For the common application essay, it is clear that students should write no more than 650 words. This is stated on the application and the common application will not allow students to submit even one word more. This makes it simple. But, in reviewing and editing student essays, you will often see two other options: those with no word limit and those with very, very low word limits (often seem as character counts: “no more than 100 characters, spaces included). Here are suggestions for approaching these.
No word limit essays
For these, one should use the usual maximum limit for undergraduate essays, which is 650 words, aiming for 500-650 words. Under that you may not be developing your answer enough and also, you might appear to show less effort. More than that and the essay often becomes redundant or tiresome for the reader. Your admissions reader is just reading essay after essay during application season; the last thing they want is to have to read your 1000 words where you make the same arguments over and over. With essays that are longer, it is always important to create an outline before starting to write, so that there is a logical flow of idea (and so that things are in a chronological order because most non-native English speakers will have difficulty with time shifts in their essays).
Short answer essays
Sometimes, students may be tempted to answer simple, short word limit questions with just a few words. For example, the University of Southern California has short answer questions that are limited to 100 characters. One such example is “What is the name of your favorite book?” Easily, a student can just share the title of the book but more often than not, it will be much less than the allowed 100 characters. To shed a little more light on your choice in helping the reader understand your choice (and because you have more space), a student can also consider adding a brief reason for why they chose this book. Unless explicitly told not to do so, you have 100 characters to use.
Final quick tips
For longer essays, always avoid contractions and abbreviations; for shorter essays (such as 250 word limit), it is ok (though not always preferable) to use contractions if you have no other choice. For the most part, though, contractions can (and should) be avoided because they make an essay writer seem less formal. Watch your punctuation and do not overly use semicolons, colons and hyphens. Outlines are important to help with logic in an essay and to, much more importantly, avoid redundancy. Spelling errors should be avoided at all costs. It is not hard to run a spell check (one common, and deadly, mistake I actually see is the misspelling of a school’s name!). For the essays with very short word counts, take advantage of all the space you have to showcase something new and interesting about you. Finally, be unique. Saying a challenge you have faced to your academics has been being an international student or learning a new language is not original at all. Saying the community you belong to is the international or Chinese student community is commonplace. You must write about something that makes you different from the other Chinese international students. Be original!