Preparing for College

College Application Essay Length

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.


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