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How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: pt 2 (Think Small and Still Tell a Big Story)

August 24, 2011

Welcome! If you’re reading this you’re on your way to success with the Common Application Essay’s 500 Word Limit!

In part 1 of this 4 part series, I gave you 7 Important Tips to Remember. Now I’m going to give you 5 Ways to Think Small And Still Be Able to Tell a Big Story.

One concern I hear from students is that they can’t tell their story in 500 words. After all, this essay has to pack a big punch; it has to say good things about you, show the college why you’re unique, what kind of learning experiences you’ve had, and why you’d make a good addition to the campus community. How can you fit that all into 500 words?

Here’s how:

1. Start by Knowing What a 500 Word Essay Looks Like

  • 500 words is one page and about five paragraphs.
  • Take a look at the handout I give my students, It will give you a visualization illustration of 500 words.
  • Surprised? Now that you know, you can start to plan.

2. Choose a Smaller Topic, Instead of Big

  • Don’t try to tackle a big topic like world peace or what you did on your entire summer vacation, you don’t have the space. Choose a shorter experience or a moment in time that was meaningful to you and reflects something positive about you.  
  • Moments are a great way to “think small” and still be able to tell a big story
  • Here’s an example of writing about a moment: Alan worked at the checkout counter of a store. One day a customer didn’t notice she’d dropped some change, and Alan picked it up and returned it. The customer was extremely grateful, and Alan said he’d never forget the moment he understood that even a small amount of change could make a big difference to someone.

This moment happened in a matter of seconds, but had a major impact on Alan and was a growing experience for him and was a good choice to write about.

3. Never Lose Track of Your Point

  • Know the point of your essay. You should be able to write it down in one sentence. For example: “I learned to trust my parents, and that every argument has two points of view.”
  • Every paragraph should direct the reader to your point. It’s like pouring water into a funnel. If the top of the funnel is your introduction and the spout is your conclusion, all the ideas guide the reader in that direction.
  • Eliminate ideas that don’t direct the reader to your point

Here’s an Example

  • Remember Alan? What if Alan thought he should describe how funny his co-worker Alice was because she couldn’t eat peanut butter and jelly without getting jelly all over the cash register?  Interesting? Maybe. Does it get to his point? No.
  • Think of it like climbing a tree. Your essay is the trunk of the tree. Sliding off onto a branch might give you a different view, but you only have time to climb the trunk. Alan’s tree trunk was the customer, the dropped change, and his realization.

4. Edit! Even if it hurts.

  • Edit out any ideas, details, or explanations that don’t move you toward your point. (See #3)
  • Don’t repeat your ideas.
  • Pare down your adjectives.
  • Get rid of extraneous words.

5. Don’t Wait Until the Last Draft to Count your Words

For your first draft or freewrite, let your imagination go. Then do a word count after that. You’ll be more in control and spend less time figuring out what to cut.

To summarize: Moments are a great way to “think small” and still be able to tell a big story. Keep to your point and you can write an effective, memorable, and short Common Application personal essay. Edit and keep track of your word count.

Now you’re ready for Part 3: Essay Samples!

related posts:
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 1 (7 Tips to Remember)
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 3 (Essay Samples )
How to Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit: Pt 4 (Ideas that Work)

for more info: Read Time.com on the Common App Essay Word Limit

Sharon Epstein, FIrst Impressions College Consulting..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting
Need help? Get in touch! I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone, and by computer. Visit my website for more info.

Leave a comment — I want to know what you think.

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