Whenever I used to advise students on early drafts of college essays, I assured them that I didn't care about word counts. "Write it long, write it short -- I don't care," I'd tell them. "Just get your thoughts on to the page."
Often, I'd receive one of two things: a draft that was 1 percent shorter than the prescribed length, or a profuse apology for a few hundred extra words -- or even for ten extra words. It was as if they felt like they'd failed the assignment even before turning it in.
Not to worry, I assured them.
650 Easy Pieces
Writing college application essays is hard. Hundred-word "why Tufts" essays are hard, and 650-word Common Application personal statements are hard. Even some of the most accomplished students wilt when they have to write about themselves.
I imagine that students fixate on word counts because adhering to word counts is easy. As terrifyingly subjective as these essays may be -- potentially encompassing any moment from a life of 18 years; read by anonymous arbiters whose preferences are unknown -- word counts provide at least one objective measurement that can tell students when they have, or haven't, completed the assignment.
Many high school students decide that they have "finished" an essay not when they have proven their thesis or discussed an idea in depth, but rather when they have typed the requisite number of words. They write furiously, get it "done," and then hope for the best. Students don't revise as often as they should, and they subjugate the quality of their work to quantity. Meanwhile, teachers rarely demand revisions. For the most part, they grade whatever is handed in.
With college essays, the "grading scale" is unforgiving: you're either accepted or rejected. There are no A-'s. Essays have to be a student's best work. Good college essays are labored over, thought about, polished and re-polished. That's why the initial word count doesn't matter -- unless your computer blows up, you have endless opportunities to add and delete. It's no different from, say, editing a movie: to get a two-hour final cut, hundreds of hours of footage might end up on the cutting room floor.
Don't Measure, Cut As Needed
The tailor's great adage is, "measure twice, cut once." That's good advice when you're working in silk, but irrelevant when ink and paper are in abundant supply. If a writer can't get word counts out of his mind, I recommend one of two strategies:
1. Write the first draft is half as long as is recommended. On successive drafts, the writer can explain, illustrate and expand on those ideas to her heart's content.
2. Write the first draft is twice as long as is recommended. Then, the writer can refine, evaluate, pare down and prioritize.
In both cases, the real thinking takes place during the process of editing. Editing entails a deliberate process of evaluation, deliberation and decision-making, whereas "drafting" connotes a spontaneous outburst. Save the word counts for the very end of the process.
Common App Sweet Spot
While I'm on the topic, I'd like to give a shout-out to the Common App. While the Common App essay prompts and policies about revision leave much to be desired (as I've written here and here), they made the right decision by assigning a word count of 650 to the main essay and additional information sections. Six-hundred-fifty is sweet spot that enables writers to complete a thought while not letting them get carried away. (The whole point of word counts is to prevent applicants from overwhelming their readers with monstrous essays. It's a reasonable goal.)
With that said, this fixation on word counts could easily be rectified with guidelines rather than limits. I tend to think that high school seniors should be encouraged, it not expected, to think independently. If they're capable of writing 650 coherent words, then they should also be capable of deciding, within reason, when enough is enough and when too much is too much. If an essays is great at 662 words, a student shouldn't have to arbitrarily labor to get rid of 12 words.
Just that little bit of freedom can take away a ton of pressure.
Wisdom of the UCs
I'm even more fond of the University of California's approach. UC requires two essays. Neither essay has a prescribed word count, but both in combination cannot exceed 1,000 words. Both essays could be 500 words. Or one essay could be 900 and the other 100. No big deal. This approach brilliantly gives writers their autonomy while ensuring that readers don't drown in uber-long essays.
As for uber-long first drafts: that's just fine.