Can My Common App Essay Be Over 500 Words Double Spaced

This prompt is about more than just your favorite novel. At its heart, this prompt is asking you to tell a story about your own personal development through your relationship to a work of art.


It might be tempting to choose a fancy piece of literature in order to show off your intellectual prowess. But you should not feel pressured into claiming that you’ve read Gravity’s Rainbow every summer since you were eight years old. The admissions committee is more interested in seeing that you are a thoughtful person who is capable of reflecting on how you have changed. If you can tell that story best by writing about Pokémon, Episode 70, “Go West Young Meowth,” so be it.


You might say that as a child you were mostly drawn to the flashy drawings and silly cartoons. But maybe when you saw that episode again in your high school years, you were fascinated with how it imagines that an animal might learn to speak “human language.” This might have been one piece of your growing interest in the philosophy of human-animal relations and the different ways that species communicate with each other.


Of course, not everything that we read as a child ages well. One way to approach this essay is to talk about something that you might have once loved, and perhaps still love, but has come to seem more problematic. For one example of what such an essay might look like, you might turn to Daniel Jose Ruiz’s essay on Brian Jacques’s Redwall series. For Ruiz, the fantasy world where mice and badgers were good guys and weasels and ferrets were bad guys was a place where he felt included as a child:


I felt a kinship with the badger characters. They were large, strong, a bit stubborn, with big tempers, but they were good guys and heroes. Redwall seemed to say that I could be a good guy and a hero even though I was big for my age, stubborn, and volatile.


But as Ruiz grew older and read more, parts of the Redwall books called out for critique:


You can do a pretty thorough Marxist reading of Redwall as a parable of the righteous nature of bourgeois property relations. The mice, hares, and badgers are metaphors for the inherent superiority of the ruling class, while the vermin are symbols of the degenerate nature of the proletariat.


In the real world, however, few people just decide to become bandits unless their situation dictates that this is one of the better options for survival. I can’t recall a single time where the [mice and badgers try] to establish a mutually beneficial agreement with the vermin, as opposed to occasional acts of charity that don’t address systemic issues.


However you choose to write about your changing relationship to a piece of art, your focus should be on how you and your interpretation of that work have changed over time. You do not want to get bogged down with lots of plot summary. Notice how, as you read Ruiz’s essay, no sentences are given over to just describing the plot: Every sentence weaves summary and analysis together, with constant references to his own personal story.


Finally, there is one last possibility for how you might approach this prompt that is a little bit more experimental. The prompt asks you to address how your developmental story changed the way you understand a work of art. But what if you reversed the prompt and asked how a work of art changed the way you understood your own developmental story? Perhaps a relevant essay in this vein is Ashon Crawley’s poetic meditation on Barry Jenkins’s Oscar winning 2016 film, Moonlight.


“Sometimes fiction functions to produce memory,” Crawley says, and then goes on to tell the story of how he grew through three different nicknames (Berry Berry, Cookie, and Ashon) parallel to, but not exactly the same as, the film’s main character who is known as “Little,” then “Chiron,” then “Black.”


Even if you end up structuring your essay in a more traditional manner, it is worth noting how Crawley zooms in on precise details that might have been mundane but vibrate with meaning in the force of his prose — a change in email address, a choir membership card, a Walter Hawkins song…


As you respond to Villanova’s prompt, you will not be able to tell the admissions committee every twist and turn in the story of your maturation, but your essay might become bland if you only speak in vague general terms. Ashon slices through this dilemma by focusing on precise details, little snippets from his life, that tell some, but not all, of his story. As you write, it is worth considering what little moments you might choose from your own life’s story to represent how you’ve changed.


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Read actual questions from students about the application essay and see answers and advice from college planning and admissions experts

How much of an impact can admissions essays actually make? - Susi

Probably a bigger impact than you imagine. If you are overqualified and applying to a school with a high acceptance rate, then maybe not. However, if you are like most students where you are applying to competitive schools, then your essays will make a significant difference in the number and quality of acceptance offers that you receive.

Especially for students who fall just short of a school’s admissions requirements, the essay can be your way to help the school understand why you belong in their program and how you can make a meaningful contribution. If you show passion and enthusiasm, then you can tip the scales in your favor. However, you’ll need to craft an essay that is stellar in every dimension: content, organization, tone, and writing that is free from errors.

Would it be appropriate to write a quality essay and then send copies of that same one to every college, or should I create unique essays for each college? - Amy

Each essay should be tailored to the prompt. However, schools often have similar prompts that will allow you to use the main body of your essay, or at least a few paragraphs, across multiple applications. The main pitfall we see in this situation is when applicants are trying to apply to too many schools in the hopes that casting a wide net will ensure acceptance from at least one school. Admissions officers know a generic essay when they see one, so be sure that your essays always reflect strong interest in that particular school.

I am pretty much in love with the admissions essay I wrote, but the limit is 500 words and mine is almost 600. Do you think that having an essay that is 80 words or so too long would count against me, even if it's good? - Laura

Look at the prompt again. Many schools will ask you to write an essay of ‘about’ a particular length. In that case, they’re telling you that they want you to generally stay within those bounds, but it’s not a hard rule. If the prompt gives a specific word length, then 10% over is typically okay, but remember that you’re sending a tacit message to the admissions officers that you can’t follow their guidelines. You might want to have another person look at your essay and ask what could be trimmed without losing any meaning from the essay.

For my college essay, I was thinking of writing about how a medical condition I have has affected me. But at the same time, I don't want to sound like I am trying to get sympathy from the college admissions officers. How do college admissions people feel about these types of essays? - Lisa 

That largely depends on your attitude within the essay. From the way you phrased the question, it seems that you aren’t looking to play on the admissions officers heartstrings. Overcoming a challenging medical condition can foster resilience and a more mature outlook on life. These are qualities that, in our experience, all colleges are seeking in their applicants. One potential pitfall in writing about medical conditions is making the admissions officers wonder if your medical condition will interfere with your potential for success. Therefore, be clear that either 1) you are in full recovery or 2) you know how to manage your condition. Let them see how the situation has built character and a strong sense of personal responsibility.

What do the admission office try to learn from the college essay? What kind of person you are or experiences you have gone through that has made you a better person? - Monowara

Both. In your admissions essays, write about pivotal experiences in your life. They want to see the ability to think critically about situations you have encountered and how those situations affected who you are as well as your approach to life. Show the admissions officers that you will grow from the college experience and leave college better prepared not only for a career but also to become a contributing member of society. 

What should the topic be in my essay? Would I describe my past academic achievements, sports, clubs, etc.? Or would I describe what I want to achieve throughout my four years of college and my career aspirations thereafter? - Susan

We encourage applicants to develop a mindset that they are creating a personal statement rather than an essay to the admissions committees. This should set a tone of sharing what you consider to be the most important interests you have, experiences that influence your interests or academic interests and goals for college. You do not want to write what amounts to a summary of your activities and accomplishments which you will list in other parts of the application. The best starting point to the personal statement is to decide what key personal features or characteristics you want a group of strangers to know about you. Then choose an event, a circumstance, or an activity that enables you to develop these features into a coherent story. Be relaxed, be honest, and be energetic in your writing.

What do the admission office try to learn from the college essay? What kind of person you are or experiences you have gone through that has made you a better person? - Monowara

This is a very good question that almost all students ask when it comes time to write their college applications. In a very real sense, the admissions committee wants to gain insight into the individual behind the objective information (grades, courses, test scores, GPA). What does this mean? They want to know what experiences you have had or the circumstances in which you have grown up that have shaped your values, your beliefs, your view of the world, your dreams and ambitions for your future, your commitment to hard work, and a genuine desire to learn and to live with others of different backgrounds and beliefs. So, you should write about any experiences that have influenced the factors listed above. The admissions committees are also going to learn about you from the thoughtfulness and the quality of your writing.

I heard that you can write your application essay as a poem if you're really good at poetry or not even make the essay an essay at all. Is this true? - india

Yes, you can be creative in your approach to the application. A poem is a logical way to go. Doing something very different entails some amount of risk. Some colleges do offer a "my space" section, with which you are encouraged to do anything you want, including photos, artwork, film, writing. However, for the main essay, colleges want an essay, meaning an example of your writing. Could you do it in iambic pentameter? Sure. But, don't just draw a picture.


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