When you’re given an academic essay assignment, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed—especially if English is your second language or you have limited experience with academic writing. Academic essays can range from a few paragraphs to book-length dissertations, so the scope of expectations varies widely based on the school you’re attending, the class you’re taking, the departmental expectations, and (most especially) the professor giving you the assignment.
However, if you’re new to academic essay writing and are stressing over the length it should be, keep in mind that in most situations, your questions will be answered by your professor or the admissions committee assigning you the essay in the first place. When an assignment is given, some professors are very specific on their expectations, including what they expect the word count to be.
For most assignments, you’ll likely be given guidelines based on the word count (for example, 1,000 to 1,200 words) or page count (3 to 5 pages, double-spaced). You might also be given guidelines on the citation format to use, how many sources you should have, and even the publication date range of those sources. Some professors like to be extremely specific on their expectations for each academic essay assignment, while others might be more lenient and less structured in their guidelines. And of course, these guidelines will vary based on the type of academic essay and its purpose.
General guidelines for essay length
Academic essay assignments typically start in middle school in the American education system and fall within the range of 300 to 800 words. In these grades, you’ll be learning the basic 5-paragraph essay structure, which includes an introduction, a thesis statement, the body, and a conclusion. In the typical 5-paragraph essay format, the first paragraph should be the introduction, the second through fourth paragraphs should be the body of the essay, and the fifth paragraph should be the conclusion. In very rare instances would your introduction or conclusion take up more than one paragraph for these types of essays.
How many pages will 800 words yield? Just slightly longer than a more common word count of 750 words, 800 words is about one and three-fifths of a page single spaced, and a little over 3 pages double spaced. If you’re using a typical word processing setup with Arial or Times New Roman 12 point font with regular margins your results should be about the same, but as always can vary depending on word length and other factors.
Answer: 800 words is 1⅗ pages single spaced or 3⅕ pages double spaced.
In high school, you’ll still likely need to write a 5-paragraph essay, although some teachers (especially English and Language Arts) will start to require longer essays (3 to 5 pages). This is to prepare you for the rigor of academic writing that you’ll be fine-tuning in college. In these essays, you will still have the basic format of introduction, body, and conclusion; however, you’ll expand the body to more thoroughly explore or explain a topic. The conclusion of your 3 to the 5-page essay will likely still fall within one paragraph, although the introduction might be more than one, depending on the topic.
University (Undergraduate level)
Once you get admitted into an undergraduate program, the length of your academic essay assignments will vary significantly, depending on the classes you take and the departments you take them in. You’ll also encounter classes that require academic essays of varying length as the semester progresses, with a longer essay due as the final assignment for a greater percentage of the class grade. In most cases, these longer academic writing assignments will be structured in such a way in that parts of the essay assignment must be turned in at different times, with all sections being put together as a final paper.
For example, in an advanced-level English class, your professor might assign multiple shorter essays of 5 to 7 pages (or 1,500 to 2,100 words) and one final essay that explores a topic in more depth at 8 to 10 pages (or 2,400 to 3,000 words). Another class, such as a core curriculum survey course, might require fewer essays or more journal prompt-type writing assignments.
University (Graduate level)
Much the same as the undergraduate level of college, graduate-level academic writing assignments will vary based on several factors, such as the professor, the course, the department, and the program of study. One university program might require extensive writing while another might be more lab-based or hands-on experience.
Graduate-level is also where you’re likely to first encounter “thesis” and “dissertation” academic writing assignments, which can go up to 100,000 words or more. These types of assignments obviously require extensive planning, research, and writing time, but you’ll likely be given very specific word count and citation requirements when being assigned the paper to write.
Graduate-level writing is significantly more involved than the 5-paragraph essay format and contains elements such as sections related to a review of literature, the background of the topic/theoretical framework, methodology of research, and your specific findings. These separate sections might have their own word count limits and requirements, with some requiring significantly more time and writing than others. As with some undergraduate assignments, you might be asked to submit these academic writing assignments in stages or sections, including a proposal, a list of your sources, etc.
Beyond word and page count
Even if you stay within a certain word or page count that is required for an academic writing assignment, you could still receive a poor grade for not using that count wisely. For example, it’s possible to write a 3 to 5-paragraph paper that is disorganized and illogical, in the same sense that an 8-page essay might have the same faults.
Here are some important guidelines to follow when writing an academic essay, regardless of the word count required:
- Always carefully outline before you begin writing. An outline will help you cover everything that should be covered and ensure that you’ve included all of the required parts of the essay (introduction, thesis statement, etc.)
- Never allow your academic essay writing style to appear rambling, off-topic, or full of “filler” words. While the topic you’re writing about might be new to you, your professor will likely know it extensively and will be able to tell if you’re writing just to fill space.
- Do your best to avoid hedging. Hedging is when you essentially dance around a topic with vague statements but never have an actual stance on it. In most forms of academic writing, you’re expected to make a clear assumption or thesis statement and then back up your claim with solid research and/or data.
So, can I go over or under word count?
Ultimately, it will always be in your best interest to stay within word count requirements given to you on assignments. Word count or page count limits are given to you for a reason—your professor knows exactly how in-depth you can explore a topic or topics given that word count restriction. If you find that you are significantly under word count when you’ve completed your writing assignment, it’s likely that you haven’t explored the topic to the depth expected of you by your instructor. A poor or failing grade might be the result, as it will be clear to your professor that you either didn’t understand the topic or didn’t take the time needed to research it correctly.
Some professors will allow word count that is over suggested limits a lot more readily than word count that is under them. However, keep in mind that if you have gone significantly over word count in your academic essay assignment, it’s always a good idea to ask your teacher if this is acceptable. He or she might have such a heavy student and research load that they are simply unable to read hundreds of essays that are over the suggested word count limit, and might be forced to stop reading once you’ve reached it. This means that important parts of your writing will not be read and could affect your teacher’s grade choice for the assignments.
This is also true for college admissions essay assignments. Admissions committees might be reading the essays of thousands of applicants and need those writers to stay within word count restrictions for the sake of time and logistics. Allowing one applicant to write extensively more could also put that applicant at an unfair advantage, so word count restrictions should always be followed.