If someone were to ask you, “Why are you doing this?” as you worked on your application essay or personal statement, you’d probably give a quick and straightforward answer: you’re writing to [hopefully] gain admission somewhere. You’re not just writing for fun, nor are you undertaking a purely creative exercise. At a root level, that’s the purpose that drives creation of every admissions essay that has ever been written. Just because you have a clear reason for writing an essay, however, does not necessarily mean that the content you’re filling it with has a similar degree of purpose. To the contrary, it’s remarkably easy to end up with an essay that includes a significant amount of content that does not really need to be there.
When I encourage applicants to, “Write with a purpose,” the suggestion is meant to be taken at a different level, specifically at the paragraph, sentence, and even individual word level. To make your writing compelling, you need to ensure each word and sentence has a purpose that is connected to your overall goal. While writing, you should constantly be taking the opportunity to step back and say, “Why am I sharing this information?” or “Does what I just wrote add something to my essay (besides length).”
Length limits are actually one of the parts of application essays that cause trouble when it comes to ensuring your writing has purpose. While many applicants struggle to keep their essays under a given limit, others worry that their essays need to be at least as long as the maximum specified. If you have 1,000 words to work with, some applicants take that to mean that a successful essay must be as close to 1,000 words as possible. Otherwise, it can feel like you are wasting space that could be used to your advantage. In reality, though, an essay that is 800 words long and full of compelling content that has a clear purpose is much better than a 1,000-word essay with 800 quality words and 200 that are simply thrown in to add length. Never feel like you need to add content just to hit a length limit. Instead, write as much as you need to to fully answer the prompt and tell the stories you want to share.
If you need a quick way to get an idea of whether something you’ve written is worth keeping in your essay or statement, ask yourself the following simple questions:
1. Is this information that is included elsewhere in your application? If so, do you really need to repeat it?
2. Is this information that shows something important about me or my experiences? If not, why are you including it?
3. Is this information relevant to your target school or program? If not, is it really strengthening your candidacy?
If you realize that you can’t clearly justify something that you’ve just written or are intending to write, it’s best to simply leave it out. If you can’t justify its inclusion to yourself, how is the admissions officer going to feel about it? Fill your essay with content that clearly contributes something to your overall story, and you’ll create an essay that is compelling beyond its words.