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Hitting the Target Word Count in Your College Admission Essay

Don't worry; even if the application calls for a word or page limit, your reader is not going to bother to count your words and hold you to a ten-word range. However, you don't have a completely free hand either. The admissions counselors are skilled at estimating the length of your essay. If they specify "an essay of no fewer than 250 words," they expect at least one typewritten, double-spaced page with normal fonts and margins. And if they ask for no more than two typewritten pages, they will be annoyed to receive ten. They know how to count. They do have fingers.

If you wrote the essay on a word processor, you can find out the number of words quickly. In Microsoft Word, for example, click on Tools --> Word Count for a total. If you used a typewriter, assume that one page, single-spaced, with normal fonts and margins, contains about 500 words (if double-spaced, 250 words).

If no word or page count is specified, aim for 250-500 words — long enough to show depth and short enough to hold their interest.

A normal font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, looks like the print in a book or magazine. Don't shrink or expand the type size abnormally; the best choice is probably 12 point. A normal margin is about an inch. If you're writing the essay on a computer, the default style of fonts and margins for your word processor is a good bet.

If the word count of your essay is off by just a few words, you're probably okay. But if the essay is significantly longer or shorter than it should be, you'll have to adjust. Here's how to cut to fit and lengthen to suit.

Chopping excess words

A great way to get rid of excess words is to cut repetitive or wordy material. After that, try these tactics:

  • Check the introduction and the conclusion of the essay especially carefully. A lot of repetition and unnecessary detail show up in these two spots, and many people ho and hum a bit before they get to the point. Can you pull the reader into your subject more quickly or sum up the point in fewer words?
  • Look for boring details that the reader can do without. For example, if you're writing about the fund-raising campaign that you organized to assist retired professional athletes (the people least likely to need such a campaign, by the way), you don't need to explain exactly how you created mailing list labels. Dump that detail, but keep the part describing the celebrity auction.
  • If your essay is a general survey or a "mosaic" of your experiences, trim the essay by eliminating one element. For example, if you've surveyed the development of your interest in grasshoppers over the course of three summers, you may want to limit yourself to two summers, with a half-sentence reference to the third summer in the introduction or conclusion.
  • Hunt for any material in the essay that duplicates information available elsewhere in your application. Suppose you wrote an essay about your work on the school newspaper. Besides describing some of your big stories and the challenge of dealing with the editorial board, you included a paragraph listing all the positions you held on the paper throughout your high school career, including coffee-maker and senior advertising editor. If those positions are included in the "list your extracurricular activities" section of the application form, you may delete that paragraph from the essay. Remember, the essay should add to the committee's understanding of your identity, not reiterate a bunch of facts.
  • If you have any dialogue that may be paraphrased or summarized, you may save some space. But don't cut all the interesting stuff!
  • Consider refocusing if your essay is seriously overlong. Remember, a narrow and deep focus is better than wide and shallow. You don't have to explain every single affect your grandmother's existence had on your life. One or two main ideas should get your point across.

If the university accepts word-processed printouts, you may be tempted to write in a teeny-tiny font or with miniscule line spacing and margins in order to keep to the page budget. Bad idea. Some of your readers may be middle-aged, and they won't take kindly to reminders that their reading glasses have to be strengthened again. And even if all your readers are young enough to go around bare-eyed, everyone recognizes a rip off. They will notice your tricks, and they will resent them. Follow the rules!

Adding to the essay

Usually, the problem that afflicts most essayists is excess verbiage. But from time to time applicants end up with an essay that's below the recommended word or page count. One major rule applies to this situation:

Don't pad. Add.

"Don't pad" means:

  • Don't throw extra words into your sentences just to make the essay longer, as in this example:
    Original: I grew up in Brooklyn.
    Padded: Where did I grow up, you may wonder? It was in Brooklyn that I first saw the light of day and lived during my formative years.
  • Don't provide meaningless details, such as those italicized in this example:
    After I was rescued from the sinking ocean liner, I had a lovely lunch consisting of a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. Then the president gave me a medal for heroism.
  • Don't repeat material listed elsewhere in the application. A review of all your courses or extracurriculars will not enhance an essay on the meaning of your high school experience.

How do you lengthen a too-short piece? Try these tactics:

  • Add a level of thoughtfulness. Suppose that you're writing an essay about an exchange program you participated in. Besides being exposed to new cultural experiences and a foreign language, what else happened to you? Did your world view alter? Did you appreciate your home country more upon your return? Did your career plan or life goal change? Chances are you addressed at least one of these issues in your essay, but perhaps another is also relevant.
  • Add detail. If you wrote about your summer as a storyteller for the local public library, you may want to include a longer description of a typical session, including interactions with parents, discussions with the librarian about appropriate books, the children's reactions, and so forth.
  • Change a summary to a description. If your essay includes a general statement, consider changing it to specifics, as in these examples:

Summary: The children were often mischievous but always delightful.

Specifics: At one session a little girl nestled into my lap and stroked my hair. Only later did I find out that she had just eaten a peanut butter sandwich, most of which she left entwined in my braid. But her joy at hearing Curious George made the stickiness worthwhile.

  • Expand the introduction or conclusion. Either of these two spots may contain the main idea of your essay. Are you certain you've given the issue the appropriate explanation? Read these sections to an impartial audience and add as needed. (But remember: Don't repeat and don't pad.)
  • Touch upon another example. If your essay is a survey, you may want to include an additional example. Suppose that you've written about the affect your dad's career has had on your character. You've mentioned the family's stint in Antarctica, but you neglected to describe that awful winter at the North Pole. Bingo! You've got plenty of new material, all relevant to the topic of the essay.
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