The updated Common Application for 2011-12 has been available since mid-April. early reaction to the (minor) revisions was an acknowledgement of changing demographics of college applicants: more veterans, more applicants with previous college experience and more children of lesbians and gays.

In the last week or so, people in my line of work (college counselors who advise high school students) have been debating another change. For the class of 2011, the essay instructions read: “Please write an essay (250 words minimum. “Beginning with the class of 2012 the instructions will read: “Please write an essay of 250 – 500 words on a topic.” So, there used to be only a min and now there is a min and a max. Some counselors have complained that limiting applicant essays to 500 words is too constraining. The Common App has responded by saying that the 50o word max is a recommendation; an application won’t be refused if the essay is over 500 words or under 250, because they don’t have the technology to restrict essay length. My interpretation: a handful of words over 500 is fine, but in no way is a 750 word essay acceptable.

The colleges and universities who use the Common App say they want essays between 250 and 500 words long. You want to gain admission to at least one of these colleges. My advice: do what they want, and limit your essay to 500 words. If you have more to say you can always use the “Additional Information” sections to add.

Need more convincing? Here are some thoughts from a college counselor from San Francisco University High School.

Probably the most famous speech in American history, The Gettysburg Address, is 187 words. Would that make a good college application essay? Would you encourage Lincoln to pad it out with more examples? Historical accounts of the speech frequently remark that the preceding speaker, Edward Everett Hale, one of the great orators of the time, spoke for two hours. But nobody remembers what he said. Virgil wrote in iambic pentameter, surely a constraining challenge. Shakespeare adhered to the 14 line sonnet form. Throwing strikes is hard, I am told. Structure and discipline can just as easily produce great writing or great pitching as inhibit it. No, you don’t have to remind me that the typical high school senior is not Shakespeare or Sandy Koufax.

Good writing is succinct. Yes, Faulkner, Henry James, Dickens, Cervantes, and Fielding wrote wonderful, long books. How many of you have Henry James lined up to read this summer? Every writer is constrained by length. Every journalist has a limit on their copy. 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. Not necessary and not enough time. Kids manage. Brief writing is hard. Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I would write a shorter story.”

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, back in the days when essays were typed onto an actual piece of paper and read by someone who wanted to read just a full page and nothing more. Now, in the electronic age, there is no such thing as an actual page, and 500 words seems arbitrary, and to some, it seems, insufficient to be fully expressive. Any number is arbitrary. There is no reason a classic sonnet HAS to be 14 lines. It just is. I remember reading those essays, each one mind-numbingly similar to the one before. 500 words is enough to make your point and for the reader to decide if you have something to say. The University of California allows only 1000 for two essays, and I can’t remember anyone complaining that they couldn’t work within that limit. The UCAS (British application process) essay and counselor’s letter are strictly limited in length. It’s actually a relief to have a space limitation for that letter.

500 words will take some work for many kids. That might be a good thing. Not to be overly utopian, but it might be the best thing for student writing since the evolution of the opposable thumb. Students will have to choose their words carefully, delete (almost) every use of the passive voice and the words ‘very’, ‘basic’, and ‘the fact that’. 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.” The complaints about even an implied or suggested limit, which is all the Common App is doing, ignore that the essay process should encourage good writing, and good writing is, by definition, brief.

You know who’s to blame? Actually, it’s a “what:” this darn computer, which makes it all so easy, including fixing typos. You can run your fingers across the keys, and the babble flows out. If we had to write every email to the moribund elist by hand, the way mom insisted we do to thank people for our birthday presents when we were kids, or the way the kids do for the writing section of the SAT, I’ll bet we would write a lot less. And the world might be better off.

Conclusion: Just follow the instructions!

Jon Reider
Director of College Counseling
San Francisco University High School

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