The word count is a communication about the level of detail required. It would be possible to write a short statement of 80 words, or a thesis of 80 000 words, on the same topic. The word count lets you know information such as how much detail to give, how many main points and sub points to choose, and how detailed the examples should be.
What is included in the word count?
Everything within the main body of an assignment is included in the word count. Abstract, footnotes, bibliography/references list, appendices, tables, figures will not be included in the word count.
What does the word count mean?
You may be told the word count at the UCL Institute of Education in one of the following ways:
2000 words: this means you need to write 2000 words, plus or minus 10% leeway. This means you need to write a minimum of 1800 words and a maximum of 2200 words. Generally, the more successful students will write more, rather than less, and will end up trying to reduce the word count to meet the limit. This is because they will have discussed the issues in more detail, given more examples and counter-examples, and used a significant amount of referencing and hedging language.
1500-2000 words: here, you need to write within the word count stated. There is no 10% extra leeway.
Remember that in academic writing, once you start adding referencing, hedging, and critical commentary, you need many more words to say the same thing. The word count will probably start to seem short by the time you have got used to writing in this way.
Further reading: Reducing the word count