for away games. Everyone climbed off the bus -- except Caitlin. She was in the little bathroom in the way back throwing her guts up.

I left her and went to the garage. The first person I saw was Kate Martin. I asked what was wrong.

"Migraines," Martin said. "She gets 'em really bad."

THE NEXT DAY Caitlin and a group of teammates got ready at their off-campus apartments. They changed into fancy clothes and called an Uber and were pulling out of the complex when they saw a whole bunch of flashing lights. As they got closer they realized it was their teammate Ava Jones who'd been in the wreck. Ava hasn't played a minute for the Hawkeyes; two days after she committed, she and her family were at a basketball tournament in Louisville when a drug-addled driver ran them down on the sidewalk. Ava suffered a traumatic brain injury and devastating knee and shoulder injuries. Her father died. The Iowa coaches honored their commitment and she is an emotional member of the team even if she can't play. Her teammates worry over her all the time. Now she'd been in a fender bender.

"Just cancel the ride," Caitlin said. "That's our teammate, can you just stop?"

The cops working the accident tried to keep the young women away but stood little chance of stopping them.

"We're her teammates!" Caitlin said.

Molly Davis pulled up, on her way back to the apartments from a massage. Soon coach Raina Harmon showed up, too. Before too long half the team was standing in the middle of the street. They all stayed with Ava until it was clear she was OK. Some of the Hawkeyes talked to her, while others talked to the police and paramedics. Caitlin kept texting her mother, who was waiting with Brent and me for her 22nd birthday dinner.

Finally they made it. Caitlin's migraine, which she always suffers through without complaint, had blessedly vanished. We sat down and they recounted what had happened with Ava. For the next few hours everyone laughed and told stories. We finished our meals, and the restaurant brought over a riff on a chocolate chip cookie. Caitlin loves chocolate chip cookies. The teammates told Anne what they saw of the incident after the game in Columbus. Kate Martin, they said gleefully, threatened to fight the Ohio State student section. She'd be Charles Oakley to Caitlin's Michael Jordan. Everyone laughed. Caitlin the loudest.

"I see Caitlin on the ground and I just start seeing red," Martin explained.

When the game ended Caitlin looked to find the Buckeyes to shake their hands when all the fans rushed the court. The Iowa coaches started urgently telling the Iowa players to get to the locker room. Caitlin took off at a dead sprint -- "which was problem number one," she said -- and never saw the Ohio State student until they collided. When she picked up her phone, she saw a text from her former football player brother: "Next time explode through their sternum."

Everyone at the dinner table laughed about that.

Martin ran up right after the collision to see her best friend on the ground.

"What happened?"

"I got drilled," Caitlin said.

"A fan ran into her," said Jada Gyamfi , a forward who wears No. 23.

Around 4 a.m., once they got home from the game, Caitlin got a text from Monika Czinano asking if she needed to hire a hit man. Martin sounded embarrassed as she described to all of us at dinner how she stalked around cursing at people and trying to find someone to fight. She was repeating the wilder things she said and then Caitlin started doing her impression of Martin.

"Whatever," Kate said. "I'm ride or die for my ladies."

Caitlin's parents paid. This was their treat. Then Kate sheepishly revealed she'd had a bit of parking trouble when she'd pulled up outside earlier. Her car was, she admitted, parked on top of a curb and a snowdrift. She needed help pushing it out. Jada, Will McIntire and I got low and started to push. Martin sat behind the wheel. We all made sure not to let Caitlin anywhere near the operation. None of us wanted to be responsible for a tire rolling over her foot and ending the greatest college basketball season anyone has ever had.

"Twenty-two is not touching this car!" I said.

Gyamfi laughed.

"This is a job for two-three," she said.

"I gotta get this on video!" Caitlin said.

We all pushed, then leaned in and pushed harder, as Kate spun her tires then caught a little traction and lurched to safety. Everyone cheered, me included, and Caitlin was part of the action, but also separate from it, her life pulling her in one direction and her teammates in another. Finally, she stopped recording and I watched them all go out into the night, still celebrating.

THIS IS A STORY about being 22. Do you remember when you first started on the road to your dreams? That's where Caitlin Clark finds herself in March 2024. She has announced her intention to enter the WNBA draft. Her future has begun, the world she built during four life-changing years in Iowa City. All the things she wants to be are there to be grasped. Her games draw bigger audiences than many NBA games. She is at the epicenter of sports -- a superstar without caveats or adjectives. She isn't important because of symbolic broken barriers but because she steps onto a 94-foot-long rectangle and dominates it. In the month after her birthday, Caitlin Clark kept rising to the occasion. She broke the NCAA women's career scoring record -- the record-breaking shot came from 30 feet, three of her career-high 49 -- then the actual women's scoring record held by Lynette Woodard, who got invited to Iowa for the event and revelled in the standing ovation she received from Carver-Hawkeye. Then on senior night she broke Pete Maravich's men's career scoring record. No human being playing Division I basketball has ever scored more. The rapper Travis Scott came to see her break Pistol Pete's record and posed for pictures with the whole team. Jake from State Farm came. He wore a designer jacket made from Caitlin's jersey. Nolan Ryan snuck in beneath a baseball cap with his granddaughters. It was important to him that they witness Caitlin. The television ratings shattered records. Patrick Mahomes praised her. So did LeBron James. These moments, and so many others, happened in public. Her brother and I texted back and forth during these incredible few weeks when it seemed like the entire country had turned its attention to her greatness.

Everyone around her seemed happy. Not because of records. Not because of what excited the rest of the basketball world but because of something that happened offstage just eight days before she broke the NCAA's women's record. Opponents, beware. On Feb. 7, the Hawkeyes held a practice before Penn State came to Iowa City. The season's metabolism had started to peak. Kate Martin stopped practice to preach about the importance of knowing the scouting report, and the whole team hung on her every word, and Jensen looked over to catch Bluder staring with admiration and joy at Martin's command of the room.

A bit later, during a scrimmage, Addi O'Grady, who had at one point retreated into an introverted shell in response to the barrage of pressure from Caitlin, got down on the post and just knocked one of the team managers on his ass.

This was everything Caitlin Clark loved about basketball. The competition, the aggression, the way that every moment produced a winner and a loser, the willingness to go hard, to risk. O'Grady had won the moment. She'd know what that felt like now. She could do it again. Caitlin ran to her. She jumped up and down and screamed and praised and threw around joyous curses and exaltations. The coaches beamed. This was a team. Jan Jensen cried about it later, she said. They'd traveled the road. They'd put last season in its place and made this one its own. It was February. The doors were closed and there were no cameras. Nobody sat courtside or wanted autographs. Caitlin was at the center of it but not hitting 3s or firing passes behind her back. She was all out in praise of a teammate. She believed.

"YES!" she screamed. "ADDI!!"

These are the moments the team will remember decades from now, when they gather as middle-aged women. Renting yachts and pushing cars out of the snow. Posting up on the block. This is a story about being 21, yes, and 22, but also about being 41, and 52, and older than that. The Iowa Hawkeyes of the Caitlin Clark years will stand one day at center court beneath their banners, with husbands and wives and partners, with kids and grandkids. They know this. And they know they will find themselves unable to describe how it felt all those years ago, when they were young and magic and ready for March.


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  1. How Long Should a College Essay Be?

    Learn how to write a concise and effective college essay within the specified word count range. Find out how to shorten or expand your essay, and see examples of wordy and concise sentences.

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