This was written by Jonathan Reider, director of college counseling at San Francisco University High School. This was a response to a discussion on the e-list of the National Association of College Admissions Counseling about a decision by Common Application officials to limit the length of the main essay students are asked to write on their college application to 500 words for the coming college admissions season. For the previous four years, there was no limit, and Common App officials said essays had become too long and less well written. Counselors complained, though, that 500 words would not be enough to allow students to express themselves. You can read about that here.

By Jonathan Reider

Probably the most famous speech in American history, The Gettysburg Address, is about 250 words. Would that make a good college application essay? Would you have encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to pad it out with more examples? Historical accounts of the speech frequently remark that the preceding speaker, Edward Everett Hale, one of the great orators of the time, spoke for two hours. But nobody remembers what he said. Virgil wrote in dactylic hexameter, surely a constraining challenge. Shakespeare adhered to the 14-line sonnet form. Throwing strikes is hard, I am told. Structure and discipline can just as easily produce great writing or great pitching as inhibit it. No, you don’t have to remind me that the typical high school senior is not Shakespeare or Sandy Koufax.

Good writing is succinct. Yes, Faulkner, Henry James, Dickens, Cervantes, and Fielding wrote wonderful, long books. How many of you have Henry James lined up to read this summer?

Every writer is constrained by length. Every journalist has a limit on their copy. Almost every college supplement has a word limit. Some colleges want an answer of just 25, 50, 200, or 250 words. How do they decide on that boundary? Basically, they don’t want to read too much. Not necessary and not enough time. Kids manage. Brief writing is hard. Mark Twain said, “If I had more time, I would write a shorter story.”

Why is the desired standard length 500 words? Who decided that? I don’t know, but I suspect it had to do with an estimate of how many words, in normal size type, would fit on a single page, back in the days when essays were typed onto an actual piece of paper and read by someone who wanted to read just a full page and nothing more.

Now, in the electronic age, there is no such thing as an actual page, and 500 words seems arbitrary, and to some, it seems, insufficient to be fully expressive.

Any number is arbitrary. There is no reason a classic sonnet HAS to be 14 lines. It just is.

I remember reading those essays, each one mind-numbingly similar to the one before. Five hundred words is enough to make your point and for the reader to decide if you have something to say. The University of California allows only 1,000 for two essays, and I can’t remember anyone complaining that they couldn’t work within that limit. The UCAS (British application process) essay and counselor’s letter are strictly limited in length. It’s actually a relief to have a space limitation for that letter.

Five hundred words will take some work for many kids. That might be a good thing. Not to be overly utopian, but it might be the best thing for student writing since the evolution of the opposable thumb. Students will have to choose their words carefully, delete (almost) every use of the passive voice and the words “very,” “basic,” and “the fact that.”

Every student and adult should read Chapter Two, “Elementary Principles of Composition,” of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style,” especially the section titled, “Omit Needless Words.” The complaints about even an implied or suggested limit, which is all the Common App is doing, ignore that the essay process should encourage good writing, and good writing is, by definition, brief.

You know who’s to blame? Actually, it’s a “what:” this darn computer, which makes it all so easy, including fixing typos. You can run your fingers across the keys, and the babble flows out.

If we had to write every e-mail to the moribund e-list by hand, the way mom insisted we do to thank people for our birthday presents when we were kids, or the way the kids do for the writing section of the SAT, I’ll bet we would write a lot less. And the world might be better off.

Conclusion: Just follow the instructions!


Correction: An earlier version said, incorrectly, that Virgil wrote in iambic pentameter. It also said incorrectly that Common App officials had said college essays without limit had become too boring. They said the essays had become less well written.


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