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Why are Colleges Trending Toward Shorter Supplemental Essays?

The first one I noticed was Harvard, which up through last year provided students with an “optional” essay that would be uploaded in the form of a Word doc or PDF. Of course, that was a dog whistle for counselors signaling that a long essay was needed. This year, however, Harvard has replaced the long essay with five short essays up to 200 words in length. Then, it was Cornell, which shaved 300 words off its 650-word essay, leaving behind a paltry 300 word maximum. The University of Pennsylvania, similarly, now asks for mini essays instead of it’s far longer essays of years past. The examples go on and on.

Indeed, across the college spectrum, I have noticed that most colleges are now asking only for short essays, in some cases several of them, and that only a handful of colleges are still requiring a long essay. Old hold out University of Chicago still has a weird essay upload, and Georgetown is asking for a half a page single spaced.

Why the change? Well, the skeptic in me believes it has to do with college rankings. Having shorter essays means receiving more applications which, without extra seats being added, means more rejections and a lower acceptance rate—weirdly resulting in a higher ranking. It’s the old “I only want to belong to a club that I can’t get into” mentality. If it’s too easy to get in, it’s not worth going to.

Of course, the answer could be far less nefarious. For example, it could be that colleges have concluded that anything over a few hundred words is just fluff. Indeed, Dartmouth has long cherished it’s 100 word “Why Dartmouth” essay. Stanford has a long-established tradition of asking about 100 (or so it seems) short answer questions on its application.

Whatever the reason, short response essays means that you must be far more precise and expeditious in your use of language. Short essays are no less important than long ones, yet with fewer words to make your case, college research and literary precision are keys to success.

Neil Chyten, Founder

Avalon Admission