Every year students ask me the same question:
How long should my Common Application essay be?
I am never shy about providing them with the response that best summarizes how they need to approach both the Common Application essay and the Common Application in general:
Go Big or Go Home!
Despite what the official directions on the Common App indicate, students writing a word essay the lowest end of the range that is officially acceptable to complete this essay have a far lower chance of convincing college admissions officers of their admissions-worthiness than students who believe in the maxim, bigger is better. The official upper limit in acceptable length on the Common App essay is words.
A well-thought out and well-developed essay of any true substance is not only not possible in words, its barely possible in words. This is why none of our clients have ever submitted a Common App essay consisting of fewer than words. With that said, the true sweet spot in Common Application essay writing, for this current years prompts and prompts going back over a decade, is to words. This was even the case a few years ago when the Common App limited students to a mere words. That experiment lasted for such a short time because colleges were getting such transparently superficial essays that they were a waste of time and effort for students and completely lacking any valuable insight helpful to college admissions officers.
Think of a to word essay as a smooth and enjoyable flight from D.C. to Disney World. In to words students have the space they need to achieve proper cruising altitude: writing a strong introductory paragraph that both grabs readers attention and clearly states the essays thesis. Next, just as one wants to have an enjoyable in-flight experience with the fasten seatbelt sight off and flight attendants passing out drinks and snacks, so to does a to word essay allow readers to relax a bit. In to words students are able to produce non-rushed, non-turbulent, highly valuable descriptive and specific body paragraphs that go a long way toward proving the essays thesis. Finally, landing a plane takes great skill, as does writing a conclusion to a college application essay. Its not a simple rehash of the lift off (thesis); it should be complementary to it. Students who have to words to work with are able to smoothly touch down in a way that puts the cherry on top of the entire flying/essay reading experience. At the end of the day, admissions officers read your essays because they want to fly the friendly skies with you into your world. to words allows you to give them a proper flying experience and gives you the words necessary to differentiate your world from the world of other applicants.
In order to produce a great final draft essay, your rough drafts should be even longer than words. Its very common for our clients to create first, second, and third draft essays of nearly 1, words. Only through consistent and high quality editing can any essay be ready for submission to colleges and universities, and starting with too few words on initial drafts is a recipe for a puny little final draft essay.
So, the big take-away ideas on the Common App Essay are these:
- Dont do the minimum because you are officially allowed to do the minimum
- Go big or go home your final draft should be to words and your first draft should be even longer
- In your final draft, ensure that paragraph transitions are smooth just as a good pilot and great weather conditions allow a flight to be smooth from lift-off to landing
So, what are you going to be writing about on this years Common App? Just before April Fools Day The Common Application, which has more than member colleges and universities, announced its essay prompts. But, these new questions are no joke; none of the essay prompts are easy, and all require a great deal of time, thought, and drafting before members of the Class of can confidently hit submit on their applications.
Honestly, I miss the old questions. Though the Common App will feature some improvements compared to the version of the Common App, it seems as though the people behind the Common App are less and less interested in reading essays from normal teenagers and more and more interested in pushing teens to appear exceptional, idiosyncratic, or downright eccentric for the purpose of entertaining application readers and putting on a show of some sort of diversity. I would be surprised if many of the admissions officers could portray themselves accurately with these prompts. Yet, this is what students in the Class of who will apply to Common App colleges and universities have to work with this coming admissions cycle, so they better start brainstorming now.
The Common Application essay prompts are as follows:
Choose the option below that best helps you write an essay of no more than words.
1. Some students have a background, identity, interest, or talent that is so meaningful they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story. [No change from last year]
2. The lessons we take from obstacles we encounter can be fundamental to later success. Recount a time when you faced a challenge, setback, or failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience? [Revised from last year]
3. Reflect on a time when you questioned or challenged a belief or idea. What prompted your thinking? What was the outcome? [Revised from last year]
4. Describe a problem youve solved or a problem youd like to solve. It can be an intellectual challenge, a research query, an ethical dilemma anything that is of personal importance, no matter the scale. Explain its significance to you and what steps you took or could be taken to identify a solution. [No change from last year]
5. Discuss an accomplishment, event, or realization that sparked a period of personal growth and a new understanding of yourself or others. [Revised from last year]
6. Describe a topic, idea, or concept you find so engaging that it makes you lose all track of time. Why does it captivate you? What or who do you turn to when you want to learn more? [New]
7. Share an essay on any topic of your choice. It can be one youve already written, one that responds to a different prompt, or one of your own design. [New]
Are you ready to start drafting? If you are a member of the Class of , your time to start drafting is now! You should aim to wrap up your Common App essay no later than early August, which will give you plenty of time to draft and perfect your essays for Common Application supplements, the Universal College App, and other institutional applications.
Remember, if you want or need help with any part of your essay brainstorming and drafting, we are here to help you. We help students from around the world, and we are standing by ready to help you compose essays that will help you get into your dream colleges and universities. Schedule a video chat with us to discuss your essay strategy or have one of our experts review and edit your current draft(s) today.
Craig Meister is an international university admissions expert and founder of Admissions Intel, the authoritative online knowledge base and admissions consultancy for students and parents navigating the college admissions process.
Have you ever been around someone who takes forever to make his or her point? Maybe theyre merely relating an anecdote about something funny that happened to them at the supermarket, but in order to get to the point of what happened they have to tell you myriad unrelatedand many times quite uninterestingdetails along the way. You may just want to scream, Get to the point!
In a related sense, the same can be said for college application essays. Less can be more. Notice that Im not saying that less is more. Thats too sweeping and all-inclusive. However, in my experience editing application essays, Ive found that about 95% of drafts that I see can be reduced by about 20%, once all the needless verbiage is trimmed in getting to the point.
So, to get to the point of this blog post, Id like to draw your attention to an interesting debate inspired by Valerie Strauss in a recent Washington Post article, Why college app essays should be limited to words. The articles preface is rather interesting:
This was written by Jonathan Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School. This was a response to a discussion on the e-list of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling 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 words for the coming college admissions season. For the previous four years, there was no limit, and Common App officials said essays had become too long and less well written. Counselors complained, though, that words would not be enough to allow students to express themselves. You can read about that here.
Here are some highlights of Reiders wisdom:
Probably the most famous speech in American history, The Gettysburg Address, is about words. Would that make a good college application essay? Would you have encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to pad it out with more examples?
Good writing is succinct.
Almost every college supplement has a word limit. Some colleges want an answer of just 25, 50, , or words. How do they decide on that boundary? Basically, they don’t want to read too much.
Why is the desired standard length 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.
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.”
Conclusion: Just follow the instructions.
You can glean more insights from two College Confidential discussion threads on this topic. First, youll find a clarification from Reider about the word Common Application guideline, where he says:
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 “ 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 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 characters, roughly 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 words that couldn’t be cut, and improved in the process.
Next, you can see some student opinions on this thread, which includes this cogent remark:
Good writers who have something to say should be skilled enough to say it in words or less.
Finally, my parting shot on application essay length and quality can be summed up like this: Good writing is writing that is quickly and easily understood. Amen.
Be sure to check out all my admissions-related articles and book reviews at College Confidential.