Good Length For Common App Essays

Have you ever been around someone who takes forever to make his or her point? Maybe they’re merely relating an anecdote about something funny that happened to them at the supermarket, but in order to get to the point of what happened they have to tell you myriad unrelated–and many times quite uninteresting–details along the way. You may just want to scream, “Get to the point!”

In a related sense, the same can be said for college application essays. Less can be more. Notice that I’m not saying that less is more. That’s too sweeping and all-inclusive. However, in my experience editing application essays, I’ve found that about 95% of drafts that I see can be reduced by about 20%, once all the needless verbiage is trimmed in getting to the point.

So, to get to the point of this blog post, I’d like to draw your attention to an interesting debate inspired by Valerie Strauss in a recent Washington Post article, “Why college app essays should be limited to 500 words.” The article’s preface is rather interesting:

This was written by Jonathan Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School. This was a response to a discussion on the e-list of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling about a decision by Common Application officials to limit the length of the main essay students are asked to write on their college application to 500 words for the coming college admissions season. For the previous four years, there was no limit, and Common App officials said essays had become too long and less well written. Counselors complained, though, that 500 words would not be enough to allow students to express themselves. You can read about that here.

Here are some highlight’s of Reider’s wisdom:

Probably the most famous speech in American history, The Gettysburg Address, is about 250 words. Would that make a good college application essay? Would you have encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to pad it out with more examples?

Good writing is succinct.

Almost every college supplement has a word limit. Some colleges want an answer of just 25, 50, 200, or 250 words. How do they decide on that boundary? Basically, they don’t want to read too much.

Why is the desired standard length 500 words? Who decided that? I don’t know, but I suspect it had to do with an estimate of how many words, in normal size type, would fit on a single page.

Every student and adult should read Chapter Two, “Elementary Principles of Composition,” of Strunk and White’s “Elements of Style,” especially the section titled, “Omit Needless Words.”

Conclusion: Just follow the instructions.

You can glean more insights from two College Confidential discussion threads on this topic. First, you’ll find a clarification from Reider about the 500-word Common Application guideline, where he says:

When the new wording of the Common Application was published this spring, I wrote to Scott Anderson at the Common App, and he assured me that there is NO word limit on the main essay on the Common App, despite the wording of “250-500 words.” I am sure a great deal of thought went into that wording, but it is unfortunately ambiguous and gives rise to the erroneous assumption that there is in fact a word limit of 500 words. That is just a recommendation from colleges to keep the essays brief (always good advice), but the software does not have the capacity to limit it even if they wanted to. There is still a limit of 1000 characters, roughly 150 words, on the short essay about extracurricular activity or work experience. If a reader is used to reading concise essays, they may look at a longer one with some annoyance, unless, of course, it is stunningly brilliant. These are few and far between in those long winter months. This is not the mood that a typical applicant hopes to inspire in their readers. I have never read an essay of 800 words that couldn’t be cut, and improved in the process.

Next, you can see some student opinions on this thread, which includes this cogent remark:

Good writers who have something to say should be skilled enough to say it in 500 words or less.

Finally, my parting shot on application essay length and quality can be summed up like this: Good writing is writing that is quickly and easily understood. Amen.

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Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.

The Common App personal essay is the Holy Grail of your college application, but for many, the perfect topic is an elusive target. For those of you who didn’t spend your summer vacation staring at the Common App website, here are a few tips for where to start.

The Common App that the Class of 2018 will become all too familiar with is not the one of years past. One of the biggest changes affects the essay’s word limit. For the first time, the Common App will strictly enforce the limit of 250 to 650 words. Additionally, the 150-word activities and extracurriculars paragraph is now gone, so you can focus your time and energy on thebigger essay.

Take a look at the new essay prompts:

• Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.

• Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?

• Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?

• Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?

• Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Despite the significant changes to the essay prompts, Jim Montague, Program Director of Guidance and Support Service at Boston Latin School, said that he hasn’t changed the essay writing advice that he gives to his students. He still advocates early preparation during both a student’s junior year of high school and the summer before senior year.

You’ll notice that the open-ended question is now conspicuously absent from the prompt list. However, if you’re creative enough, almost any essay topic can fit under one of these prompts.

“The question that allows students to choose any topic will be missed. It allowed our students to choose something they really care about and write,” wrote Montague in an email. “There are still many ways to respond to these choices, though. Raising the limit on the number of words allowed is also perceived by students to be helpful and allows them to express themselves more easily and completely.”

And for those who still have no idea where to begin?

“Sit down with someone who knows you well and brainstorm experiences and interests that might form the core of an essay or a direction worth pursuing,” wrote Montague. Get a group of close friends together, bounce ideas off of family members, and don’t be afraid to get creative and express your personality. This is the only part of your essay that isn’t presented as a generic list of achievements, so make it count.

A few personal tips:

Make the essay about you—sure, your grandmother was an incredibly inspiring person in your life, but college admissions officers want to hear your story and not hers. If your essay includes family members or friends, make sure the focus stays on you.

Pick a topic that will allow your voice to show through the essay. Use humor, lyricism, or whatever awesome writing skills you’ve been honing for the past two decades. Insider tip: if you’re going for funny, have people read your essay and make sure your brilliance and wit translates on the page. There’s nothing worse than an essay that tries and fails to be funny.

Keep a notebook or file to write down every idea you have, even if you don’t think you’ll choose it. Scattered thoughts can come together in surprising ways, and you may even stumble across a topic for another essay.

Picking an event in your life can be dangerous territory if you waste a lot of space on describing what happened instead of how it affected you—just be aware of this pitfall. Show, don’t tell!

If you’re stuck, take a closer look at the prompts and write down every possibility you can think of for each topic. If you’re still frantically searching for a topic, don’t despair; sometimes, it takes multiple rewrites and several dead-end topics to craft the perfect essay.

Good luck!

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