Malignant tumors shed DNA into the circulation. The transient half-life of circulating tumor DNA (ctDNA) may afford the opportunity to diagnose, monitor recurrence, and evaluate response to therapy solely through a non-invasive blood draw. However, detecting ctDNA against the normally occurring background of cell-free DNA derived from healthy cells has proven challenging, particularly in non-metastatic solid tumors. In this study, distinct differences in fragment length size between ctDNAs and normal cell-free DNA are defined. Human ctDNA in rat plasma derived from human glioblastoma multiforme stem-like cells in the rat brain and human hepatocellular carcinoma in the rat flank were found to have a shorter principal fragment length than the background rat cell-free DNA (134-144 bp vs. 167 bp, respectively). Subsequently, a similar shift in the fragment length of ctDNA in humans with melanoma and lung cancer was identified compared to healthy controls. Comparison of fragment lengths from cell-free DNA between a melanoma patient and healthy controls found that the BRAF V600E mutant allele occurred more commonly at a shorter fragment length than the fragment length of the wild-type allele (132-145 bp vs. 165 bp, respectively). Moreover, size-selecting for shorter cell-free DNA fragment lengths substantially increased the EGFR T790M mutant allele frequency in human lung cancer. These findings provide compelling evidence that experimental or bioinformatic isolation of a specific subset of fragment lengths from cell-free DNA may improve detection of ctDNA.