Question: I am working on my Common App essay and I've cut it down significantly, but can't get it below 650 words. I had someone else work on it and they got it below 650, but some key elements were missing and after I added them back in, it was above 650 again. Will colleges accept a longer essay? If not, what tips do you have on cutting?
“The Dean” has read hundreds of college application essays (can you see that permanent glaze over my eyes?) and only rarely have I found a draft that benefited from exceeding the length limit. As I writer myself, I do appreciate how tough it can be to part with even a single well-chosen word, especially if the final product is pleasing. But when it comes to college essays, it’s a mistake to ignore the rules. Why?
For starters, depending on which applications you’re using, your precious extra words may never reach the intended audience. Sometimes they won’t fit in the text box you were provided, which at least makes it easy to know that you’ll need to chop. In other instances, however, the box might accept the entire essay but then the “Submit” function won’t work at the end. Occasionally, too, the essay may seem to fit and even to “Submit,” but then the admission folks receive only a truncated version.
Second, when an essay is just a handful of words over the limit, it’s often possible to sneak it by the system, but any writing that is clearly much longer than expected is apt to irk admission officials who will know at a glance that you ignored the instructions. And speaking of instructions, take them literally. The Common Application, for instance, insists that you must, “ ... write an essay of no more than 650 words.” Don’t mess with that! Yet, you may find that other applications offer a limit that’s tempered with “approximately” or “about” next to the word count, and this gives you license to go a little longer (but anything beyond 100 additional words is not “a little.”)
So what should you do with your current excessively long draft? Here are some suggestions on how to make it shorter while not throwing out the baby with the bath water:
- Don’t clear your throat. Many of the essays I’ve reviewed begin with an unnecessary introduction -- a paragraph or more of what I call “throat-clearing.” Often you can lop off the entire first paragraph and discover that what you’d thought would be your second one actually makes a better beginning.
- Use contractions. Students are sometimes told that contractions have no place in a college essay but, in fact, an essay without them usually sounds overly formal and even stilted. And every time you change “Did not” to “didn’t” or “it is’ to it’s,” you shave down your total word count.
- Select more descriptive words. For instance, instead of saying, “He was quite angry,” try, “He was infuriated.” You saved a word there! Or if you didn’t “walk quickly toward the large opening between the huge rocks,” you “raced toward the gorge,” that’ll save you six! Go through your entire essay and see how often you used words like “very,” “really,” and “quite.” You can probably eliminate all of them by choosing stronger synonyms for the words they’re modifying (e.g., “massive” in lieu of “very big”). Many adjectives, too, can be eliminated by selecting more specific (and often more interesting) nouns. A “high fence” can be a “barricade;” a “small, decrepit house” might be a “shanty.”
- Add hyphens occasionally. One student in my orbit ended her Common Application essay by saying: This time, as the final credits roll, my mother is dancing with me. Then she discovered her essay was two words over the limit. Ouch! So she rewrote that final sentence like this: This time--as the final credits roll--my mother is dancing with me. And by using those hyphens, she tricked the Common App into reducing her final tally by two all-important words because the software counted “time--as” and “roll--my” as single words! The entire essay shouldn’t be peppered with hyphens everywhere, but a few judicious ones can go a long way toward making the final (and often most difficult) cuts.
- Don’t repeat yourself over and over (and over). Whenever I edit student essays, I almost always find unnecessary repetition. Even if the language is different, the meaning is the same. For instance, if you’ve proclaimed at the start of your essay that you’re petrified of heights, then you don’t have to explain later on why you wouldn’t climb the fire tower on the fifth-grade field trip. Trust your readers to understand without beating them over their heads. Even experienced writers can have trouble with this concept, and I bet if you go through your essay, you’ll find at least one redundancy that you can strike.
- Eliminate Excessive Examples. You’ve probably been told that a good college essay will “show and not just tell” and you’ve dutifully provided examples accordingly. But perhaps you’ve offered too many examples? Even if you’ve got tons of anecdotes about how you helped your elderly neighbors during the big power outage last summer, one or two of them might suffice when you’re trying to keep your word count down.
- Scratch the superfluous details. Whether you’re writing a college essay or The Great American Novel, don’t include details that aren’t critical to your “story.” Not only will they torpedo your word count, but the reader may wonder why they’re there in the first place. Let’s say that your essay begins like this: When I was four, Cara moved into the house next door, along with her brothers Sam, Ben, and Isaac and their English Pointer, Raisins, and practically since that first day, she’s been my best friend. While all those names may add some flavor to your prose, unless the brothers — or the pooch — are an essential part of your relationship to Cara, then you can save 13 words by deleting them.
- Use “Additional Information” when you truly do have additional information. Some of the longest college essays I’ve seen were written to explain personal circumstances that affected the author’s grades, test scores, course choices, activity choices, living situations, etc. Most commonly, these essays were about physical or mental health problems or about challenging domestic situations. If your essay is extra long because you want admission officials to understand the atypical obstacles you’ve surmounted, and if you’re convinced that you can’t do this in 650 words, then consider disclosing these issues in the “Additional Information” section of your application or in a separate, unsolicited essay or letter. Then you can write your primary essay on an unrelated interest or experience. By approaching the essay assignment this way, you’re sending a message that suggests, “Sure, I’ve had this problem all of my life, but it still doesn’t define who I am.”
- Ask for Outside Opinions. I know you’ve already sought a second opinion and weren’t happy with the results. But it’s important to respect the 650-word maximum, so ask someone else (an English teacher? A family friend?) to read this list of suggestions above and point out places where your essay could be shortened. Then you can make the changes yourself. Alternatively, bring in a ringer from a professional college essay editing firm.
Of course, it can be frustrating to write an essay that you’re proud of and then to realize that it needs major surgery to meet the colleges’ requirements. So don’t delete a draft you love. File it away for safe keeping. There may come a day later on when you can recycle it in its entirety. But, for now, stick to the application limits. Otherwise, even a great essay may do you little good.
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