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.
Every school day since 2009 we’ve asked students a question based on an article in The New York Times.
Now, seven years later, and in honor of the Oct. 20 National Day on Writing, we’ve collected 650 of them that invite narrative and personal writing and listed them by category below. Consider it an update of a previous post, and a companion to the list of 301 argumentative writing prompts we published in 2015.
Here is a PDF of all 650 prompts, and we also have a related lesson plan, From ‘Lives’ to ‘Modern Love’: Writing Personal Essays With Help From The New York Times.
Below, a list that touches on everything from sports to travel, education, gender roles, video games, fashion, family, pop culture, social media and more. Like all our Student Opinion questions, each links to a related Times article and includes a series of follow-up questions. All questions published since May 2015 are still open to comment by any student 13 or older.
So dive into this admittedly overwhelming list and pick the questions that most inspire you to tell an interesting story, describe a memorable event, observe the details in your world, imagine a possibility, or reflect on who you are and what you believe.
1. What Challenges Have You Overcome?
2. What Are Your Secret Survival Strategies?
3. What Do You Do When You Encounter Obstacles to Success?
4. When Have You Failed? What Did You Learn From It?
5. When Have You Ever Succeeded When You Thought You Might Fail?
6. What Life Lessons Has Adversity Taught You?
7. What Work Went Into Reaching Your Most Difficult Goals?
8. How Often Do You Leave Your ‘Comfort Zone’?
9. When Was the Last Time You Did Something That Scared or Challenged You?
10. What Are You Afraid Of?
11. What Are Your Fears and Phobias?
12. What Are Your Personal Superstitions?
13. Do You Like Being Alone?
14. How Often Do You Cry?
15. Do You Ever Feel Overlooked and Underappreciated?
16. How Have You Handled Being the ‘New Kid’?
17. How Do You Deal With Haters?
18. How Do You React When Provoked?
19. What Role Does Stress Play in Your Life?
20. Does Stress Affect Your Ability to Make Good Decisions?
21. How Do You Relieve Stress?
22. How Do You Find Peace in Your Life?
23. Does Your Life Leave You Enough Time to Relax?
24. Do You Set Rules for Yourself About How You Use Your Time?
25. Is ‘Doing Nothing’ a Good Use of Your Time?
26. What Did You Once Hate but Now Like?
27. What Kind of Feedback Helps You Improve?
28. Is Trying Too Hard to Be Happy Making You Sad?
29. Do Adults Who Are ‘Only Trying to Help’ Sometimes Make Things Worse?
30. What Is Your Personal Credo?
31. What Motivates You?
32. What Makes You Happy?
33. What Are You Good At?
34. When in Your Life Have You Been a Leader?
35. How Well Do You Perform Under Pressure?
36. How Well Do You Take Criticism?
37. Are You Hard or Easy on Yourself?
38. How Full Is Your Glass?
39. Do You Have a Hard Time Making Decisions?
40. How Much Self-Control Do You Have?
41. How Good Are You at Waiting for What You Really Want?
42. What Role Does Procrastination Play in Your Life?
43. How Good Are You at Time Management?
44. How Productive and Organized Are You?
45. Under What Conditions Do You Do Your Best Work?
46. How Do You Express Yourself Creatively?
47. Are You a Good Listener?
48. How Competitive Are You?
49. Do You Perform Better When You’re Competing or When You’re Collaborating?
50. How Emotionally Intelligent Are You?
51. Do You Take More Risks When You Are Around Your Friends?
52. Do You Unknowingly Submit to Peer Pressure?
53. Do You Think You’re Brave?
54. How Much of a Daredevil Are You?
55. What Pranks, Jokes, Hoaxes or Tricks Have You Ever Fallen For or Perpetrated?
56. How Impulsive Are You?
57. Are You a Novelty-Seeker?
58. How Do You Deal With Boredom?
59. What Annoys You?
60. Do You Apologize Too Much?
61. Do You Have Good Manners?
62. How Materialistic Are You?
63. Are You a Saver or a Tosser?
64. Are You a Hoarder or a Minimalist?
65. Are You an Introvert or an Extrovert?
66. Are You Popular, Quirky or Conformist?
67. Are You a Nerd or a Geek?
68. What Would Your Personal Mascot Be?
69. What Assumptions Do People Make About You?
70. How Good Are You at Saying Goodbye?
71. Who Is Your Role Model?
72. Who Inspires You?
73. Who Are the People – Famous or Not – You Admire Most?
74. Who Are Your Heroes?
75. What Heroic Acts Have You Performed or Witnessed?
76. What’s the Best Advice You’ve Gotten?
77. What Are Some ‘Words of Wisdom’ That Guide Your Life?
78. Who Outside Your Family Has Made a Difference in Your Life?
79. If You Had Your Own Talk Show, Whom Would You Want to Interview?
80. To Whom, or What, Would You Like to Write a Thank-You Note?
81. What Leader Would You Invite to Speak at Your School?
82. What Six People, Living or Dead, Would You Invite to Dinner?
83. Who’s Your ‘Outsider Role Model’?
84. Who Is Your Family?
85. How Do You Define ‘Family’?
86. What Have You and Your Family Accomplished Together?
87. What Events Have Brought You Closer to Your Family?
88. What’s Your Role in Your Family?
89. Have You Ever Changed a Family Member’s Mind?
90. How Well Do You Get Along With Your Siblings?
91. What Are Your Family Stories of Sacrifice?
92. What Possessions Does Your Family Treasure?
93. What Hobbies Have Been Passed Down in Your Family?
94. What’s the Story Behind Your Name?
95. What Are Your Favorite Names?
96. How Have You Paid Tribute to Loved Ones?
97. What Do You Know About Your Family’s History?
98. Did Your Parents Have a Life Before They Had Kids?
99. What Family Traditions Do You Want to Carry On When You Get Older?
Parents & Parenting
100. How Close Are You to Your Parents?
101. How Are You and Your Parents Alike and Different?
102. How Much Freedom Have Your Parents Given You?
103. How Permissive Are Your Parents?
104. Do You Have Helicopter Parents?
105. How Do Your Parents Teach You to Behave?
106. How Do You Make Parenting Difficult for Your Parents?
107. How Often Do You Fight With Your Parents?
108. What Advice Would You Give to Your Mom, Dad or Guardian on How to Be a Better Parent?
109. Is Your Family Stressed, Tired and Rushed?
110. Do Your Parents Try Too Hard to Be Cool?
111. Do You Ever Feel Embarrassed by Your Parents?
112. Do Your Parents Support Your Learning?
113. Do You Talk About Report Cards With Your Parents?
114. Do You Want Your Parents to Stop Asking You ‘How Was School?’
115. How Much Do Your Parents Help With Your Homework?
116. How Has Your Family Helped or Hindered Your Transition to a New School?
117. Have Your Parents and Teachers Given You Room to Create?
118. How Much Does Your Neighborhood Define Who You Are?
119. What’s Special About Your Hometown?
120. What Marketing Slogan Would You Use for Your Town or City?
121. What Would You Name Your Neighborhood?
122. Who Are the ‘Characters’ That Make Your Town Interesting?
123. Who Is the ‘Mayor’ of Your School or Neighborhood?
124. What Would a TV Show About Your Town Spoof?
125. What ‘Urban Legends’ Are There About Places in Your Area?
126. Do You Know Your Way Around Your City or Town?
127. How Well Do You Know Your Neighbors?
128. What Is Your Favorite Place?
129. What’s Your Favorite Neighborhood Joint?
130. What Is Your Favorite Street?
131. Do You Hang Out in the Park?
132. How Much Time Do You Spend in Nature?
133. What Small Things Have You Seen and Taken Note Of Today?
134. What Buildings Do You Love? What Buildings Do You Hate?
135. What Are the Sounds That Make Up the Background Noise in Your Life?
136. What Sounds Annoy You?
137. What Public Behavior Annoys You Most?
138. Have You Ever Interacted With the Police?
139. What Local Problems Do You Think Your Mayor Should Try to Solve?
140. What Ideas Do You Have for Enhancing Your Community?
141. Where Do You Think You Will Live When You Are an Adult?
142. Would You Most Want to Live in a City, a Suburb or the Country?
143. Is Your Bedroom a Nightmare?
144. What is Your Favorite Place in Your House?
145. How Important Is Keeping a Clean House?
146. Do You Need to De-Clutter Your Life?
147. Do You Plan on Saving Any of Your Belongings for the Future?
148. With Your Home in Danger, What Would You Try to Save?
149. What Would You Grab in a Fire?
150. What Would You Put in Your Emergency ‘Go-Bag’?
151. Who Lived Long Ago Where You Live Now?
152. What Would Your Dream Home Be Like?
153. What Was Your Most Precious Childhood Possession?
154. What Objects Tell the Story of Your Life?
155. What Do You Collect?
156. What Were Your Favorite Childhood Shows and Characters?
157. Do You Have Childhood Memories of Being Read Aloud To?
158. What Were Your Favorite Picture Books When You Were Little?
159. What Things Did You Create When You Were a Child?
160. What Places Do You Remember Fondly From Childhood?
161. What Food or Flavor Do You Remember Tasting for the First Time?
162. What Do You Wish You Could See, Hear, Read or Experience for the First Time All Over Again?
163. Have You Ever Felt Embarrassed by Things You Used to Like?
164. Do You Wish You Could Return to Moments From Your Past?
165. Was There a Toy You Wanted as a Child but Never Got?
166. What’s the Best Gift You’ve Ever Given or Received?
167. What’s the Most Memorable Thing You Ever Got in the Mail?
168. Have You Ever Lost (or Found) Something Valuable?
169. What Nicknames Have You Ever Gotten or Given?
170. What Are Your Best Sleepover Memories?
171. What Old, Worn Out Thing Can You Just Not Part With?
172. What Is Your Most Prized Possession?
173. What Have You Learned in Your Teens?
174. What Do You Remember Best About Being 12?
175. What Personal Achievements Make You Proud?
176. What Are Some Recent Moments of Happiness in Your Life?
177. What Rites of Passage Have You Participated In?
178. What Are You Grateful For?
179. What Advice Would You Give Younger Kids About Middle or High School?
180. What Have You Learned From Older People?
181. What Can Older People Learn From Your Generation?
182. What Do Older Generations Misunderstand About Yours?
183. Do You Recognize Yourself in Descriptions of ‘Generation Z’?
184. What Ethical Dilemmas Have You Faced?
185. Have You Ever Had to Make a Sacrifice to Help Someone You Care About?
186. Have You Ever Donated Your Time, Talents, Possessions or Money to Support Anyone in Need?
187. When Is the Last Time You Did Something Nice for a Stranger?
188. Have You Ever ‘Paid It Forward’?
189. How Trustworthy Are You?
190. How Comfortable Are You With Lying?
191. When Do You Lie?
192. Have You Ever Lied to Your Parents or Done Something Behind Their Backs?
193. If You Drink or Use Drugs, Do Your Parents Know?
194. Have You Ever Taken Something You Weren’t Supposed To?
195. Do You Ever Eavesdrop?
196. How Much Do You Gossip?
Religion & Spirituality
197. What Is the Role of Religion or Spirituality in Your Life?
198. How Important Is Your Spiritual Life?
199. Do You Believe That Everything Happens for a Reason?
200. How Much Control Do You Think You Have Over Your Fate?
201. Can You Be Good Without God?
202. Are You Less Religious Than Your Parents?
203. Can You Pass a Basic Religion Test?
204. What Can You Learn From Other Religions?
Gender & Sexuality
205. How Do Male and Female Roles Differ in Your Family?
206. Do Parents Have Different Hopes and Standards for Their Sons Than for Their Daughters?
207. How Do Your Parents Share the Responsibilities of Parenting?
208. Is There Too Much Pressure on Girls to Have ‘Perfect’ Bodies?
209. How Much Pressure Do Boys Face to Have the Perfect Body?
210. How Did You Learn About Sex?
211. What Experiences Have You Had With Gender Bias in School?
212. What Have Been Your Experiences With Catcalling or Other Kinds of Street Harassment?
213. What Does it Mean to Be ‘a Real Man’?
214. Do You Consider Yourself a Feminist?
215. What Does Feminism Mean to You?
Race & Ethnicity
216. What Is Your Racial and Ethnic Identity?
217. Have You Ever Tried to Hide Your Racial or Ethnic Identity?
218. How Often Do You Interact With People of Another Race or Ethnicity?
219. Do You Ever Talk About Issues of Race and Class With Your Friends?
220. Is Your Generation Really ‘Postracial’?
221. What’s the Racial Makeup of Your School?
222. Does Your School Seem Integrated?
223. Have You Experienced Racism or Other Kinds of Discrimination in School?
Money & Social Class
224. What Are Your Attitudes Toward Money?
225. Are You a Saver or a Spender?
226. What Have Your Parents Taught You About Money?
227. Do You Expect Your Parents to Give You Money?
228. How Important a Role Has Money, Work or Social Class Played in Your Life?
229. Do You See Great Disparities of Wealth in Your Community?
230. Can Money Buy You Happiness?
231. What Are the Best Things in Life and Are They Free?
232. Are You Distracted by Technology?
233. Are You Distracted by Your Phone?
234. Are You ‘Addicted’ to Texting?
235. Do You Always Have Your Phone or Tablet at Your Side?
236. Do Screens Get in the Way of the Rest of Your Life?
237. Do You Experience FOMO When You Unplug?
238. Does Your Digital Life Have Side Effects?
239. Do You Spend Too Much Time on Smartphones Playing ‘Stupid Games’?
240. Do Apps Help You or Just Waste Your Time?
241. What Tech Tools Play the Biggest Role in Your Life?
242. What New Technologies or Tech Toys Are You Most Excited About?
243. To What Piece of Technology Would You Write a ‘Love Letter’?
244. What’s So Great About YouTube?
245. What Has YouTube Taught You?
246. What Are Your Favorite Viral Videos?
247. What Are Your Favorite Internet Spoofs?
248. What Would You Teach the World in an Online Video?
249. Do You Ever Seek Advice on the Internet?
250. Would You Share an Embarrassing Story Online?
251. How Do You Know if What You Read Online Is True?
252. What Are Your Experiences With Internet-Based Urban Legends?
253. How Much Do You Trust Online Reviews?
254. How Do You Use Wikipedia?
255. How Careful Are You Online?
256. What Story Does Your Personal Data Tell?
257. Do You Worry About the Lack of Anonymity in the Digital Age?
258. Would You Mind if Your Parents Blogged About You?
259. Do You Wish You Had More Privacy Online?
260. Have You Ever Been Scammed?
261. Whom Would You Share Your Passwords With?
262. How Do You Use Facebook?
263. What Is Your Facebook Persona?
264. How Real Are You on Social Media?
265. What Memorable Experiences Have You Had on Facebook?
266. Does Facebook Ever Make You Feel Bad?
267. Would You Consider Deleting Your Facebook Account?
268. Do You Have ‘Instagram Envy’?
269. Do You Use Twitter?
270. Why Do You Share Photos?
271. How Do You Archive Your Life?
272. Have You Ever Posted, Emailed or Texted Something You Wish You Could Take Back?
273. Have You Ever Sent an Odd Message Because of Auto-Correct?
274. Would You Want Your Photo or Video to Go Viral?
275. Do You Worry Colleges or Employers Might Read Your Social Media Posts Someday?
276. What Advice Do You Have for Younger Kids About Navigating Social Media?
277. What Are You Listening To?
278. What Songs Are on Your Favorite Playlist?
279. What Musicians or Bands Mean the Most to You?
280. What Music Inspires You?
281. Who in Your Life Introduces You to New Music?
282. How Much Is Your Taste in Music Based on What Your Friends Like?
283. What Role Does Hip-Hop Play in Your Life?
284. Which Pop Music Stars Fascinate You?
285. Who Is Your Favorite Pop Diva?
286. What’s Your Karaoke Song?
287. Which Artists Would You Like to See Team Up?
288. How Closely Do You Listen to Lyrics?
289. What Are Your Earliest Memories of Music?
290. What Are the Best Things You’ve Watched, Read, Heard or Played This Year?
291. What Are Your TV Habits?
292. Do Your Television Viewing Habits Include ‘Binge-Watching’?
293. What Role Does Television Play in Your Life and the Life of Your Family?
294. What Television Shows Have Mattered to You?
295. How Often Do You Watch a Television Show When It Originally Airs?
296. Have You Fallen Into ‘Friends’ or Any Other Older Television Shows?
297. What Old Television Shows Would You Bring Back?
298. Why Do We Like Reality Shows So Much?
299. What Ideas Do You Have for a Reality Show?
300. What Reality TV Show Would You Want to Be a Guest Star On?
301. What Are Your Favorite Cartoons?
302. What Are Your Favorite Commercials?
303. How Much Are You Influenced by Advertising?
Movies & Theater
304. What Are Your Favorite Movies Ever?
305. What Were the Best Movies You Saw in the Past Year?
306. What Movies Do You Watch, or Reference, Over and Over?
307. What Movies, Shows or Books Do You Wish Had Sequels, Spinoffs or New Episodes?
308. Do You Like Horror Movies?
309. What Is Your Favorite Comedy?
310. Who Are Your Favorite Movie Stars?
311. Would You Pay Extra for a 3-D Movie?
312. Where, and How, Do You Watch Movies?
313. What Are the Best Live Theatrical Performances You’ve Ever Seen?
314. Have You Ever Stumbled Upon a Cool Public Performance?
315. What Are Your Favorite Video Games?
316. What Have You Learned Playing Video Games?
317. Do You Play Violent Video Games?
318. When Should You Feel Guilty for Killing Zombies?
319. Who Are Your Opponents in Online Gaming?
320. Do You Like Watching Other People Play Video Games?
321. How Excited Are You About the Possibilities of Virtual Reality?
Books & Reading
322. Read Any Good Books Lately?
323. What Are the Best Books You’ve Read This Year?
324. What Are Your Favorite Books and Authors?
325. What Are Your Favorite Young Adult Novels?
326. Do You Read for Pleasure?
327. What Memorable Poetry Have You Ever Read or Heard?
328. What Magazines Do You Read, and How Do You Read Them?
329. Do You Enjoy Reading Tabloid Gossip?
330. When Have You Seen Yourself and Your Life Reflected in a Book or Other Media?
331. Has a Book, Movie, Television Show, Song or Video Game Ever Inspired You to Do Something New?
332. Do You Prefer Your Children’s Book Characters Obedient or Contrary?
333. Do You Read E-Books?
334. Would You Trade Your Paper Books for Digital Versions?
335. To What Writer Would You Award a Prize?
336. Why Do You Write?
337. Are You a Good Storyteller?
338. What’s Your Favorite Joke?
339. Do You Keep a Diary or Journal?
340. Do You Have a Blog?
341. Do You Want to Write a Book?
342. When Do You Write by Hand?
343. Do You Write in Cursive?
344. Do You Write in Your Books?
345. What ‘Mundane Moments’ From Your Life Might Make Great Essay Material?
346. What Is Your Most Memorable Writing Assignment?
347. Do You Ever Write About Challenges You Face in Life?