What Do Essay Contests Consider Part of Their Character Count?
How to Avoid Getting Disqualified
Editors will often require specific character or word counts for your work. They do this for a variety of reasons—to save themselves from having to read entire novels, to test how clearly and concisely an essayist can write. No matter what the reason is for the assigned character or word limit, you must comply. The first thing an editor will check is your character or word count and if your essay is too long, it will be immediately disqualified.
How Essay Contests Define Characters
Characters are the basic building blocks of writing. Whether you are composing a writing contest entry, a Google headline or a tweet, the number of characters you use in your writing is important. So what counts as a character? Do spaces count? What about commas and periods?
Most of the time, spaces, letters of the alphabet, numbers, and punctuation all count toward a character limit. For example, if you are composing a tweet, you will be limited to 280 characters, and everything you type counts.
Some writing contests may not count spaces or punctuation toward their character count. Check what the contest rules say. If the writing contest rules don't explicitly state that some characters are excluded from the character count, play it safe by counting them all. It's better to trim a few letters from your entry than to be disqualified for exceeding the character count.
How to Tell How Many Characters Your Entry Has
If you're not sure whether your entry is under the allowed character limit, don't worry—there are several easy ways to count your characters:
- Use a Word Processor. Compose your entry into a word processor like MS Word or Apple Pages and click on the Word Count feature to see the number of characters.
- Use a Free Character Counter. There are several websites that offer a free character counter, where you just need to copy-paste your text to check the number of characters written. Some even let you specify whether spaces should be counted or not. LetterCount.com is a popular option, but you can do a Google search for "character counters" to see all of your choices.
- Use a Writer-Specific Processor. Tools like Scrivener automatically track your character and word count at the bottom or side of your screen for you. If you need to swap out longer words for shorter synonyms, the clicks to check your character count after each change can add up in a normal word processor.
Shrinking Your Character Count
If your essay contest entry has too many characters, it's time to edit aggressively. Go back through the essay to see where you can be more concise. Be ruthless about shrinking your character count by removing unnecessary repetition and by making your prose as clean and smooth as possible. When you can no longer sacrifice words without losing important content, it's time to look at the words themselves. Are you using character-heavy words that could be effectively replaced by shorter synonyms?
A tool like thesaurus.com will help you find those more concise synonyms.
When Character Counts Are Usually Used
Most of the time, short writing is limited by characters. Longer pieces of writing usually use a word count as a limit. For example, a 500-word essay would be about a single page long, whereas a 500 character essay would be about 100 to 150 words long.
Word Limits in College Essays
Word and/or character counts in college essays are not suggestions. Do not exceed these limits (photo credit: Tristan Harward).
Word limits in college essays in addition to character count limits shouldn’t be interpreted as suggestions. If a supplemental college essay specifies that the character count should be 2,000 characters or less, that means that 2,212 characters is not acceptable. And that character count indeed does include spaces for all of those who think spaces don’t count against the total! College admissions officers are reading thousands of applications. Do you think they’ll be excited to come upon a college essay that is longer than it should be? Of course not!
Whatever you wish to express in a college essay can absolutely be expressed within the word or character count. If the essay calls for only 500 characters, give 500 characters. Don’t give 250 characters. Use the playing field they’ve given you to showcase who you are and what you’re all about. Write the maximum number of words and characters possible under these limits but do not exceed these limits. If you can’t adequately express yourself in the allotted words or characters, then consider refining your writing skills to write more concisely.
Check out our post on Mistakes in College Essays.