If I Had More Time I Would Write a Shorter Essay

Question of the day: How long is 500 words?

It’s around two double-spaced pages, more or less, and definitely long enough to tell your story.

Starting this admissions season, the Common Application essay has a maximum limit of 500 words. The minimum remains at 250. This is actually a return to the Common App’s former policy; removing the upper limit was a four-year experiment.

Why the change? Admissions officers found that “without a limit, essays were far too long, less well-written, and… often skimmed rather than read by admissions officers,” writes Rob Killion, executive director of Common Application.

Is this good news or bad? It’s just news, we think, but generally positive. Five hundred words might mean cutting back, and that’s a good thing. “Good writing is succinct,” says Jonathon Reider on the Washington Post blog “Answer Sheet.”

Reider recommends the chapter, “Omit Needless Words,” from Strunk and White’s Elements of Style. So we went back to that classic, no less a gem than it was in 1935: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.” As writing coaches, we concur.

Let’s say your essay is still too long. To get it down to fighting weight, try one of our favorite revision tips: Cut out all adjectives and adverbs. Be ruthless. You can put them back later, with a discerning eye, one at a time. Ask yourself if the word is absolutely necessary to tell your story.

The Common App might not be a snap, but it needn’t be a trap. For more guidance, sign up for a summer workshop. We can help you tell your story in your own voice, in your own words – no more than 500 of them.