Skip over navigation

College Applications: Tricks to Stay Within the Word Limit

College Applications: Tricks to Stay Within the Word Limit

By Valerie Burn

Word limits! They are the worst. Here, user dreberad struggles too make her essay 500 words. Fortunately, we have some tricks for her.

Prompt: Evaluate a significant experience, achievement, risk you have taken, or ethical dilemma you have faced and its impact on you. (250 – 500 Words)

My view obscured as we descended through the clouds of humidity opening up to a landscape of red sands. This was it. The end of three months of planning and sleepless nights wrought with anxiety; soon a subtle “ding” would sound out and before the click of my unfastened buckle could be heard, there would be whoosh of bodies standing behind me, beside me, and in front of me.

Stepping over the threshold of the airplane and being herded down the staircase onto the tarmac and shuffling in to a waiting terminal bus was unexpected at best. I was too shy to ask any of the passengers where we were headed. I was sixteen and terrified that somehow I had boarded the wrong flight and would soon be stopped by the border patrol and escorted off.

I landed in September, (Springtime back home), during the Holy Month of Ramadan, the latent heat of a 50° Celsius summer still evident. It is customary for everyone to respect the fasting hours and to refrain from food and drink. Of course the first reaction anyone would have to such a custom is, to want to gulp down as much water as a camel. I still had an hour and half drives ahead of me until I would arrive in Al Ain: The Garden City of the United Arab Emirates.

I had never lived outside Johannesburg, South Africa before and had always been part of the minority. Arriving in a country where the majority of the population is expatriate instantaneously brings to mind a “Melting Pot” of cultural diversity. I began school shortly after my arrival. Walking into a new school; starting a new school year when I had just left during the third quarter of one was daunting. I was one of only four students of my nationality in my class so I would on a daily basis navigate through mishaps of miscommunication. The most evident of which was my accent.

I never had any real qualms about leaving my home and flying across a continent. I wouldn’t have been able to point out the United Arabs Emirates on an atlas. The thrill of discovery, of adventure, of uncertainty overshadowed any pragmatic desire to prepare for the Culture Shock that awaited me. Maya Angelou once said, “It is time for parents to teach young people early on that in diversity there is beauty and there is strength.” I am fortunate to have a mother who nurtured a curiosity of cultures and encouraged an interest in anthropology in me from a young age. If I had had any trepidation about leaving on my own and meeting new people of different countries, experiencing many religions and learning new languages, I wouldn’t have the perspective that I have now. The unexpected turns that my life has taken have certainly made me a more confident individual. I may not be an extrovert, but I’m not that shy sixteen year old anymore. University is yet another beckoning adventure.

The good:

  1. You have a really compelling and cool story, so you will definitely stand out.
  2. You have a great mastery on colorful, descriptive language. I was hooked from the first sentence, which is hard to do with a typical college essay.

Opportunities for improvement:

  1. I was a little lost at the beginning. I love your opening paragraph and do not think that needs to change much (I'd say "Clouds obscured my view..." rather than "My view obscured"). However, perhaps you can jump into a brief explanation of what's going on immediately after you paint your opening picture.

For example, after the first paragraph:

I was 16 years old, and leaving home for the first time in my life. I was in United Arab Emirates for [insert personal/family/whatever reason]. [Then go back to your original essay.] Stepping over the threshold of the airplane and being herded down the staircase onto the tarmac ...

2. Active voice. Sometimes your sentences get a little clunky. This is something every writer struggles with. There are competing desires to write a meaningful, interesting sentence alongside the need to be clear.

Reconsider this sentence:

I landed in September, (Springtime back home), during the Holy Month of Ramadan, the latent heat of a 50° Celsius summer still evident. It is customary for everyone to respect the fasting hours and to refrain from food and drink. Of course the first reaction anyone would have to such a custom is, to want to gulp down as much water as a camel.

Here’s a quick rewrite, taking out some words.

I landed in September, the Holy Month of Ramadan. The suffocating heat of summer lingered. Given the scorching temperature, I was tempted to greedily gulp from the nearest drinking fountain. However, during Ramadan, everyone respects the fasting hours and refrains from food and drink all day.

I only cut out 18 words, but it reads a lot smoother. Instead of using the passive voice, “it is customary for everyone to respect…” you can use an active voice. Thus, “everyone respects…” This change makes it easier to read, and also adds some action to the sentence.

Next, you do not need to be specific about the temperature – instead use one-word adjectives to convey “50 degrees Celsius summer” such as “suffocating” and “scorching.”

3. Using positive language. Using positive language can also cut down on words while increasing clarity. Instead of using two negatives, consider two positives.

Consider this, from the last paragraph:

If I had had any trepidation about leaving on my own and meeting new people of different countries, experiencing many religions and learning new languages, I wouldn’t have the perspective that I have now.

Rewrite:

One must approach leaving home and experiencing new people, religions, and languages with courage. This experience gave me enormous perspective.

Again, I only cut out 14 words, but it still conveys the same meaning. Instead of using a double-negative “If I had had any trepidation… I wouldn’t…”, use two positives: “with courage… gave me...”

4. Now that you have some more word space, consider adding a little more to the conclusion. Any college admissions officer will want to hear why you are going to school – and if possible, why this particular school.

It can be as simple as, “Moving to another country at age sixteen taught me I am capable of any major transition. Given your diverse student culture, I know [x] will be a perfect fit for me.” Or, “I now love the experience of ‘culture shock,’ and want to continue to broaden my horizons. This is why [x] school is perfect for me.”

Sparklers – what are your suggestions for our amiga dreberad? What would you to do improve the essay? What do you like about the essay?

Topics: Life, College Advisor
Tags: college, college applications, writing, college admissions, essays, college application essays, college admissions essays

Write your own comment!


Write your own comment!


About the Author
Valerie Burn

Valerie Burn is a very cool Midwestern lady. She has lived in tons of exciting places, such as Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, and Michigan. She spends her free time snuggling her beautiful, perfect dog Teddy, and reading the entire internet every day. Valerie enjoys eating things, buying things, and writing things, as well as watching terrible TV.

Wanna contact a writer or editor? Email contribute@sparknotes.com.

From Our Partners