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Why college app essays should be limited to 500 words

Dave_BerryDave_Berry 492 replies2499 postsCC Admissions Expert Senior Member
edited August 2012 in College Essays
"...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...

"...officials said essays had become too long and boring. Counselors complained, though, that 500 words would not be enough to allow students to express themselves..."

Why college app essays should be limited to 500 words - The Answer Sheet - The Washington Post
edited August 2012
40 replies
Post edited by Dave_Berry on
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Replies to: Why college app essays should be limited to 500 words

  • Sally_RubenstoneSally_Rubenstone 3012 replies1111 postsCC Admissions Expert Senior Member
  • DescarteszDescartesz 1711 replies29 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    There needs to be some hard limit. Many applicants will spend days trying to whittle down their essays to get in under what they understand to be the limit. Accepting essays from applicants who lack this discipline isn't fair. "The software isn't capable" is absurd -- limits are set on many other common app fields and could be set on the essay, too (it might require typing into an open text field rather than submitting as an attachment).
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  • Sally_RubenstoneSally_Rubenstone 3012 replies1111 postsCC Admissions Expert Senior Member
    I disagree with the hard-limit concept. I think that guidelines are more apt. Some topics require more than 500 words, although I have certainly read far more too-long essays in my day than too-short ones.
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  • JapherJapher 1338 replies11 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    If college admissions officials made a comment that long winded essays would receive deductions, as they should, and that essays that were too brief would also be deducted I am sure people would be complaining about not having enough guidance.
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  • mama2twomama2two 9 replies1 postsRegistered User New Member
    Let's make everything 140 characters (or less), we'll call it TwitterApp

    IMGR8 #winning
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  • Gwen FairfaxGwen Fairfax 2380 replies55 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Phew, thanks for posting this, I'm really glad to see that 500 words is not a strict cut-off. I think that in this supercharged competitive atmosphere created by the common app, some students need some room to really say something about their aims. I can understand that some might be long-winded instead of insightful, so suggesting 500 words seems sensible. But an absolute limit-- really unfair to good writers who have something to say.
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  • URichmond2010URichmond2010 731 replies6 postsRegistered User Member
    Good writers who have something to say should be skilled enough to say it in 500 words or less.
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  • MapleLeafMapleLeaf 175 replies22 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    I forgot where I read this, but it made a lot of sense to me. Some 500 word essays can drag and not really say anything, which makes them feel long, but then there's some 800 word essays that are very captivating and don't seem long at all. So as long as it's in a couple of pages and you're actually saying something worth saying in a way that's concise enough that it doesn't bore the reader, I think it's fine.
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  • pascal12pascal12 157 replies8 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    Good writers who have something to say should be skilled enough to say it in 500 words or less.
    I agree, but why should we be catering to only good writers? I would not consider myself a great writer, but I have strengths in other areas, so if we tailor the application towards good writers, wouldn't it be biased towards them? (By the way, I'm not really for or against limiting it to 500 words, but I just don't think this particular arguments you presented is completely valid.)
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  • GoodbyehelloGoodbyehello 949 replies116 postsRegistered User Junior Member
    I am in accordance with pascal12.
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  • leo023leo023 3 replies1 postsRegistered User New Member
    I have read essays from my students where I got lost due to the length but then others I felt was needed to explain there point.
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  • DescarteszDescartesz 1711 replies29 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    It is exactly because length can affect style and content that there needs to be a hard limit. Applicants considering length a firm guideline will be apt to deliver an essay different from those who do not observe the limit.
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  • GhosttGhostt 1648 replies19 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    I agree, but why should we be catering to only good writers? I would not consider myself a great writer, but I have strengths in other areas, so if we tailor the application towards good writers, wouldn't it be biased towards them? (By the way, I'm not really for or against limiting it to 500 words, but I just don't think this particular arguments you presented is completely valid.)

    wWriting ability = effective communication skills = active participation in the intellectual life of the school

    poor writing skills = inability to communicate ideas = irrelevance of other talents

    This is a very simplified explanation, obviously, but universities do prize writing skills above most other things, so it makes sense for the application format to reward good writers.
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  • rymdrymd 1020 replies35 posts- Senior Member
    Ghostt wrote:
    Writing ability = effective communication skills = active participation in the intellectual life of the school

    poor writing skills = inability to communicate ideas = irrelevance of other talents

    This is a very simplified explanation, obviously
    Perhaps TOO simplified.

    actually, it's complete rubbish
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  • SaintSaensSaintSaens 1205 replies44 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    I think writing skills are important regardless of your field of study. At the risk of starting another debate, I will say this: let's consider that it has been here debated ad infinitum whether a personal essay really is a good way of assessing most students' writing skills, considering that students do not write personal essays frequently and college admissions essays are often the last time many students will even write them.
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  • kmcmom13kmcmom13 3904 replies11 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    I agree, but why should we be catering to only good writers?

    A: Only good writers should be admitted to college.

    I am not interested in having products made by or services rendered by an engineer, doctor, dentist, lawyer, employee, or nuclear physicist who cannot articulate his or her strengths in 500 words or less.
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  • ohgoshohgosh 14 replies3 postsRegistered User New Member
    "I am not interested in having products made by or services rendered by an engineer, doctor, dentist, lawyer, employee, or nuclear physicist who cannot articulate his or her strengths in 500 words or less."

    That would be quite a valid point, if it weren't for the fact that the Common App does not ask applicants to straightforwardly "articulate their strengths." That would be a blessing! Instead, applicants are asked to describe and evaluate people, experiences, issues, etc. that are of importance to them. The amount of exposition necessary to effectively answer such questions varies as much as does the range of adolescent human experience.

    My essay, for example, started out at close to 1000 words, and I cut it down to slightly under 900 before submitting it to my early action schools. Even my college counselor felt that that it was just about as concise as it could be without starting to sacrifice quality by the time we cut it down to about 750. For me, though, a long essay worked, because of the topic, the style, and what I think I successfully conveyed about myself. And this, I think, is what admissions officers are really hoping to see. From what I gather, the new Common App really isn't substantially different from last year's. The suggestion is still that the essay be between 250 and 500 words, and it remains a SUGGESTION. As long as the focus is on quality, it is my opinion that the length will turn out to be exactly what it needs to be for whatever topic the applicant chooses to write about.
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  • kmcmom13kmcmom13 3904 replies11 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    ^I was responding more to the apparent assumption that it would be wrong to favor strong writers in an academic admission process ;)

    I personally would prefer to see a hard limit at 750 but at the same time see more precision in the essay themes. I agree that it IS difficult to properly develop a nuanced theme in 500 words.

    The funniest part of the article linked in this thread is that shortly after referencing Strunk & White's writing bible (and it really is the writing bible) you could tell the author was almost self-conscious about continuing the op-ed, realizing he was starting to stray from the 'concise' edict ;)
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  • TreethingTreething 9 replies1 postsRegistered User New Member
    I'd support the 500-word hard limit wholeheartedly. An aphorism I often turn to - if you can cut 70% of the words and retain 70% of the meaning, go for it.

    Conciseness makes your diction stand out - and I suppose it is no coincidence that famous scientists have had brilliance and eloquence in equal measure.
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  • DwightEisenhowerDwightEisenhower 1677 replies27 postsRegistered User Senior Member
    Writing concisely is a skill. Not many people are good at it. So applicants should recognize that they too probably aren't good at it and should set an arbitrary cutoff for themselves.
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