The Common App has revised the word count on the personal statement (college essay) to "250 to 500 words." Does this set a limit?
Yes, the Common App, Writing section, as modified for 2011-12, now instructs applicants to "Please write an essay of 250 - 500 words on a topic of your choice or on one of the options listed below, and attach it to your application before submission."
This would appear, on its face, to set limits on the word count -- to wit, a 250 word minimum and a 500 word maximum.
Indeed, a simple, straightforward reading -- and a basic understanding of the English language -- could connote no other meaning. At least 250. At most 500.
The new language has generated much discourse in the blogosphere, and on such professional websites as Linkedin, where college planning counselors like The College Whisperer are not only mincing words but inferring meaning.
Although the instructive language clearly, and, in our opinion (and that of English majors with whom we have broached the subject), unambiguously sets upper and lower limits on the personal statement word count, reasonable (and sometimes, unreasonable) minds beg to differ.
While the folks at Common App -- now destined to repeat English 101 -- have yet to officially offer comment (let alone apology or revision), those of us with way too much time on our hands have taken the discussion of "word limit" or "mere guideline" to a new level.
On a Linkedin post, our college counseling colleague, Lisa Kay, opines:
I haven't heard from my contact (at Common App), but did hear from a colleague: Jon Reider, Director of College Counseling at San Francisco University High School, provided this helpful response, noting that the Common App word-count is a guideline, not a limit. He said:
When the new wording of the Common Application was published this spring, I wrote to Scott Anderson at the Common App, and he assured me that there is NO word limit on the main essay on the Common App, despite the wording of "250-500 words." I am sure a great deal of thought went into that wording, but it is unfortunately ambiguous and gives rise to the erroneous assumption that there is in fact a word limit of 500 words. That is just a recommendation from colleges to keep the essays brief (always good advice), but the software does not have the capacity to limit it even if they wanted to. There is still a limit of 1000 characters, roughly 150 words, on the short essay about extracurricular activity or work experience. If a reader is used to reading concise essays, they may look at a longer one with some annoyance, unless, of course, it is stunningly brilliant. These are few and far between in those long winter months. This is not the mood that a typical applicant hopes to inspire in their readers. I have never read an essay of 800 words that couldn't be cut, and improved in the process.
So, what the geniuses at the Common App MEANT to say was, "250-500 words suggested." Hmmm.
Of course, they could have used the word "suggested," or simply said "keep it brief," "in the neighborhood of 500 words," or, "Hey guys. If you go long on the essay, you'll lose brownie points with the college admissions officer, who has to read hundreds of these &^%$#! personal statements every day!"
So much for brevity being the soul of wit..
Okay. Common Appers said "limit" but meant "guideline." As they say on the street and in the classroom, be guided accordingly.
Keep it short. Keep it pertinent. Keep it personal. Give them who you are, what you do, how you will add to both class and campus, all in about 500 words -- or a single 12 point type page -- more or less.
The personal statement/college essay is one of the few places left for students to strut their stuff and shine. Don't skimp, glowing dimly like a 3 watt bulb. On the other hand, don't burn out their retinas -- and wear thin one's patience at the end of a long, hard day -- by writing the next volume of War and Peace, droning on, yada, yada, yada, blah, blah, blah. [See. Have we started to lose you yet?]
P.S. The word count on the above is 750. Already The College Whisperer has said too much...
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The views and opinions expressed in this blog are solely those of The College Whisperer.
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