The Common Application widely used for college admissions by high school seniors has set a 250-500 limit for the essay as part of the 2011-12 college admissions season because essays written without any limits had become too long and poorly written, the organization said.

Some counselors complained about the change on an e-list used by college admissions counselors at high schools, saying they are worried that students will not have enough room to adequately display their writing abilities.

But officials for the Common App — which is accepted by 415 college and universities — say the change is only a return to a practice that had been used for 31 years before the unlimited essay experiment started four years ago, and that kids will be helped by the limit.

Executive Director Rob Killion and Director of Outreach Scott Anderson sent an e-mail to the e-list explaining the decision, and here’s part of their response to complaints about the change:

“To give you some history regarding how we arrived here: After a four year experiment with no maximum essay size, we are simply returning to the practice of the prior 31 years in specifying a 500-word maximum. Our Board of Directors re-instated this maximum word limit at the unanimous recommendation of our counselor advisory committee and our member advisory committee. Both groups indicated that the lack of any guidance regarding a maximum size over the last four years had led to essays that were far too long, less well-written, and, at the end of the day, often skimmed rather than read by admission officers. In addition, the absence of a maximum size proved to be confusing for students — particularly those without access to counseling — who simply did not know when to stop writing.

“Any maximum size we might have chosen — 500, 750, 1000 — would have been subject to criticism in some quarters as arbitrary — either too short or too long. Since there is no magic number that would be acceptable to all, we returned to our historic 500 word limit, which allows an applicant approximately two double-spaced pages to express their thoughts and writing skills. Colleges that want longer writing samples can ask for them on their supplements, as many of them already do. Finally, the additional information section/upload remains available for students to use as they wish.”

A preview of the 2011-12 Common App is available here. The essay prompt says:

Please write an essay of 250 –500 words on a topic of your choice or on one of the options listed below, and attach it to your application before submission. Please indicate your topic by checking the appropriate box. This personal essay helps us become acquainted with you as a person and student, apart from courses, grades, test scores, and other objective data. It will also demonstrate your ability to organize your thoughts and express yourself. NOTE: Your Common Application essay should be the same for all colleges. Do not customize it in any way for individual colleges.

Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.

Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.

Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.

Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, science, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.

A range of academic interests, personal perspectives, and life experiences adds much to the educational mix. Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

Topic of your choice.

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