One of the biggest changes to the Common Application in 2011 was the addition of a 250- to 500-word length requirement for the personal essay. Before 2011, the length of the essay was set by the judgment of the applicant (and some applicants who wrote 1,200-word essays showed bad judgment).
Many colleges who don't use the Common Application also have clearly defined length limits for the essays. The University of California, for example, gives applicants a maximum of 1,000 words for two essays.
I receive lots of email messages asking about these length limits. Can you go over the limit? If so, by how much? What if you need 700 words to convey your ideas? What if your essay is just a few words over?
These are all good questions. After all, 500 words is not a lot of space in which to convey your personality, passions, and writing ability to the folks in the admissions office. And with holistic admissions, schools really do want to get to know the person behind your test scores and grades.
That said, don't go over the limit. If the application says your essay should be 500 words or fewer, keep your essay to a maximum of 500 words. There are two main reasons why you should follow the guidelines strictly:
- Good college students know how to follow directions: If a professor assigns a 5-page paper, she doesn't want a 10-page paper. If you have 50 minutes to take a college exam, you can't have 55 minutes. If you need to use black ink, you shouldn't use orange ink. Think about the message you're sending a college if you don't follow the directions on the application. Will a college want to admit a student who thinks directions are optional?
- Good writers know how to edit and cut: In my own writing classes, I often have my first-year students write a two-page paper. Before I accept it, I make them turn it into a one-page paper without losing any substantive content. The one-page papers are almost always better. As you revise your essay, keep asking yourself what ideas are truly essential. Everything else can go. And these 9 style tips can help you tighten up your language.
The Common Application will not police the length of your essay. You will upload the essay to the Common Application from your computer, and the application software will convert it into a pdf. The software does not count words or cut off your essay. So if you upload a 650-word essay, that is what will be sent to colleges. However, you would be unwise to do this.
The Common Application (and other college applications) shifted to the shorter length because college admissions officers were tired of wasting time reading long, rambling, unfocused, poorly edited essays. Not all colleges, however, were in favor of the shorter length. A lot of colleges like a longer essay because they can get to know their applicants better, and they get to see how well applicants can sustain focus in a longer piece of writing (a valuable college skill). However, if a school is using the Common Application, you should follow the guidelines on the Common Application. If a college truly wants more writing from you, they will ask for it in a supplemental essay.
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