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Common App Essay Limited to 500 Words—Again

After a four-year experiment of letting applicants write essays as long as their hearts desired, Common Application is limiting essays to a 500-word maximum beginning this fall.

Common Application's board of directors recommended the word limit after receiving unanimous recommendations from its counselor-advisory committee and member-advisory committee. Both groups indicated that without a limit, essays were "far too long, less well-written, and, at the end of the day, often skimmed rather than read by admissions officers," Rob Killion, executive director of Common Application, wrote in an email announcement last week. Also, the lack of a cap was confusing to students, especially those without access to counseling.

Having a 500-word limit is returning to a policy that Common Application had for 31 years prior to lifting the maximum size four years ago.

Killion acknowledged that there is no magic number that would satisfy everyone, but colleges that want additional evidence of writing ability can still request supplements.

Common Application is a not-for-profit organization that began in 1975 with 15 schools providing a common standardized-admissions form. Today it has 463 members, with 49 new institutional members added this year. For a complete list, click here. In 2006, all members accepted the online common application. Once completed online or in print, copies of the Application for Undergraduate Admission can be sent to any number of participating colleges.

A preview of the Common Application for 2011-12 is now available here. In the essay portion, students can write on a topic of their choice for 250-500 words or choose from the following:

• Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you.
• Discuss some issue of personal, local, national, or international concern and its importance to you.
• Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you, and describe that influence.
• Describe a character in fiction, a historical figure, or a creative work (as in art, music, sciences, etc.) that has had an influence on you, and explain that influence.
• Given your personal background, describe an experience that illustrates what you would bring to the diversity in a college community or an encounter that demonstrated the importance of diversity to you.

Counselors advise high school juniors to start writing their essays in the summer before their senior year. Just because there is a cap on the number of words this year doesn't make the process necessarily easier. Indeed, crisp writing in a short space can be more of a challenge than writing a longer essay.

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