Hitting the Target Word Count in Your College Admission Essay
Don’t worry; even if the application calls for a word or page limit, your reader is not going to bother to count your words and hold you to a ten-word range. However, you don’t have a completely free hand either. The admissions counselors are skilled at estimating the length of your essay. If they specify “an essay of no fewer than 250 words,” they expect at least one typewritten, double-spaced page with normal fonts and margins. And if they ask for no more than two typewritten pages, they will be annoyed to receive ten. They know how to count. They do have fingers.
If you wrote the essay on a word processor, you can find out the number of words quickly. In Microsoft Word, for example, click on Tools –> Word Count for a total. If you used a typewriter, assume that one page, single-spaced, with normal fonts and margins, contains about 500 words (if double-spaced, 250 words).
If no word or page count is specified, aim for 250-500 words — long enough to show depth and short enough to hold their interest.
A normal font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, looks like the print in a book or magazine. Don’t shrink or expand the type size abnormally; the best choice is probably 12 point. A normal margin is about an inch. If you’re writing the essay on a computer, the default style of fonts and margins for your word processor is a good bet.
If the word count of your essay is off by just a few words, you’re probably okay. But if the essay is significantly longer or shorter than it should be, you’ll have to adjust. Here’s how to cut to fit and lengthen to suit.
Chopping excess words
A great way to get rid of excess words is to cut repetitive or wordy material. After that, try these tactics:
- Check the introduction and the conclusion of the essay especially carefully. A lot of repetition and unnecessary detail show up in these two spots, and many people ho and hum a bit before they get to the point. Can you pull the reader into your subject more quickly or sum up the point in fewer words?
- Look for boring details that the reader can do without. For example, if you’re writing about the fund-raising campaign that you organized to assist retired professional athletes (the people least likely to need such a campaign, by the way), you don’t need to explain exactly how you created mailing list labels. Dump that detail, but keep the part describing the celebrity auction.
- If your essay is a general survey or a “mosaic” of your experiences, trim the essay by eliminating one element. For example, if you’ve surveyed the development of your interest in grasshoppers over the course of three summers, you may want to limit yourself to two summers, with a half-sentence reference to the third summer in the introduction or conclusion.
- Hunt for any material in the essay that duplicates information available elsewhere in your application. Suppose you wrote an essay about your work on the school newspaper. Besides describing some of your big stories and the challenge of dealing with the editorial board, you included a paragraph listing all the positions you held on the paper throughout your high school career, including coffee-maker and senior advertising editor. If those positions are included in the “list your extracurricular activities” section of the application form, you may delete that paragraph from the essay. Remember, the essay should add to the committee’s understanding of your identity, not reiterate a bunch of facts.
- If you have any dialogue that may be paraphrased or summarized, you may save some space. But don’t cut all the interesting stuff!
- Consider refocusing if your essay is seriously overlong. Remember, a narrow and deep focus is better than wide and shallow. You don’t have to explain every single affect your grandmother’s existence had on your life. One or two main ideas should get your point across.
If the university accepts word-processed printouts, you may be tempted to write in a teeny-tiny font or with miniscule line spacing and margins in order to keep to the page budget. Bad idea. Some of your readers may be middle-aged, and they won’t take kindly to reminders that their reading glasses have to be strengthened again. And even if all your readers are young enough to go around bare-eyed, everyone recognizes a rip off. They will notice your tricks, and they will resent them. Follow the rules!
Adding to the essay
Usually, the problem that afflicts most essayists is excess verbiage. But from time to time applicants end up with an essay that’s below the recommended word or page count. One major rule applies to this situation:
Don’t pad. Add.
“Don’t pad” means:
- Don’t throw extra words into your sentences just to make the essay longer, as in this example:
- Original: I grew up in Brooklyn.
- Padded: Where did I grow up, you may wonder? It was in Brooklyn that I first saw the light of day and lived during my formative years.
- Don’t provide meaningless details, such as those italicized in this example:
- After I was rescued from the sinking ocean liner, I had a lovely lunch consisting of a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. Then the president gave me a medal for heroism.
- Don’t repeat material listed elsewhere in the application. A review of all your courses or extracurriculars will not enhance an essay on the meaning of your high school experience.
How do you lengthen a too-short piece? Try these tactics:
- Add a level of thoughtfulness. Suppose that you’re writing an essay about an exchange program you participated in. Besides being exposed to new cultural experiences and a foreign language, what else happened to you? Did your world view alter? Did you appreciate your home country more upon your return? Did your career plan or life goal change? Chances are you addressed at least one of these issues in your essay, but perhaps another is also relevant.
- Add detail. If you wrote about your summer as a storyteller for the local public library, you may want to include a longer description of a typical session, including interactions with parents, discussions with the librarian about appropriate books, the children’s reactions, and so forth.
- Change a summary to a description. If your essay includes a general statement, consider changing it to specifics, as in these examples:
• Summary: The children were often mischievous but always delightful.
• Specifics: At one session a little girl nestled into my lap and stroked my hair. Only later did I find out that she had just eaten a peanut butter sandwich, most of which she left entwined in my braid. But her joy at hearing Curious George made the stickiness worthwhile.
- Expand the introduction or conclusion. Either of these two spots may contain the main idea of your essay. Are you certain you’ve given the issue the appropriate explanation? Read these sections to an impartial audience and add as needed. (But remember: Don’t repeat and don’t pad.)
- Touch upon another example. If your essay is a survey, you may want to include an additional example. Suppose that you’ve written about the affect your dad’s career has had on your character. You’ve mentioned the family’s stint in Antarctica, but you neglected to describe that awful winter at the North Pole. Bingo! You’ve got plenty of new material, all relevant to the topic of the essay.
One of the most popular posts on the Thesis Whisperer is How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy. Last year a Twitter follower brought to my attention a post called How I went from writing 2000 words to 10,000 words a day by the fiction writer Rachel Aaron.
I did a double take.
Can you really write 10,000 words a day? Well, Rachel says she can, with three conditions:
1) Know what you are going to write before you write it
2) Set aside a protected time to write, and
3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing
I read the post with interest. Much of what Rachel did conformed with what I suggest in my earlier post, but I couldn’t bring myself to really believe Rachel’s productivity claims. To regularly write 10,000 words: It’s the dream, right? Imagine if you could reliably write 10,000 words a day, how long would it take to finish your thesis… A week? How about a journal paper – a day?
Or so I thought.
I’m now a 10,000 words a day believer because I have been watching students write even more than this in a single day at the Thesis Bootcamps we run at ANU.
The Thesis Bootcamp formula was developed by Liam Connell and Peta Freestone of the University of Melbourne. Thesis Bootcamp (and the veteran’s days which follow) is a total program designed to help late stage PhD students finish their thesis document (In some countries this document is called the ‘dissertation’, but I will use the Australian term ‘thesis’ here). The Thesis Bootcamp concept is simple – put a whole lot of PhD students in a room for a whole weekend and set them the goal of writing 20,000 words each.
Yes – you heard me right.
At every Thesis Bootcamp we have run, at least one student will achieve this goal, and many write many more words than they thought they would. In a previous post Peta Freestone and Liam Connell wrote about the ideas behind Thesis Bootcamp. In this post I want to reflect on Rachel Aaron’s threefold advice and put in the context of thesis writing.
1) Know what you are going to write before you write it
Composing a Thesis requires you to do different types of writing. Some of this writing is ‘generative’ in that it helps you form and articulate ideas by… just writing as much as you can, not as well as you can. It works best when you don’t second-guess yourself too much. The philosophy is ‘make a mess and then clean it up’. Perfectionist writers have a problem doing this, which is why we see so many perfectionists at our Bootcamps.
At Bootcamp we teach our students to focus the generative writing energy to productive effect. An important step in this process is for the student to spend at least a week making a ‘Thesis map’ before they come to Bootcamp. The map is essentially a series of sub-headings which the students use as prompts for composing new text, or re-using existing text.
Students, particularly those in the humanities and arts, tend to agonise over the Thesis document ‘structure’. I think the anxiety stems from the idea that ‘Thesis structure’ is some kind of perfect platonic form they need to discover.
It’s important to realise that structure is made, not found. Thesis structure is strongly influenced by disciplinary precedent and the content of the Thesis itself. A history PhD it might follow a timeline from the past to the present; a science PhD might echo the order of the experiments that have been performed. But multi-disciplinary PhDs, or PhDs in ‘polyglot’ disciplines like education, do not have comfortable traditions. This means you’ll have to make the structure up. Try the following technique:
- Try to capture an overview of the Thesis by completing the following sentences from the work of Rowena Murray):
- This Thesis contributes to knowledge by…
- This Thesis is important because…
- The key research question is….
- The sub-questions are….
- Decide how long your Thesis will be. Most universities have a maximum word count. Aim for your Thesis to be at least 2/3 of this total (it’s likely you will write more than this, but this gives you some wriggle room).
- Make a document with chapter headings and word counts next to them. Include an introduction of 2000 – 3000 words followed by up to seven chapters of equal length and a conclusion of around 4000 – 5000 words.
- Under the conclusion heading write a rough list of points you think will go in there (hint – these should be answers to the research questions you have posed). Study these closely – have you got data, theories, evidence and arguments to support these conclusions? These concluding points, singularly or in combination, will form the ‘key learnings’ of the Thesis – the knowledge and ideas you want your readers to absorb.
- Each chapter should have at least one key learning in it, maybe more. Under each chapter heading note the key learnings in the form of a brief synopsis of up to 300 words. This synopsis is like a mini abstract that explains what the rest of the chapter will be about.
- Then make a list of the material you will include in the chapter as dot points. Don’t worry about the gaps and stuff you haven’t written yet – just make a note of them. These should be short sentences that will act as subheadings
- Now ask yourself: If, at the end of the chapter, I want the reader to be convinced of the validity of this key learning, what needs to appear first? What comes next? And so on. Rearrange or write new subheadings as you go until you have arranged all the subheadings of the chapter in a way that tells the research story.
Following these steps will help you to create the Thesis map – but it’s important to remember that this is merely an aid to writing, not a plan set in stone. You can change, add and move stuff around as you write.
In our Thesis Bootcamps we ask students to just pick a spot on this map and start writing as fast as they can, not as well as they can. Does this generate perfect thesis ready text? Not necessarily, but many students say that the writing they produce at Bootcamp is clearer than the writing they did before it, when they are worrying over every word. I think the thesis map is a big part of this clarity because it keeps the focus tight.
This organising technique works best for very late stage thesis students, but it can be a way of creating order at any time in your journey and working out what you need to find out or write more about. I’ve made a downloadable cheat sheet which shows you my own Thesis map, generated by the above method so you can make one of your own.
2) Set aside a protected time to write
I’ve written so much about this, so I wont rehash it all here. If you are interested in some techniques and ideas for creating protective writing time, have a look at the following posts:
3) Feel enthusiastic about what you are writing
I think this is the ‘secret sauce’ in the 10,000 words a day recipe. Rachel Aaron did some deep analysis of her productive writing days and compared these to the occasional not-so-productive days. The days Rachel was able to write 10,000+ words were the days she was writing scenes she had been ‘dying to write’ – she called these the ‘candy bar scenes’. Days where she found it hard to muster 5000 words a day she was bored with what she was writing:
This was a duh moment for me, but it also brought up a troubling new problem. If I had scenes that were boring enough that I didn’t want to write them, then there was no way in hell anyone would want to read them. This was my novel, after all. If I didn’t love it, no one would.
In the fiction world the answer to Rachel’s dilemma was simple – make the boring scenes more interesting! Unfortunately in Thesis World this is not always possible. There will always be parts that are functional and unexciting; I call these the ‘dry toast’ sections – you need to do a lot of unproductive chewing before you can swallow.
There’s a term that describes this process in gamer culture – ‘grinding’. Grinding is being forced to perform the same action over and over again before you can ‘level up’ in the game and get more powers / weapons / armour or whatever. The level up is the pay-off.
One of the most genius ideas Liam and Peta incorporated into Bootcamp was the squeezy lego blocks. We give these out for each 5000 words written in a particular colour order: green, blue, red and gold. The blocks clip together to make a little lego ‘wall’ that the students can display at their writing station. When first presented with the idea of the blocks the students laugh, but all too soon, they are typing furiously with single minded purpose – to get the next block. We have a little ceremony every time someone gets a block, clapping them as they walk up to write their name on the board. It’s cheesy, but it works to turn writing from a source of pain to a celebration. So think about how to reward yourself for every 5000 words written.
Up for the challenge? Have a look at the testimonials on our ANU You Tube channel. I’d love to hear about other ways of doing writing marathons and what you think about this kind of ‘binge writing’.
If you are an ANU student, click this link to find out how to get involved in Thesis Bootcamp on campus.
If you are in the UK, Dr Peta Freestone is available to run Thesis Bootcamp in your university.
Rachel Aaron’s post ‘How I went from writing 2000 words to 10,000 words a day‘
“How to write 1000 words a day and not go bat shit crazy”
Video testimonials on the ANU Youtube channel