How long is too long?

By Ryan Hickey + updated on November 17th, 2009

Here at EssayEdge, one of the most common requests we receive from customers is to help them shorten an essay so that it meets a set word, character, or page limit. This highlights one of the many challenges posed by admissions essays. Such pieces not only ask you to provide compelling personal information that advances your candidacy, but also often require you do so within 500 words, 5,300 characters, or one single-spaced page.

Despite these limits, students frequently submit essays in excess of the length specified by a particular prompt. They do this for many reasons: they assume that nobody will notice the overage, they assume that nobody will care about the overage, or they assume that if 500 words is good, 1,000 words must be twice as good. Regardless of how it’s justified, exceeding the length limit is virtually never in your interest as an applicant. Part of the challenge posed by an application essay is effectively answering the prompt within the space allotted. Even a compelling, original essay has failed that challenge if it takes 800 words when responding to a prompt that asks for no more than 500. Moreover, when reviewing two well written essays, an admissions officer will likely be more impressed by the one that adhered to the length limit than the one that exceeded it.

Bear in mind that an application essay is not a regular writing assignment. It is a test designed to assess many different things, including your ability to follow directions and respect guidelines. If you blatantly ignore a word limit, you’re showing the admissions committee that you did not read the prompt carefully or did not think the word limit mattered. Either way, your chances will not be improved by this initial impression, even if your essay is beautifully written.

If you’re struggling to keep your essay within a set amount of space, take a look at the following tips.

Wordiness. Because personal essays are almost always limited to a certain number of words, it is vital that you use the allotted space wisely. To do so, make your points in the most concise fashion possible. You may be surprised at how many words you can trim simply by reading your essay with an eye toward avoiding wordiness. Take a look at this convoluted example:

Before: Bound to a timeless, sacred covenant of marriage, Ethan is cognizant of the significance of remaining loyal to one’s wife and also of the stigma associated with maltreatment of her. Violating this code of ethics invariably results in adverse effects, as is sadly witnessed in the outcome of Ethan Frome.

After: Bound to a sacred covenant of marriage, Ethan understands what will happen to him if he is disloyal to his wife. Any violation of this code of ethics means disaster, as witnessed in the finale of Ethan Frome.

Though both excerpts say essentially the same thing, the second does so in substantially fewer words. Remember, when space is at a premium, make your points as clear and concise as possible.

Ridiculous vocabulary. Students often fall into the trap of thinking that big words make good essays. Advanced vocabulary is fine if it comes naturally to the writer, but not when used incorrectly or in an inappropriate context. In addition, an admissions representative will likely be able to tell if you’ve used a dictionary or thesaurus to fill your essay with advanced, obscure expressions. Focus on telling a clear, vivid story rather than using big words and complex constructions.

Trim the fat. Some words commonly used in application essays contribute nothing to the narrative. These extra words rob prose of energy by making language convoluted and just plain fluffy. The following words and phrases can almost always be cut from an essay.

I believe that, I feel that, I hope that, I think that, I realized that, I learned that, in other words, in order to, in fact, the fact that, it is essential that, it is important to see that, the reason why, the thing that is most important is, this is important because, this means that, the point is that, really, very, somewhat, absolutely, definitely, surely, truly, probably, practically, hopefully, in conclusion, in summary

Also look for subtle redundancies of the “X and Y” variety. A few examples are provided below. In each pair, the two words mean nearly the same thing — so why write both? Such redundancies reveal a lack of thought on the part of the writer.

Hard work and effort, teamwork and cooperation, dreams and aspirations, personal growth and development, determination and diligence, challenges and difficulties, objectives and goals, worries and concerns, love and caring, excited and eager

Focus. Remember that the essay does not need to capture everything about you. You don’t need to list every extracurricular activity on your resume, nor do you need to try and highlight your leadership, teamwork abilities, compassion, determination, diversity, and creativity all in the same piece. The essay is meant to be a snapshot of one aspect your life, not a documentary film that covers everything. Thus, stay focused on the prompt at hand. Take time to determine what specifically the essay is asking for and then craft a response that clearly responds to that main question.

If your essay is still too long even after trying these, see if a friend, professor, or EssayEdge editor can help you pinpoint areas that can be condensed or even removed. Though it may seem to you like everything in your essay is vital to its overall success, a third party will be able to provide a more objective opinion as to what is important and what is less so. Feedback can be enormously helpful when you’re struggling to shorten an admissions essay, whether you need to cut 50 words or 500.

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Ryan Hickey

Ryan Hickey is Managing Editor of Peterson's & EssayEdge and an expert in many aspects of college, graduate, and professional admissions. A graduate of Yale University, Ryan has worked in various admissions capacities for nearly a decade, including writing test-prep material for the SAT, AP exams, and TOEFL, editing essays and personal statements, and consulting directly with applicants. He enjoys sharing his knowledge to aid others in achieving their educational goals and, when he gets a break, loves hiking and fly fishing with his wife and two border-collie mixes.

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