Common App limits application essays to 500 words

Lois Lee

January 17, 2012

Furda believes students may hurt their chances at acceptance to Penn if their essays exceed the suggested word limit

High-school students who are applying to Penn this admissions cycle have been asked to describe themselves in just 500 words.

Last spring, the Common Application — the organization that provides the application platform for more than 450 colleges and universities worldwide, including Penn — implemented a 500-word limit for essay length.

In recent years, the Common App did not put an upper limit on students’ essays.

“The feedback we received from our members and many high school counselors was that students were submitting essays that were far, far too long in the absence of any guidance,” Common Application Executive Director Rob Killion wrote in an email.

However, the implementation of the new length requirement has not come without its snags.

Though the instructions of the essay prompt now include a 250-500 word-count suggestion for applications, there is no Common App mechanism in place to reject an application that exceeds the word count.

Dean of Admissions Eric Furda — who serves on the Common App’s board of directors — said students may hurt their chances of gaining acceptance to Penn if their essays go over the new word limit.

“There are a number of risks” if the essay is too long, Furda said. “We might not read the whole essay … That doesn’t mean that you’re not admitted, but you’re running a risk that’s probably not necessary.”

He added that it is in the best interest of applicants to abide by the Common App’s guidelines “in recognition of the admissions officers’ time.”

Some, however, believe that the word count doesn’t need to be as strictly enforced.

President of Hernandez College Consulting Michele Hernandez said, based on her experience serving as an admissions officer at Dartmouth College, admissions offices may often value quality over length.

“A badly written one-paragraph essay is painful to read, but a good essay is very gripping,” she said. “It doesn’t make that much difference in time to read a 500-word essay and a 1,000-word essay. If it’s good, it reads really quickly.”

Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, said “there is no reason that students can’t stick to the guidelines.” She added that, despite the fact that the Common App’s current upload mechanism cannot reject essays if they run long, admissions officers can easily determine word count using a program like Microsoft Word.

Regular decision applicant Samuel Kim — a senior at Canyon Springs High School in Moreno Valley, Calif. — said his essay was about 600 words, as he wasn’t sure whether the new word count limit was a mandate or merely a suggestion.

“I chose the topic and it was difficult to write something deep down under 500 words, and so I was hoping that they would cut me a break,” he said, adding that he could have cut his essay down to 500 words if absolutely necessary.

On the other hand, Hari Joy — who was admitted early decision from Panther Creek High School in Morrisville, N.C. — saw the issue from the admissions officers’ perspective and edited his essay down to about 500 words.

“I definitely felt like it was limiting,” Joy said. “I found myself at 800 words for the first draft. [Cutting it down] took a little bit of the substance out but at the same time, I understand that they want us to be concise and get the point across.”