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:
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.
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.
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 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 student. I’ve never counted the words used.
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
..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.
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