Myth 3 of Top 5 Series: Lies Applicants Tell Themselves about College Admissions Essays

Myth #3:  The word count/limit is optional if I'm telling a compelling story or if my point has been made.

I’ll start by stating the obvious. Most applicants count and recount each word of their essay answers and personal statements and several aim to meet a given prompt’s word limit to the letter (and the number). You want no more than 650 words?  Okay, the student says, then 650 words are exactly what I’ll give you come hell or high water.

Yet many clients I’ve coached and students I’ve taught feel comfortable ignoring the suggested word limit all together.  As an admissions reader (for a college pipeline program at a UC) and as an English composition instructor, there are few things more aggravating than receiving a statement or assignment that has exceeded the specified word or page limit.  Students often view “extra” as “more” and the two should not be confused.  “Extra” is just that – unnecessary and when it comes college application essays, “more” does not mean additional words but instead a greater depth of revealing information and vivid description through use of exacting language.

The bottom line is that admissions readers know how many words they want to read for a given answer or statement. Writing noticeably beyond that amount conveys much – none of it positive.  1) I’m feel that I’m special enough to warrant additional words to answer the same question as everyone else. 2) I want to attend your college but I don’t want to take the time to shave down my essay and meet the word limit.  3) I don’t pay attention to your parameters, but um…please pay attention to what I have to say.

Enter the chronic “underwriters” who provide a 125-word answer to a prompt with a limit of 350 words or who manage to scrape out 400 words for a 700-word limit answer.  There are those magical mavericks that possess an otherworldly word economy.  They can indeed express in a single sentence what others struggle to articulate in one or two paragraphs.  But they are rare and an answer that falls too short of the word limit, especially when there appears to be more to the story or the prompt is not fully answered, creates a different list of poor impressions.  Aside from a lack of effort, shortened answers can make the applicant appear dismissive or, if they express how much this opportunity means to them, a bit of a liar.

No one likes a liar.  And if you’re lying in your essay…well, one wonders if it stops there.  It’s a slippery slope that’s part of the larger college admissions process that is, by intentional design and organic nature, a steeply competitive climb to the summit.

Bottom line, the word limits are a guide and like any guide who truly knows the way, they should be followed.  Save the originality and novelty for the content of your answer, not its length.

Happy writing,

Leslie D. Poston