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Writing College Application Essays: Succeeding with the New 500 Word Limit

The 2011 Common Application has capped the college application essay at 500 words. It can be tough to relate a story in an interesting, creative way, and keep it under 500 words. So how do you do it?

The 2011 Common Application has capped the personal essay at 500 words. In my experience, that's on the short side. It can be tough to relate a story in an interesting, creative way, and keep it under 500 words. So how do you do it?

Here are 4 Ways to Succeed with the Common App's New 500 Word Limit:

1. Know how long 500 words is. Take a look at the handout I give my students which gives a visual illustration of 500 words. You'll see:

  • It's one page.
  • It's 5 paragraphs. This is an example, so the number of paragraphs you write might vary, but not by much.

2. Think small instead of big. Don't try to tackle a big topic like world peace or what you did on your entire summer vacation; you don't have the space. Choose a shorter experience or even a moment in time that was meaningful to you and reflects something positive about you.

  • Here's an example of writing about a moment: I read a college application essay the other day by a student who worked at the checkout counter in a store. One day a customer didn't notice she had dropped some change, and the student picked it up and returned it. The customer was extremely grateful, and the student said he'd never forget the moment he understood that even a small amount of change could make a big difference to someone. Can you remember a brief moment in time when something memorable happened to you? Moments can be easily related in 500 words.

3. Never lose track of your point. Write down, in one sentence, the point of your college application essay. (For example: "I learned to trust my parents, and that every argument has two points of view.") Then:

  • Make sure you reach this goal and don't veer off course.
  • Every paragraph should direct the reader to your point. Think of  it like pouring water into a funnel. If the top of the funnel is your introduction and the spout is your conclusion, everything has to head in that direction.

 For instance:

  • The student who wrote about returning the change to the customer might have wanted to talk about what the store looked like, or the people he worked with. But that wasn't necessary to make his point. He just wrote about the customer, the dropped change, and his realization. That's all he needed for an effective, memorable - and short - essay.

4. Edit. Even if it hurts.

  • Edit out any ideas, details, or explanations that don't move you toward your point. (See #3)
  • Don't repeat your ideas.
  • Pare down your adjectives.
  • Get rid of extraneous words.

5. Don't wait until the last draft to count your words.

I'll give you more ideas for editing your college application essay in a future installment — coming soon!

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Gitela Urbas October 11, 2012 at 12:37 AM
Great advice ! The requirement creates an entirely different essay than past years. ?

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