What does a paragraph usually consist of?
A paragraph usually deals with a single idea. In general, you’ll have an introductory sentence expressing that idea, and several supporting sentences to round it off. Paragraphs are usually about 100 – 200 words long, but there are more exceptions to this rule-of-thumb than you’d expect.
Commercial writing breaks all the rules. Whether or not you find it irritating, your task is to hold your readers’ attention and get them to read what you’ve written. The average person doesn’t like to see solid blocks of text. It looks like it’s going to be difficult to get through, and nobody likes to work harder than they have to.
“White Space” is a great way to make your information look easier to master, and one of the best ways to create “white space” is through using paragraphs. For commercial writing, it’s best to keep sentences short and punchy, and the same goes for paragraphs.
People don’t usually like to see paragraphs that are more than three or four lines long. How many words is that? Again, although it’s not helpful, the answer is “It depends…” Font styles and font size will affect paragraph length – at least from a psychological perspective.
For example, this is a blog post, and I want to keep the reader engaged. The longest paragraph under this heading is only 61 words long. This is the shortest one so far, and it only uses 37 words.
I want to get your attention!
The above paragraph is only six words long, and you can count the words in this one if you like.
To make things easy for your reader, you’ll switch paragraphs every time you switch speakers, for example:
“I don’t know how long a paragraph should be,” said Mary, “but I hope to find out by reading this article.”
“That sounds like a good idea,” John replied, “but don’t let that limit your creativity!”
“Really? Can I bend the rules?”
“The rules are really more like guidelines.”
As you can see, I was able to stop identifying the speakers as soon as the conversation began to flow because John and Mary each had paragraphs to themselves. Neither of them said anything that was even close to 100 words, but it’s still easy to see who said what. Mary’s final paragraph was one word long.
In academic writing, paragraphs will usually consist of the “standard” 100 – 200 words (Burns, 2002). You will begin the paragraph with an idea and then explain it in the light of currently accepted knowledge (Phillips, 2014) with references. Bear in mind that your tutor will want to see some original thought, but will expect it to be motivated according to your reading (Williams et al, 1994). Smith (2004) supports this concept and confirms that academic writing requires longer paragraphs than those generally found in commercial writing or even story-telling. 200 words is really a bit long for any paragraph and since this one is just over 100 words, you’ll soon see why this should be the case (Me, 2015).
Whew! That was a marathon to read, wasn’t it?
How many words per paragraph? It’s really up to you!
As a takeaway, I’d like to suggest that there are absolutely no hard-and-fast rules as to how many words a paragraph should be.
Making them too short, can look a little odd.
This is an excellent example.
But it can work in some cases.
On the other hand, having really long paragraphs might work for you, but not for your reader. A lot of text without “white space” is hard on the eyes, and the brain. I’ve seen blog posts and web pages with absolutely no paragraphs to speak of. Did I want to read them? Not really. It was too difficult to separate the ideas from one another and there just didn’t seem to be a good enough reason to read them if I could find the same information split up into bite-sized chunks that were easier to digest. So, whatever you do, don’t forget the importance of paragraphs – and keep them a bit shorter than this one, unless you’re trying to baffle the reader.
By the way, the above paragraph is “only” 122 words (656 characters) long. Do you see what I mean when I say that longer isn’t always better? I’m ready to bet that you do.
(Photo courtesy of Enokson)
The Common Application asks you to “elaborate” on one of you extracurricular activities in 150 words. This short paragraph is an important one on your application. In just a few sentences, you must convey something personal, meaningful, and interesting about yourself.
Seems impossible, right? “How can I sum up my experience in my favorite extracurricular activities in just a few sentences?”
Well, it’s time to tackle the impossible. These tips may help you decide which activity to focus upon, and how to write a well-structured paragraph that gives the reader a deeper understanding of your motivations and your priorities.
Choosing the Right Activity
- Don’t necessarily pick the activity that looms largest on your resume or activity list. If you are a star tennis player and possible recruit for a college team, that fact will be clear on your activity list. If you are the best clarinetist in the city, then your activity list should reflect that fact. Remember, the prompt asks you to “elaborate” on the activity. It doesn’t say you have to choose the one that takes up the most time, nor does it say that it must be the one that is your primary extracurricular focus. More specifically, it may be that the activity in which you have achieved or excelled the most is not the activity that will be the best to elaborate upon in this short essay. Consider the other activities that may help to round out your application and present another view of what motivates and interests you.
- Consider which activities carry the most personal meaning to you. Look back over your resume or activities list and ask yourself, “Which of these would I miss the most if I could no longer do it?” Perhaps it’s that annual scouting trip, or the weekends skiing with your family. Or maybe it’s that concert you organize at the nursing home twice a year that brings you particular joy.
- Consider elaborating on an activity that is not on the activities list or resume. For example, perhaps your extended family shares Sunday dinner together regularly, and this ritual has had a big influence on you and helped to shape your feelings about family. Maybe you actually enjoy mowing your lawn every week, making it look nice by paying attention to details. Perhaps you ride your bike to school every morning, and you use that time to notice details on your route, and get your head together before and after your workday.
- Consider taking one of your activities and giving it greater specificity and detail. As you know, the space on the application in which to elaborate on your activities is very, very limited. So use this short paragraph to pull out some details. For example, perhaps you mention on your activity sheet that you have done volunteer work at a hospital, and that you have several responsibilities. But there is one responsibility, in particular, that you most enjoy. To take another example, perhaps you are a guitar player, and your activity list indicates that you’re fairly good, but not great. However, there I some particular aspect of playing the guitar that you enjoy: you don’t mind playing scales over and over in order to improve your technique; you go to a music store on Saturdays where a bunch of bluegrass players get together and jam, and you join in, despite the fact you aren’t the best player; or you are a huge fan of Andre Segovia and have listened to every piece he has ever recorded. These sorts of details can say a lot about the depth of your interest in an activity, even if it is not where your greatest accomplishments lie.
The Focus: “Why?”
- Your activity list or resume should address the questions of “What, When, and Where?” (the “who” should be apparent: you!). This list explains your accomplishments and the range of your commitments. But it doesn’t explain your motivations or your priorities. This short essay-ette gives you an opportunity do some explaining.
- As with your primary college essay and with the supplements, the aim here is to give the admissions officer reading your file a bit more information about yourself. What you convey in this short paragraph is something that they won’t find in the essays, and that they won’t really know from reading your activity list. This is another opportunity for you to present another interesting and important facet of your personality. All the essays give your application depth and dimension. Don’t throw away this opportunity to tell the reader more about yourself.
Tips for Writing
- Start with a list of reasons you participate in this activity. What do you get out of it? Why do you enjoy it? Why would you miss it if you suddenly were unable to do it anymore?
- Remember that not every aspect of your participation may be enjoyable. Are there reasons you participate in this activity that actually help you accomplish something else that is, in fact, even more enjoyable? For example, weigh training may not always be fun, but it can make you stronger. Practicing the flute may be enjoyable in some respects, and not so much in others—but practicing makes you a better player.
- Once your list of reasons why you participate in this activity, pick the top three. Write your essay in 5 sentences. One to introduce the activity, three to explain why you do it, and 1 to spare, either as a conclusion or as an elaboration on your introduction.
- If you are having trouble, try completing these sentence prompts to get you going.
- When I participate in this activity, I feel ___________.
- I originally got involved in this activity because ____________ . And now I continue this activity because ____________ .
- My favorite aspect of this activity is ____________ .
- My friends think this activity is ___________ .
- I take the most pride in this aspect of the activity: ___________ .
College Essay Expert
Filed Under: Application TipsTagged With: college, Common Application, essay