Mr. Gelb is the author of “Conquering the College Admissions Essay in 10 Steps.”
Matt Flegenheimer’s interesting piece in The Times on Saturday on the legitimacy of exceeding 500 words on the college admissions essay got me thinking about how often such excess is actually warranted.
Most first drafts I see are several hundred words beyond that mark. That is to be expected, but by the second and third drafts, they are very close to the 500 word count. I almost never encounter essays that justify exceeding that limit. The extra verbiage usually reflects problematic writing choices, so I would like to offer a few tips on how to keep your essay concise with no sacrifice of meaning or impact:
Know where to start. This is the most important factor in keeping your essay within bounds. Your first decision is where to pick up the narrative. Keeping in mind that a 500-word essay is a limited piece of real estate, don’t start your story about building houses in Haiti in your bedroom in Philadelphia, packing your bags. Skip the plane ride. Just plunge right into the action that matters most. That said, the work of telling a good story is understanding what matters most.
Try a trusty literary device. The one I am referring to is called in media res (Latin for “in the middle of things”). You might surprise the reader by opening your essay with a line of dialogue. “Watch out! We’re falling!” Or The line went dead. Or The door slammed. Such openings grab a reader’s attention and save precious time.
Avoid adjectives, adverbs, qualifiers. A lot of excess word count may be traced back to an overuse of word forms that often muck things up. We went hiking on a lovely spring day doesn’t tell me much more than We went hiking on a spring day. (Unless it’s raining, I’ll assume the spring day is lovely). Adverbial excesses like He reacted emphatically can best be dealt with by dropping the adverb altogether or finding a good verb that says more in less words (flinched, grimaced—whatever makes sense in terms of that emphatic reaction you were trying to capture). And all those qualifiers like very, most, especially are usually expendable.
Pay close attention to sentence structure. Getting lost in your sentence structure will take up words (and exasperate readers). A good rule of thumb is to start your sentences with a subject and a verb. Here’s a sentence that uses more words to say less: Brainstorming on what we could do, we came to the solution that we could sell our origami to neighbors that lived on the same block. (25 words) Now the alternative: We brainstormed and came up with a solution: to sell our origami to neighbors. (14 words—and you notice that the word “neighbors” didn’t need that extra definition).
If you keep these tips in mind, you should be able to whittle your admissions essay to well within the limits.
Do readers of The Choice have additional advice on how to keepan essayto the point?Share them in the comment box below.
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.