Describe Yourself… in Under 500 Words

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The college application essay is a student’s chance to make known the parts of himself that don’t show up on transcripts, that can’t be explained by a GPA. It’s a chance to display personality (but don’t be annoying!); tout accomplishments (but don’t seem braggy!); show some quirks (but not too many!); and find a way to stand out from the crowd (but not in a bad way!). 

As if that pressure wasn’t enough, the Common Application has just reinstituted its 500-word cap for the personal statement. That’s about two double-spaced pages, and many students are finding that a pretty skimpy amount of space in which to tell a compelling story that reveals their personality without seeming trite or over-simplified.

Before this year, the application specified a minimum of 250 words — but no maximum. The upper limit was reinstated this year because admissions officials were complaining that essays were getting way too long. But some college counselors worry that a strict word number just adds another layer of panic onto the already-fraught application process.

In the end, though, any panic seems unwarranted. Colleges won’t be notified if an essay exceeds the word limit, and no one’s going to take the time to go through and count the words themselves. Odds are, a 522-word essay will slide through just as well as a 498-word one, and if you’re edging toward 800 words, you’re probably being too verbose anyway.

For those in need of guidance, check out Baltimore Fishbowl editor Betsy Boyd’s lessons learned from her experience coaching students through their college essays.

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