Is 500 Words Enough for a College Application Essay?

Posted by Liz Dwyer

Common Application

Could you write why a college should admit you instead of thousands of other applicants in 500 words or fewer? That's what this fall's crop of seniors applying to colleges using the Common Application, a standardized form that's accepted at over 400 schools, will need to do. According to the officials from the service, they're capping word counts on the essays for the first time in four years.

As the Washington Post reports, Common Application Executive Director Rob Killion and Director of Outreach Scott Anderson say the unlimited essay option has

"led to essays that were far too long, less well-written, and, at the end of the day, often skimmed rather than read by admission officers. In addition, the absence of a maximum size proved to be confusing for students—particularly those without access to counseling—who simply did not know when to stop writing."

High school guidance counselors aren't thrilled by the move. They say that it's too difficult for a student to really be able to respond to the prompts and show off their writing ability in such a short essay. For the 2011-2012 admissions season, students can write about a topic of their choice, or respond to one of a handful of standard prompts about significant life experiences.

Of course, the root problem is that students nowadays simply aren't getting enough writing instruction or practice to craft high-quality college application essays, regardless of length. After all, a student can still write a terrible essay in 500 words or less.

The obvious solution is for schools to give students more writing instruction and practice—and for counselors to really coach seniors through the essay writing process. Unfortunately, one effect of our current emphasis on high-stakes testing in reading and math is the de-emphasis on writing ability—and that's happening from elementary school on up.

photo via The Ivy Coach