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About this blog: I post articles to offer timely and substantive college admission guidance on important topics and issues. Originally from New York, I have a B.S. from Hunter College in NYC and advanced professional degrees from the University of...  (More)

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College Applications Go Over The Limit!

Uploaded: Oct 8, 2012
A Reader Asks:

Hi Dr. LaScala,

There is a 1,000 character limit on the Common Application for the short response. How much wiggle room is there? I have written an excellent essay which is 925 words and 1,181 characters (that includes spaces). That seems close enough but I worry that my essay will get cut off. What do you think?

~Caught Short in Danville

Dear Caught Short:

In some ways, life was easier in the days when we used a good old-fashioned typewriter to produce and send our college applications. I have a 'love-hate' relationship with technology and the response to your question below is a great example of why.

Colleges see what you see when you preview a document on your college application. It's up to you to check for accuracy, completeness, and how well the document "presents" to readers in admissions offices.

When you complete an application question online, your response is posted in an efficient variable-width typeface. But the system can only enforce a character count; it cannot measure the physical length of a response. As it turns out, all characters are not the same length. For example, the Common Application sets a 1,000 character limit asking you to "briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences." The suggested "word" limit is 150 words or fewer. But because characters are not equal in the amount of space they take up, your essay can exceed the space limitation or, alternatively, not use it fully.

A great way to test this (if you doubt me) was offered by Nancy Griesemer in an article she wrote last year. This is what she suggested: "?try typing 1000 "W's" or "M's" and paste your 'document' into the answer box on the Common Application. You'll find that all are accepted by the program. Now, press preview. What you will see is only about half of what you wrote. Next, Nancy suggested substituting 1000 "i's", press preview, and you would see all of your document plus some extra unused space. In this instance you would have space for even more characters.

The Common Application folks explain that that happens because the letters "W" and "M" take up much more space than the letter "i" so applicants must take this information into account.

Tip: The Common Application appears to allow no more than eight single lines in the 150 word short answer, even if those lines are single words and fall well within all limitations. So try to keep your respone within this single paragraph, eight line format and you should be fine.

In the Common Application, this issue also occurs in the "Extracurricular Activities and Work Experience" section. You may describe in detail all the awards and honors you received, but it's possible they will not all show up on the documents colleges actually read. Again, preview is the way to go to be sure.
If you have already hit the send button on the Common Application, you may be able to correct the problem in "alternative" versions of your electronic application. So, truthfully, you can't resend what has already been sent out, but you can make corrections for applications you send out in the future.

For those applications already sent, try not to fret. College readers can go back and retrieve your full responses, if they are inclined to take the time to do so. But I must say that this is not guaranteed to be the case.

FINAL TIP: I suggest applicants preview for what shows up on the document. If truncating occurs go back and edit. Look for extra words and tighten up your prose; skip paragraphing, if it does not hurt the flow of your short response. The main essay does need paragraphing, but don't use space by indenting. For extracurricular section, take the same steps, and use standard abbreviations whenever possible (capt. for captain, for example).

College advisor, Elizabeth LaScala, guides students and their families through the complex world of college and graduate school admissions. She develops college lists, supports college essay writing and offers tools and strategies to help students tackle each step of the admissions process with confidence and success. Elizabeth serves clients in Lafayette, Moraga and Orinda and throughout California. Visit email or call (925) 891-4491.
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