Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Your Essay Limit Just Got Lowered. OK.

By Patrick O'Connor

College applicants received a cold blast from the East this weekend, and I’m not talking about the snowstorm that created power outages across New England.  This cold front was delivered by the New York Times, which had an article in its Sunday edition on the stress college-bound seniors were feeling.

Common Application, the non-profit that allows students to apply to hundreds of colleges with one uniform basic application, had reinstituted a word limit on the essay seniors can write this year.  The limit was lifted last year, but colleges complained the essays were too long. Common App obliged them by putting the limit back on, and the Times piece focused on students in angst over having to scale their 800 word essays down to something reasonably close to the stated limit of 500 words.

Before you say “so what’s the big deal”, it’s important to know Common App has said all along that the 500 word essay isn’t being enforced, at least by them.  If a student really wants to send an 800 word essay, they can; based on comments from Common App colleges, the Times piece suggested some of them would take notice, and possibly umbrage, with students who went much past 530, but if the student wanted to roll the dice, that was up to them.

OK—now I’ll say it with you.  What’s the big deal?

Don’t get me wrong—it’s easy to see why students would be confused and a little adrift with the announcement that Common App’s essay had a limit that wasn’t being enforced by Common App; to a 17 year-old, that’s like a school having a tardy policy, when the teacher takes attendance at the end of class.  Mix in the idea that a college may enforce the limit in some unknown way with the general tumult of applying to college, and the potion for problems is ready to serve…

…unless, of course, you just follow the rules.

It’s true each college has their own rules, so keeping track of all of them can be confusing, but there’s a way to do that (did you read College is Yours 2.0?)  It’s also true there are some “rules” most colleges will let you bend, like sending one extra letter of recommendation, as long as it really says something different than the others (did you read College is Yours 2.0?)

It’s just as true colleges will be happy to read a 530 word essay that’s great, and they will be less happy to read a 250 word essay that isn’t great.  (Well, there is one exception to this rule—but you’ll have to read College is Yours 2.0)

This last rule has been around forever, and the Times is telling you it’s back.  So write what you have to say and edit it down to around 500 words.  It makes for a better essay (really), it sharpens the editing skills you’ll need in college, and it brings you one step closer to learning which rules are real, and which ones have some flex.  If it bothers you to think someone else is sending in a 750 word tome, think about how they’ll feel when the college rep reading it says, in their own way, “hoo boy.”

College is supposed to broaden your view of the world, and if it’s done well, so should applying to college.  Plan A is now Plan B, and it’s going to help you get into college, not get in your way— in other words, little darling, I see the ice is slowly melting.

So aim for 500.  It’s all right.

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