This morning there was a query posted on the NACAC (National Association for College Admission Counseling) discussion board about Common App essay length. The wording of the 2011-2012 Common App says, "Please write an essay of 250 – 500 words ..." and one counselor expressed concern that longer essays are not acceptable (or might even be cut off automatically).
Jon Reider, Director of College Counseling at San Francisco University High School, provided this helpful response, noting that the Common App word-count is a guideline, not a limit. He said:
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.
I strongly agree with Jon ... less is usually more. Only in unusual cases does an essay require more than 800 words, but don't worry that the computer will eat your words after 500.