Some professors will warn students, as they pass out their essay assignments, exactly how serious they are about those page limits. “I stop reading at page five” (or whatever the page limit is), they’ll warn. Or, “two and a half pages is not the same as three pages” (or whatever the minimum page count is).
And far too many students will interpret this strict adherence to a set length to mean “mess with your margins,” or “futz with the font sizes or punctuation,” or even “pick an obscure font.”
The length requirement included in your prompt is not, in spite of these common interpretations of it, an invitation for you to flex your formatting chops. Believe it or not, every essay-grader on the planet has probably seen of these things—enough gratuitous spaces between sentences, enough slightly-larger-than-necessary punctuation, enough unstandardized margin sizes—for them to recognize your clever little tricks at a glance. An intentionally mis-formatted paper becomes even more obvious when it joins the stack of properly-formatted papers that a grader has in abundance.
But, believe it or not, most paper-grading people probably ignore the minor eyesores of tricksy paper-formatters. They’re probably annoyed that you wasted time bothering with them, and a little insulted that you think they’re tricked…but they’re not worried about the page count for the sake of counting pages, really.
Why are they counting pages, then?
The scope of a paper, all you over-writers need to remember, is not infinite. You have to stop writing eventually. The sooner you stop writing, the sooner you can start editing. (And, as someone who offers professional editing services, I hope I don’t have to remind you that a thorough editing job is what distinguishes a piece of okay writing from a piece of excellent writing.)
Nor is the prompt you’re responding to so simple that you can exhaust all you have to say about it without meeting the minimum requirement for length. If you run out of things to say, you’ve probably said them too simply.
If you’re an under-writer, I recommend that you remember your readers will have only the pages in front of them, and will not be able to read your mind. Explain every little thing to them. Don’t just craft a perfect thesis statement; explain and defend that statement. Thoroughly.
If you don’t think you have that much to say, talk it over with a friend. Re-read the prompt and complain to someone about how you can’t possibly write for [insert page number here] whole pages about such a simple topic. Your complaints will unlock levels of complexity for your argument, ways you can take issue with the prompt itself and expand your argument into something that fills those pages in a relevant manner.
Papers’ length requirements are a way of letting you know the scope of the argument you need to make. A set essay length is a way of reminding you of the level of complexity your argument will have room to contain. If you write too much, you’ve missed the opportunity to make a succinct argument. If you write too little, you’re ignoring complexity.
As you write (and as you edit), keep that final length in mind. A paper’s prompt is designed to give you room to imagine a quality piece of writing that fits the page constraints. No more, and no less.