FAQ Friday, Second Edition: The Essays


Hello again and happy Friday from the Office of Undergraduate Admissions. The hot topic this week that we know has been on your mind: What should you be for Halloween?? Great question. The possibilities are endless.

What’s that? You already know that you want to be the blue power ranger (good choice!) but what’s really on your mind is your application essay? I guess we can help with that, too. (And a note to our readers who are not quite application-ready: We know you’ve got questions too. I promise we’ll address some general, not-application-related questions soon.)

So. The application essay. There you are, all ready to submit your application and go about your business, except for the small matter of you versus the blinking curser. When it comes to application essays, there’s good news and bad news. The bad news is that the essay is an important part of your application. The good news? Your essay is an important part of your application! (Did you just do a cartoon double-take?) What this means is that your essays should be something that you spend some time on, because it’s your chance to show a little bit of your personality to the counselors who are reading your application. Admissions_Shannon already covered a lot of this in a post earlier this month: http://blogs.hopkins-interactive.com/blog/2012/08/the-write-stuff-essay-strategies-that-work/, and you can always read examples of previous essays that we liked on our “Essays that Worked” page: http://apply.jhu.edu/apply/essays.html. What we’re here for today are your FAQ about essays, so here goes…

You've read everything you can find about us... now we want to read about YOU!

#1. Are those, uh, word counts, like, totally set in stone, orrrr….??

We get it. By the time you’re asking this question, you’ve probably already got a 3,000-word masterpiece polished and ready to go. Good for you! There are tons of students staring at an empty page who hate you right now. Here’s the deal: the word counts are put there for a reason. Writing isn’t just about what you have to say, but how clearly and concisely you can communicate it when asked. (Do as we say and not as we do, as this “very brief” blog rambles on and on every week.) The essay form won’t cut you off, and your regional admissions counselor is not a robot programmed to self-destruct after the 500-word or 250-word limit, so don’t prematurely age yourself fretting over those last few words. BUT—and it’s a big but, which is why we made it bold and capitalized—the person reading your application has no obligation to read past the posted word limit so it’s in your best interest to get to the point quickly. In the words of John Mayer, say what you need to say, while keeping an eye on the word count limits. (Can we get #JohnMayerCollegeEssay trending on twitter? Anybody?) If you’re way over the limit and stuck on what to cut, employ your friends, family, counselors, dog, whoever, to help you whittle it down.

You'll get by with a little help from your friends...

#2 What makes an essay stand out?

Again, visit Admissions_Shannon’s excellent advice for essay writing or our Essays that Worked page for examples, but, in general, essays that are well written, interesting, and creative stand out. Essays that are heartfelt and genuine, or show a real passion for learning (or more specifically, learning at Johns Hopkins) or commitment to a social/extracurricular endeavor are memorable. Remember, the person reading your application is just that—a person. What kinds of things would stand out to you if you were reviewing essays all day? Think about that as you write your own piece. Which brings us to…

Take some time to plan out your essay. You'll be glad you did!

#3. What’s the appropriate amount of curse words in a college admissions essay?

Um. Ahem. Let us distract from the question at hand.  We’re not trying to stifle your creativity, but you should keep in mind that you’re writing for a specific audience. Things like excessive curse words, explicit descriptions of things that might make the common reader blush, etc., may not be your best choices. If you choose to talk about a controversial topic—which many students do, very successfully, every year—you should make sure your essay is constructed in a thoughtful way that reveals something about you  as a writer and as a scholar. You want your essay to be memorable because it was well written or thought-provoking, not because it made the application reader cringe. That being said, Johns Hopkins is a creative place and we have big hearts for the arts (trademark!) here, so you should feel free to get creative in the way that you’re delivering your essay. Not sure if your essay falls under “brilliantly creative” or “offensively off-putting”? Fair enough…some of the finest art in the world has gone through that dilemma. Check with your college counselor or a trusted teacher and they can help to steer you in the right direction.

To sum up: Be yourself. Be creative. And, try to stick to the listed word counts, even if you really don’t want to. Happy writing!

4 thoughts on “FAQ Friday, Second Edition: The Essays

  1. I am a bit confused about #1 (word limit). In the other blog, Admissions_Daniel says there is no JHU word limit for the Common App Essay, but #1 above sounds like strong encouragement to stay close to the 500 word limit. I realize 3,000 words is probably way out of line, but what about 800 words? Should I make an effort to cut down closer to 600?

  2. Sarah – I believe the older blog posts you are looking at are outdated and from previous years. I know Admissions_Daniel had mentioned there were no specific word counts on previous essays such as our community essay and $10 question. However, those essays no longer exist. The word limit indicated on the Common Application for the main essay is 500 words, and the limit on the Supplement for our short answers is 250. We do not count each and every word, BUT you should be around the word counts given. As Admissions_Shelly said, “Writing isn’t just about what you have to say, but how clearly and concisely you can communicate it when asked.” You may want to have a family member or friend take a look at your essay to see if you can cut it down.

  3. Hi again! Thanks a lot for your response. I was referring to Admissions_Daniel’s response to Shomik’s question in the comments section of Admissions_Shannon’s blog from August 28, 2012. The question and answer are:

    By Shomik Ghosh, August 28, 2012 @ 2:09 PM
    This was very reassuring. I have written my personal essay for the Commonapp. I see that Commonapp has a restiction of 500 words maximum. My essay is around 550 words. Chopping it up will make it lose some of its effectiveness. What’s your advice? I’d really appreciate if you let me know. Thanks in advance.

    By Admissions_Daniel, August 28, 2012 @ 2:32 PM
    @Shomik: The Johns Hopkins University Admissions Committee does not set a word count for the main essay. The Common Application may state a 500 word limit on the essay, but this is not a Johns Hopkins policy. We prefer students to write essays of length that answer the essay prompt completely and effectively. If you feel that a more than 500 word essay does that for you then under our policies you may submit such an essay.

  4. It is true. We want students to answer the essay prompt completely and effectively as Daniel mentioned, but again, as Shelly said, we are also interested in how clear and concise you can be in communicating your thoughts. Students go over the 500 word limit all the time, but usually not by a significant amount. In Shomik’s case, he was only over about 50 words, which is a pretty small amount.

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