Many students have been questioning word limits on college admissions essay questions; they don’t know how to cut their stories without sanitizing the writing, and they wonder if the limits will be enforced.
Last week, a New York Times front-page story, “College Application Essay as Haiku? For some, 500 words Aren’t Enough,” delved into the issue, focusing on the Common Application’s new 500-word limit for the personal statement. In the story, one student complained that cutting his essay from 650 to 500 words forced him to “chop down all emotion.” Another grumbled about cutting her original 700-word essay to 500 words, saying her characters remained intact but the message was less pointed.
Nonsense; anything can be cut. We’ve been reading (and cutting) student essays for years, and we’ve never seen one weakened by the editing process. Some admissions insiders say limits are strictly enforced; others suggest a few words too many or too few will not matter. Our suggestion? Follow the directions. Answer the question within the specified word count, and you will not need to worry.
Here are five simple tips for trimming your stories without destroying content.
- Circle or highlight all adverbs. Take them out. These include many “ly” words, such as really, very, extremely, completely and absolutely.
- Look for a single word or short phrase followed by a comma. These include because of this, in fact, first, last, hopefully, to be frank, quite frankly and in conclusion. Highlight the words or phrases, then read the sentences without these words. Take out the ones that do not enhance your story.
- Delete helping verbs. Example: Replace “is going to be attending” with “will attend.”
- Delete to be verbs. Rather than saying “I am a voracious reader," try “I read voraciously.”
- Turn some nouns into verbs: “I concluded” is better than “I came to the conclusion.”
Kim Lifton and Susan Knoppw co-founded Wow Writing Workshop, which teaches a 10-step process for writing college admissions essays, scholarship essays and graduate school personal statements.