Essay Word Limit

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Discus: Parents Forum: 2004 Archive - Part 2: Essay Word Limit
By Jens (Jens) on Sunday, August 22, 2004 - 01:04 pm: Edit

HOw far over the word limit can you go? For example can you have 550 words for a 250-500 limit. Also on the common app online is it possible to go over and if not, how can i get around that b/c I can't fit my essays into under 500 words. Thanks

p.s. for some reason i cant post this question under the college forum. it keeps coming up as internal error...

By Jens (Jens) on Sunday, August 22, 2004 - 03:16 pm: Edit


By Scma (Scma) on Sunday, August 22, 2004 - 04:31 pm: Edit

I don't have any exact knowledge of how the on line app works, but I did help my daughter cut and paste her essay. She had about 600 words and it just barely fit. She uses a lot of little words, so if your writing style uses larger words you may have trouble even fitting 550. Pay attention to how they tell you to format it - I think it's single space with double spaces between paragraphs and no indents. I think the short answer (activity) may do a word count and cut off at 150, but the personal statement doesn't seem to do this. Once you have filled in all the required spaces you can print preview, and even print a copy of the app. We just put single word answers into some spaces for now just to be able to see how the essay fits. When I thought we were going to have a problem with the 600 words, someone had suggested she type "essay to be sent under separate cover" and then mail it to the school with a cover note asking that it be added to her file. I don't know if this is allowed however.

By Blossom (Blossom) on Sunday, August 22, 2004 - 04:37 pm: Edit

Jens, be aware that if a school is looking for 250-500 words, you should probably aim for 250-500 words.

Lots of kids who post essays on this site don't really get how atrocious their longer pieces are.... edit, edit, edit, and you'll most likely have a stronger work. Your 550 word essay will feel very wordy next to a taut, well written and edited 250 word piece written by the next student in the pile... so unless you're the next Tolstoy, I'd stick to the limit, regardless of how much you can tweak the online formatting.

By Drusba (Drusba) on Sunday, August 22, 2004 - 07:53 pm: Edit

There are many admissions personnel who don't mind that you go over a little. However, there are many that do and in fact one of the more vocal pieces of advice that some of those give is stay within the limit. They are speaking from the experience of spending days reading hundreds of applications after ten cups of coffee and then they get hit with one where the essay is way over the limit. It sometimes generates anger in the middle of the review process and that anger may easily be taken out on the person who went over the limit by a deposit into the rejection pile. As I saw one admissions person say, "If we asked for 500 words or less, I don't read past the 500th word."

Many say that good writing is the key to success in college and afterwards. That is not precisely true. The key to success in college and afterwards is good editing (including rewriting) of what you have written and you should edit over and over again to get it right. A good 500 word essay is actually one that starts at 1500 words and then you keep editing and changing until you get it down to 500; you will be amazed at how much better it gets when you do that because you will learn to avoid repetition, skip banalities, and turn all those complex sentences into simple ones that can be quickly understood. If you have a 550 word essay, I assure you can make changes and edit it down to 500 and not lose one major idea that is in it.

By Mattman (Mattman) on Sunday, August 22, 2004 - 08:54 pm: Edit

People may say its ok to go over a little, but why do this unless it is *crucial* and has virtually no harm to your essay. Concise is what matters, not unnecessary detail. Adcoms get a ton of essays, they do not want fluff and typically something around 250-400 is best. From my experience, say what you need to say and don't just repeat it over and over.

By Zantedeschia (Zantedeschia) on Monday, August 23, 2004 - 01:51 pm: Edit

Oy i cut my essay down to 680 after being at 1000 and its getting so hard to cut more.

By Ohio_Mom (Ohio_Mom) on Monday, August 23, 2004 - 02:44 pm: Edit

I think there is a quote by Samuel Clemens to the effect that "if I had more time to write it, it would have been shorter." Be sure to read your essay out loud - good way of finding dross to remove!

By Demingy (Demingy) on Monday, August 23, 2004 - 02:58 pm: Edit

If it is getting hard to cut your essay length, try something that I use. Read through your essay and imagine that you can only say one thing about yourself. Highlight only the sections that say that one thing. For now you can tell yourself that you won't touch this section.

Then read through everything that is not highlighted and decide if it is really necessary. This doesn't always work, but I've been able to cut down 1000+ word essays to less than 700 words (the requirement was 800 words or less for class).

Use this as practice because there are some college professors that will be strict about the word limit--they want to see that you know how to make a point without rambling.

By Dmd77 (Dmd77) on Monday, August 23, 2004 - 04:45 pm: Edit

I sometimes wonder if one reason my son got into MIT was that his 500-word essay was 500 words exactly, and his three 100-word essays were also exactly 100 words. He took enormous pride in this; I thought he was a touch silly. But it did show he could follow instructions and count!

By Bookworm (Bookworm) on Monday, August 23, 2004 - 05:01 pm: Edit

People get very possessive about their words. I truly think it helps to have someone else edit. My S wouldn't listen to me about cutting excessive adjectives, but did respond to a family friend. Editting only eliminated or shortened phrases.
Not since 8th grade did my S have a teacher who editted papers, so I think this is skill not developed. When I taught college classes, I found myself correcting sp and grammar, until realized that wasn't my field.
DMD77--In the wrong hands, MIT adcom could have thought your son O/C! These kids get a notion into their heads & won't let go

By Drusba (Drusba) on Monday, August 23, 2004 - 07:20 pm: Edit

A true story I have about editing comes from years ago and shows sometimes you can make thousands of words become two. When the movie critics Siskel and Ebert (Siskel is now dead) first had a show it was on public broadcasting. They then switched to CBS. They wanted to keep the show as close to the old one as possible but this raised copyright issues. One thing they had on the original show was a small dog named "spot" that would come on weekly and bark to introduce their "dog of the week" movie. Spot was actually Siskel's dog and they very much wanted to keep him on the show. The CBS lawyers were asked to give an opinion on whether they could keep spot and the dog of the week section. The senior partner gave the assignment of researching and drafting a letter to an associate. The excellent draft letter came back as 30 pages of complete factual and legal analysis concluding that the spot piece would raise serious copyright issues. The senior partner then edited the letter and sent it. The edited letter was one sentence having two words, "Kill spot."

By Marite (Marite) on Monday, August 23, 2004 - 08:10 pm: Edit


Ah, that would not work in academia. Supporting evidence, sources, annotated bibliography, please and may be an appendix or two. One Princeton prof has written a whole book about the history of the footnote. One Harvard prof did a translation of The Secret History of the Mongols that is famous for 1. being translated into King James English (on the ground that it was contemporary) and 2. having more footnotes than text.

By Dmd77 (Dmd77) on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - 04:59 am: Edit

Bookworm: the really weird thing about my son's essays was that the first versions were all within 2 words of the right count. He only had to make one small change to each of them to make the word count perfect--he didn't strain at all, and they had very nice flow to them.

By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - 06:50 am: Edit

One adcom mentioned that there are programs that automatically cut you off at 500, so a verbose student applying online might not be able to go over the limit.

By Teefore247 (Teefore247) on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - 08:12 am: Edit

Why take a chance that you get dumped into the reject pile because you didn't follow the directions? Overworked ad-coms may be looking for reasons to reject applications as well as reasons to accept them. Remember that some of these folks are reading several thousand essays and no matter how profound or unique you believe yours to be, it's not worth risking a toss into the reject pile. Follow the rules, perhaps have someone else read it over for possible changes and you'll never have to wonder if the overlong essay had a negative effect.
Best of luck to you.

By Bookworm (Bookworm) on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - 08:55 am: Edit

DMD77-I meant no insult. I think most applicants obsess over word limits, and a few either way don't make a difference. Extremes either way cannot possibly help. Teefore says it all.
I'd love to read your S's essays, but don't think its wise to post here. MIT is so hard to get into. I know one local boy going, from a lovely family. I've known him since he was 4 yo, and he always was outstanding student, with those special interests that make him a good match for MIT.

By Ohio_Mom (Ohio_Mom) on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - 10:38 am: Edit

Northstarmom posted this on the SAT thread - I'm pasting it here so that more will see this excellent advice:

"Edit, edit, edit.
I have taught writing courses, have served on scholarship committees, and have taught editing. When colleges, scholarship programs, etc. give you a word limit, stick to that word limit.

Sure, if the word limit is 250 words, it is OK to send in 275 words, but it is not OK to send in 400 words.

The committees know what they want. More is not better.

When making cuts, start with your beginning. A common mistake is to back into essays. Get to the point.

Also ask a person like an English teacher or a friend who reads the newspaper and catches all of the copy editing errors to read your essay and to tell you what they think should come out. Often exactly what the writer is proudest of is the prose that slows down their writing and can be ruthlessly cut out while improving the essay. "

By Dmd77 (Dmd77) on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - 12:43 pm: Edit

Bookworm: no insult was taken. I was astonished at the time that my DS sat down, wrote the answers, said what he wanted to say, polished a bit, did the word count--and then was at 99 or 101 words... (When he applied to MIT and CalTech--neither of which use the CommonApp--he wrote both applications in one day, while all four of us--DH, self, DD, and him--were packing for a trip to Australia. He'd write, we'd proof, his sister would cut and paste it in, etc. I couldn't imagine it would work--but it did. At 4:30 I ran the envelopes to the PO, and we got on a 9 PM plane to Sydney.)

His major essay was a re-write (very minor) of an essay he'd written in 8th grade about the first time he was driven in a Cobra--which inspired him and his father to begin building one in our basement. The car is still in process, because the programming for the software-controlled throttle is going slowly. He's not a gifted writer--usually strains for effect--but that particular essay was perfect from the start.

By Ohio_Mom (Ohio_Mom) on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - 01:12 pm: Edit

you do have a way of getting the car out of the basement when it's done, yes?

By Dmd77 (Dmd77) on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - 03:52 pm: Edit

The basement is the workshop and has its own garage door. ;-)

Frankly, I wish we did NOT have a way of getting the car out. They're planning on driving it on the track--very fast--when it's done. With a throttle control programmed by a computer science student...

By Marite (Marite) on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - 04:00 pm: Edit


Is he working on the car for DARPA?

By Dmd77 (Dmd77) on Tuesday, August 24, 2004 - 04:04 pm: Edit

Marite: yes, he's working on the DARPA grand challenge team (with about 50 other students). Combines all his loves: robotics, cars, and computers. I just hope he has enough time for classes, too.

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