Applying To College

College Essay Writing and Interview Skills

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Common App 500 Word Limit: What Colleges Think

The Common Application sets a 500 word limit on its personal statement (the long essay). Except there’s no limit on the number of words you can upload.

Confused? You’re not alone.

So I asked four college admissions officers for help, and it turns out that while there are different degrees of flexibility, none of them set the limit at 500 words.

What can you learn? Going a little over is okay (50-100 words), but be careful of being too wordy. And, as always, if you aren’t sure contact the schools – they’ll have your best, and safest, answer.

Here’s what the admissions officers said:

uconn husky

Nathan Fuerst, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, University of Connecticut:

A: We do have some amount of flexibility. We want students to express themselves as best they can. If that means that they go a few words over — about 100 — that’s okay. But we also want the student to be cognizant of the Common Application’s 500 word limit because some students can carry on for a while.  I’d say to students write your college application essay as briefly and succinctly as you can, but don’t feel like you need to leave out any major pieces, either.

sacred heart pioneers

Ken Higgins, Director of Undergraduate Admissions, Sacred Heart University:

A: Students will often inquire about the word limit for the College Essay, and how they should approach it.  My best suggestion to them is to use enough words to get your point across, and tell your story thoroughly, but yet succinctly.  It may sound counter-intuitive, but those 500 words run out relatively quickly, so typing a good draft that may go FAR over the limit, and then “trimming” could be useful.  Generally speaking, I do not worry too much about the word limit of the essay (I’ve never actually counted), however if it is exceedingly long (or too short), it may raise a (slight) red flag during the application review process.  If it takes 650 words to get the core of the story in, then so be it, just as long as it’s not 6,500 words.

Quinnipiac Unversity logo

Joanne Robertson, Assistant Director of Admissions and Transcript Evaluator, Quinnipiac University:

A: What we usually tell students is to write as many words as it takes to tell the story.  It is important that they have it reviewed by an English teacher if possible for grammar and composition.  If not, then read it out loud to a parent or older sibling.  If they find that it is too wordy or doesn’t make sense, go back and revise. It’s fine to go over if you need more words to give us a complete picture of how an event or person impacted  your life.  Just don’t embellish too much, use words just because you can or the worst thing of all, send the wrong essay to the wrong school.  And, spell check is not fool-proof, use a dictionary if you are unsure of a spelling or meaning.

ithaca bombers logo

Ithaca College Director of Admission, Gerard Turbide:

A: I would advise students to start by writing a first draft without thinking about length.  Choose a topic you care about, and write with your own “voice”.  Once you have your ideas assembled, you can refine and edit.  For each applicant, I’m interested in reading a compelling statement that effectively conveys something about that studentI’ve never counted the words used.

related posts
Common App Essay 500 Word Limit: 5 Simple Ways to Pare it Down
How To Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit pt.1
How To Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit pt.2
How To Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit pt.3
How To Succeed with the Common App Essay Word Limit pt.4

Collegemapper: How strict is the Common App’s 500 word limit 20 colleges weigh in
Collegemapper: The Common App 500 word limit 21 more colleges weigh in

Gelblog: 500 Words

sharon-epstein-college-essay-writing-and-interview-skills..Sharon Epstein is owner of First Impressions College Consulting and is the recipient of a Writers Guild Award and two Emmy nominations for her writing.
Need help? I work with students everywhere: in-person, over the phone and by computer. Visit her website for more info.  Connect with Sharon on Google+, Twitter and Pinterest:

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Leave a comment — let me know what you think!



Interviews with College Admissions Counselors: Ithaca College

Welcome to an Ongoing Series on College Admissions.

Updated June 21, 2012

If you’re starting the college admissions process you’ve probably discovered that it’s not always easy to find answers to your college admissions questions. That’s why I created a place where you can hear directly from college admission counselors about applying to college, college interviews, college application essay writing, and financial aid.

I developed these questions with help from families who’ve recently been through the college admissions process. Because each school answers the same questions you’ll be able to compare information with other schools.

I hope this will be an excellent resource for anyone looking for college admissions information. Who knows? You might even find yourself considering options you hadn’t thought of before.

With the introduction out of the way, let’s find out about Ithaca College.

Ithaca College, founded in 1892, located in Ithaca, New York, is a private, coeducational college offering undergraduate and graduate programs in business, communications, health sciences and human performance, humanities and sciences, music, and interdisciplinary studies. U.S News and World Report ranks the school #11 of regional universities (north).

As of Fall 2010 Ithaca College had 6,442 undergraduates and 6,949 total students.

Admissions statistics: Class of 2014

Number of applicants (freshmen): 13,191
Number of admitted students (freshmen): 9,096
Number enrolled fall 2010 (first-time, full-time freshmen): 1,617
Average SAT score: 1726
2012 – 2013 Undergraduate Cost of Attendance:  Tuition and Fees $37,000; Room $7,200;  Board $6,200; Optional Health and Accident Insurance $1,110


Ithaca College Director of Admission, Gerard Turbide, answered the following questions for us:


Q: What percentage of applicants does Ithaca College admit?

A: Typically we offer admission to two-thirds of our applicants.

Q: Does applying early decision/action improve a student’s chances for admission?

A: Ithaca College is a selective institution, and as a result, we cannot offer admission to all qualified students.  We also want to admit students who are excited about Ithaca College, will contribute positively to our community, and are willing to make that commitment early.  The accelerated time line allows us to admit all qualified candidates who apply through Early Decision, and our most interested applicants know much earlier.  It’s a win-win.

Starting fall 2012, Ithaca College will offer the option to apply by December 1 under a non-binding Early Action deadline to receive an admissions decision by February 1.

Q:  How important are extracurricular activities in admissions decisions?

A: Students who do well at Ithaca College are usually individuals who want to be actively engaged in their education.  A student’s participation in extracurricular activities is one indication of that quality.  Each year, more than 700 prospective students apply for Ithaca College’s Leadership Scholarship, and each candidate’s activities in their community are carefully considered for this competitive award.

Q: How important is taking advanced, accelerated, or honors courses?

A: In our selection process, we are very focused on the extent to which an applicant has challenged him- or herself academically.  We assess each applicant’s strength of curriculum in light of the offerings available at that high school.

Q: Which teachers should write a college recommendation?

A: Selecting recommenders is a personal decision.  I would encourage students to seek teachers who know them well, and can write in detail about their relative strengths in the classroom.

Q: Do you look for what is not said in a college recommendation?

A: I would not say that we speculate on omissions in letters of recommendation.  I would say that, in cases where there are inconsistencies in a student’s academic record, it is helpful when the guidance counselor addresses that issue.

Q: Is the quality of an applicant’s high school taken into consideration?

A: We take into account the context of the student’s learning environment.

Q: What is the relative importance of grades versus board scores?

A: Our research has shown that grades – specifically, a student’s grade-point average in academic course work – is a much better predictor of success at Ithaca College.

Q: There’s been controversy about using tests like the SAT and ACT in the college admissions process. Where does your school stand?

A: Starting fall 2012 applicants will  have the option of not submitting SAT or ACT scores. 


Q: Does your school offer interviews with college admissions counselors? If not, why?

A: Yes we do. We believe it’s important for any student considering Ithaca College to visit our campus. We offer individual appointments with counselors, small group information sessions, and open house programs in which our campus community happily greets our visitors to provide an inside look at Ithaca College.

Q: Should a student discuss or explain a poor grade or marking period(s)? If so, when?

A: If there is something significant that impacted a student’s academic performance (e.g., illness, injury, family hardships, etc.), the student can share that information within the application.

Essay Writing

Q: What qualities do you look for in a well-written college application essay?

A: We want to hear the student’s voice, and learn something about that student. This is a key opportunity for an applicant to create a distinct impression. Careful attention to grammar, proof reading, and spell checking are all important.

Q: Is there a type of college application essay you would recommend against?

A: I would recommend against statements that would cast doubt on the student’s ability to contribute positively to our campus community.  Of course, each student’s essay should be their own work.

Q: Can a college application essay make or break an admission?

A: In some cases, an essay can make the difference one way or the other.  A sincerely written essay that provides insight into a student’s character can help counterbalance an academic concern, especially when recommendations support that student’s potential to meet challenges head-on.

Q: Where do you stand on the 500 word limit on the Common Application’s personal statement? Can a student go over the Common Application’s 500 word limit?

A: I would advise students to start by writing a first draft without thinking about length.  Choose a topic you care about, and write with your own “voice”.  Once you have your ideas assembled, you can refine and edit.  For each applicant, I’m interested in reading a compelling statement that effectively conveys something about that studentI’ve never counted the words used.

Financial Aid

Q: How has the recession affected the admissions process and the availability of financial aid?

A: Every year, families express increased interest in financial aid, and most must weigh the cost of attendance as part of their decision-making.  Last year Ithaca College made available over $165 million in grants and loans. We view an Ithaca College education as an investment made in partnership with our students and their families.  And we believe that the rewards of that education will be well worth it. (editor’s note: Ithaca College lists tuition, fees, room and board at $45,944. The most recent stats show 1,497 out of 2,027 full-time freshmen were offered aid. The average financial aid package was $29,600.)


Q: What part of the college admissions process is most misunderstood?

A: I think many people believe that standardized tests play a much larger role than they do.  They can be a helpful piece of information, but nothing tells us more than a student’s academic record reflecting their course work.

Q: How can people connect with your school and your students?

A: We have a well-developed presence on the web, including a specific social networking site for applicants.  The best way to connect with Ithaca College, our students, and our faculty, is to visit campus.  We offer several open house programs in the fall, tours and information sessions throughout the summer, and we have an open house for high school juniors on Saturday, April 30th.

Our social networking site for applicants is IC Peers — it’s part of our myIthaca portal. We encourage any student considering Ithaca College to register at There are interesting articles that can help with the college search process, and as you progress with your application to Ithaca College, you can keep track of your status, register for one of our open house programs, and meet other interested students online.

Q: Please add a question specific to your school.
Question:  Is it important to pick a major now?

A: Ithaca College offers over 100 degree programs in the humanities and sciences, business, communications, the health sciences, and music.  Our Exploratory Program is a great option if –like most students — you’re not yet sure what you want to study.  Whatever your plans are for the future, we most likely have the program of study that will prepare you for the challenges ahead.

To Contact Ithaca College:

Office of Admission
953 Danby Road
(607) 274-3124 |  (800) 429-4274

other posts in this series:

Housatonic Community College
Quinnipiac University
Sacred Heart University
University of Bridgeport

University of Connecticut

related links:
Will More Prominent Colleges Abandon the SAT?

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

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