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BC Admissions Responds to Common Application Word Limit

For The Heights

Published: Sunday, November 6, 2011

Updated: Wednesday, January 9, 2013 19:01


The Common Application is a term that puts fear into the hearts of high school seniors nationwide each year. If writing college essays was not already stressful enough for qualified students, a recent change in the Common Application limited the essay section of the application to only 500 words, causing panic among the nation's seniors and high school guidance counselors.

Luckily, Boston College applicants will not have to worry about this change. "The recommended range for the essay is 250 to 500 words," said John Mahoney, director of undergraduate admission. "[The Common Application] isn't going to enforce that. There is a 500 kilobyte limit to what you can upload, which may be causing some confusion." As it turns out, the 500-word limit is just a suggested guideline, and any essay of a length that translates to fewer than 500 kilobytes, a very large amount of space, will be accepted. This freedom introduces the question of whether or not students will be punished for exceeding the limit.

Mahoney cleared up this issue as well. "I want to dispel any anxiety that any BC applicant may feel for exceeding the 500-word limit by a few words or a couple hundred words," Mahoney said. "With 33,000 applications to read, we are talking about the difference of a couple seconds or a couple of minutes for the student that writes 700 words as opposed to five hundred."

Despite Mahoney's guarantee that students will not be punished for 501 words, he still offers the advice that concise writing is best. "I encourage students to be as crisp and concise as they possibly can," Mahoney said. "This will work to their advantage to put together a good statement on whatever topic they choose."

Mahoney added, "The model should be a great op-ed piece you may read in The New York Times or The Boston Globe. David Brooks is a good example. Those articles are often not much more than 500 words."

The number of words in an essay cannot be viewed as the sole defining characteristic of concise writing, however. "An 800-word essay can be clear and concise as well if the student has taken on a challenging topic," Mahoney said.

Beyond clarity and conciseness, Mahoney explained what else he looks for in an essay: "The essay is the student's one opportunity in this process to speak to an admissions office. When we see an image of a student emerge through the words, those will be the most effective essays."

To see an image of a student emerge is part of the reason why many universities choose to require a supplemental essay on top of the Common Application essay. Boston College does not require a supplemental essay. Mahoney believes that supplemental essays "contradict the spirit of the Common Application," because the Common Application was supposed to "make the process simpler.

"The ease of applying to college has flooded the applicant pool," Mahoney said. "This has created a situation where students have to apply to more colleges because admission is so unpredictable. Some students thank us because they have applied to 10 colleges and have to write separate essays for all of them."

Other applicants feel differently, however. "A fair number of students have asked us why we do not have a supplemental essay," Mahoney said. "Students have said ‘BC is my first choice, I want to do whatever I can to show my interest in the school.' We are pondering adding an optional supplemental essay."

Mahoney also offered a hint for future applicants, saying, "The supplemental essay question may be related to the mission of Boston College, and how an applicant's values and abilities relate to it."

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