The Common Application widely used by high school seniors to apply to college recently reinstituted a 500-word limit for its essay for the current college admissions season. But what happens to a student who exceeds the limit?

Officials for the Common App, which is accepted by 415 college and universities, say that it ended their four-year experiment with unlimited essay lengths because colleges and counselors complained that many essays were too long and sloppily written. The 500-word limit had been used for 31 years previously, and they felt it would help students to set it again.

A parent sent me an e-mail asking what would happen if his son sent in an essay that was about 50 or 60 words beyond that limit and I forwarded the question to Rob Killion, executive director of The Common Application, Inc.

According to Killion, the Common App cannot technologically do anything to enforce the 500-word limit, which is essentially two double-spaced pages.

“If a student uploaded a 500,000 word essay, there’s nothing we could do to stop that,” he wrote in an email.

Still, the Common App asks that students do honor the limit, and he said they have other opportunities to write about themselves in the supplements that individual colleges ask applicants to fill out as well as in a section asking for “additional information” on the Common App itself.

Indeed, there is a misconception among some students that because the Common App is, well, common, they need only to fill it out and they can send it, without doing any more work, to all of the colleges on their lists. Not so. Most colleges ask applicants to write more essays, short and long, and provide other information that may not be on the Common App.

The parent asked one more question about the 500-word limit. Do all words count? Here’s what Killion said:

“It’s whatever the student’s word processor says — for example, if the student is doing this in MS Word (as most kids will, but even in other word processers), just select the “Word Count” button — whatever it counts is what the student should follow.”


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