How to Count Words for a College Essay

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College essay word counts, typically given in a range such as one hundred to two hundred words, represent suggested word counts. Professors assigning in-class test essays that are restricted by a time limit tend to show greater flexibility in accepting below-range word counts provided the essay is complete and well-developed. Homework essays may also, depending on the instructor, afford the student greater flexibility regarding a suggested word count provided the essay does not contain rambling "filler" material.

Things You'll Need

  • Paper
  • Pen
  • Pencil
  • Typewriter
  • Word processor

Assessment

  • Recognize that there are three fundamental ways to arrive at a word count for an essay. These are suited to different situations. You can count the words of a college essay physically; you can count the words by using a word-counting tool in a word processor; or you can make an estimate of the number of words in an essay. Use an estimate for a handwritten essay or an essay produced on a standard typewriter. Use your word processor's word-counting tool for a word-processed essay. Also consider backing up your word processor's word count with your own estimate to identify how closely the two means of counting agree and to provide yourself with a baseline for estimating future assignment word counts. Use the estimation method also for time-sensitive situations such as an in-class essay test. Develop an awareness of your words-per-page average in such tests to help you make an estimate during future essay assignments.

  • Simplify the physical counting method by breaking up a page of writing into shorter segments. Use the tip of your finger or the tip of a pencil or pen to point to and count each word individually up to 25 words (you may also use a different number such as 20). Write "25" over the twenty-fifth word you count. Continue writing down additional numbers "50," "75" "100" over their respective words as you count. At the end of the page, add all the numbers you have marked on that page, include the number of words at the bottom that did not add up to 25 (if any) and write the total number of words at the top of the page. Repeat this process for each page of the essay, then add the page totals together for a total word count. Note your word-count average per page for several assignments. Also note the average per-page word count of your word-processed pages.

  • Employ the physical counting method to determine the average number of words per page your essays in test-booklet form come out to. The pages in such booklets have a smaller writing area than a standard loose-leaf page. Use this average to estimate how many booklet pages you will need to fill during an upcoming essay test to meet the suggested word-count range.

  • If you compose essays in longhand and then type or word process them, determine the relationship between your average handwritten page count and your average typewritten or word-processed page count. For example, are your typewritten pages approximately twice as many words as your handwritten pages? Use any correlation you discover to help you estimate the number of pages you will need in a longhand draft that you will then type or word process.

Tips & Warnings

  • While most students do not complete in-class essay assignments with adequate time for a physical word count, use any spare time to make a physical word count. Judge the time available to you by reading all the questions first and determining how much time you need for each question. If you complete a question in less than the time you have allotted to it, use that time for a physical count until you have enough of a sense of your average word count to estimate accurately.

References

  • Photo Credit taking test image by Petro Feketa from Fotolia.com
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