How long should my academic paper be?

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 range in length, from a few pages to books-length dissertations. Expectations vary depending on which school you attend, the course you’re taking, the expectations of the department and (most importantly) the professor assigning the assignment.

But if academic essay writing is new for you and you are worried about the length, you should remember that your professor or the admissions team will most likely answer your questions. Professors often specify their expectations regarding the length of an assignment, and what word count they expect.
You will be given guidelines for most assignments that focus on word count. It is possible to be given guidelines regarding the citation format you should use, how many sources and the publication date range. Some professors prefer to be specific in what they expect for each assignment. Other professors might be more flexible and less structured. These guidelines will vary depending on the type of academic paper and its purpose.
General guidelines regarding essay length
Middle school

American middle school is where academic essay assignments are usually assigned. These essays typically range in length from 300 to 800 words. These grades will cover the five-paragraph essay structure. The introduction, the thesis statement and the body are followed by the conclusion. In a typical 5-paragraph essay format the introduction should be your first paragraph. The second through fourth paragraphs should then be the body of the essay and the conclusion should be your fifth paragraph. Only in rare cases would the introduction or conclusion of these essays take up more then one paragraph.
High school

While you will need to still write a 5-paragraph essay during high school, many teachers (especially English and language arts) will require essays that are longer (3 to 5 pages). This is to help you prepare for the academic writing demands of college. The basic structure of an essay is the introduction, body, concluding paragraph, and conclusion. However you may expand on the body to further explore or explain a topic. Your conclusion of your three to five-page essay will probably still be within one paragraph. Depending on the topic, however, the introduction might have more than one.
University (Undergraduate)

The length of your essays can vary depending on which courses you choose and which departments they are from. Many classes will require academic essays that are longer as the semester progresses. A longer essay is due as the final assignment to receive a higher percentage. In most cases, academic writing assignments of a longer length will require you to submit parts at different times. Each section must be completed as one final paper.

A professor might ask you to write a number of essays between 5 and 7, which is 1,500 words to 2,100 words. Then, he or she may give you one final essay, which explores the topic in greater detail at 8 pages. This would be 2,400 words to 3,000 words. One class might have fewer essays, or require more journal prompts-type writing assignments, like a core curriculum course survey course.
University (Graduate)

Graduate-level writing assignments will be similar to those at the undergraduate college level. This is due to several factors like the professor, the department, and course. While one university might require extensive writing, another may be more lab-based and/or hands-on.

It is at the graduate level that you are most likely to encounter “thesis”, or “dissertation” academic writing assignments. These can range from 100,000 words to more. These types assignments require extensive planning and research. You’ll likely be given very specific word counts and citation guidelines when you are assigned the paper.

Graduate writing is more involved than the traditional 5-paragraph essay format. This includes sections on literature review, background, theory, research methodology and your particular findings. You might need to write more than one section, so they may each have different word limits. Like many undergraduate assignments, these academic writing assignments might be divided into sections or stages.
Beyond word and pages

You can still be penalized for not following a page or word limit for an academic writing assignment. A 3 to 5 page paper can be written that is disorganized, illogical, or in the exact same manner as an 8 page essay.

Below are some key guidelines to remember when writing an academic essay.

Always plan carefully before you start to write. It will help you make sure you cover all aspects of the essay and that you include the thesis statement, introduction, and conclusion.
Don’t allow your academic essay writing style look rambling or off-topic. Even though the topic might not be familiar to you, professors will likely have a good understanding of it and can tell if your essay is just filling in space.
Try to avoid hedge-ing. Hedging is when you are merely referring to a topic and making vague statements, but not taking a firm stance. For academic writing in general, you must make a clear assumption.

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