Counting Words, Counting Characters: Editing the Essay and Short-Answer Questions

In the final (!) push toward completing all college application submissions, here’s what it came down to at Camp StrangeCollege (where, yes, the parents and the senior are still talking to each other and still laughing):  counting words and characters to get that essence of brilliance to fit within the conscribed space.

Here’s a quick view of the writing assignments involved with applications.

1.  The 2012 Common App provides a choice of six essay topics — five specific prompts and one ‘topic of your choice.’ The app specifies 250-500 words and that these should not be customized for any particular college; customization should be done on a supplementary app.

Submitting this main essay (‘the Common App essay’) requires uploading a Word or Notes document; the doc ends up looking like an attachment to the application.

It is possible to submit a Common App essay with many more words than the recommended count.

So:  must one comply with the word limits you ask? Read the arguments from students who don’t see the need to cut their excellent essays here. Read the response from Alan Gelb, essay-writing advisor and author of Conquering the College Admissions Essay in Ten Steps, here, including examples of how to cut. [Pete has done his best to comply:  “Why would you want to irritate the people who have to read your essay?”]

2.  The 2012 Common App provides a second opportunity to write, “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences in the space below.” This response, limited to 1000 characters, is submitted by keying (or pasting) copy into a window provided on the online app.

It is not possible to submit a response longer than 1000 characters:  the window will not allow it.

3.  Many colleges accepting the Common App also require their own supplementary application, which should be found on both the Common App site and the college’s admissions site (but sometimes is on one or the other). Most of these supplements provide the opportunity to write a response to another topic. Or two. Word limits set by each college.

Please note that any time you are provided the opportunity to respond, most advisors will recommend you do not view this as optional. Write.

4.  A number of colleges — in their efforts to get a more personal view of the student than strict numbers (GPA and test scores) allow — also offer the opportunity to write answers to a series of short questions. These are often limited to 25 words or less. One of Pete’s applications specified fewer than 25 words or 175 characters.

Many of these short answers must be keyed (or copied) into a window that will not allow more than 175 characters.

5.  A number of colleges offer an additional supplementary application related to athletics or arts. Yes, those, too, sometimes offer the opportunity to write a few words. One of Pete’s most frustrating experiences was writing, re-writing, and polishing an essay until he and both parents were satisfied… to find out it was 3600+ characters and the space only allowed 2000. Yes, it would have been nice if the college had specified how much space was available. Since this was a copy-and-paste window, Pete only learned the limit when he pasted in the completed (or so he thought) essay.

Was the essay better at its original length or the cut-to-fit length (approximately 340 words)? Who knows. It certainly was more tightly-written as edited.

Hmm, I think I may be missing an opportunity or two.

6.  Some colleges read all applications with an eye toward their Honors programs; others require a separate application with an essay as part of that app.

There may be others I’ve not thought of.

Mod Squad Pete drafted a few first drafts during the summer. He wrote more — and through practice, better — essays when he worked on early admissions applications. By the time he got around to regular admissions responses, the writing and editing came more easily. Or at least accompanied by fewer complaints.

Pete on cutting to fit:

“Words [counts] are definitely different from characters.”

“It’s so much fun when you’re almost there:  only ten characters left to cut!”

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Filed under Getting In

2 responses to “Counting Words, Counting Characters: Editing the Essay and Short-Answer Questions

  1. With respect to the supplemental essay, your post mentions that some colleges read that essay with consideration for the Honors program. I’ve also been told that some colleges read the supplemental essay to screen candidates for internal scholarship awards. Either way, it’s a safe bet that an outstanding essay will not go unnoticed.

  2. Pingback: How to finish college applications without going bonkers? The family chimes in. | Dr. StrangeCollege or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Journey

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