Techniques for dealing with character limits

September 29, 2006 at 4:24 pm 1 comment

Posted by Dee

As written about in yesterday’s post, “What they don’t tell you: character limits,” there is quite a predicament many students face when trying to submit their college essays through an online application. Often, despite fulfilling word limitations, the online form will still cut the essay short. To deal with these character issues, I have developed the following techniques.

First, figure out just how much you need to cut. Is it less than 30 characters? Or is it a good chunk of a paragraph? This will affect which techniques you use.

If it’s a hefty portion of the essay you need to edit, start at a macro level.

Read your essay critically, and find sentences that contribute little to your piece and cut out those superfluous phrases.

Also, combining sentences can efficiently eliminate unnecessary words. Let me give an example. “My mother is my role model. I look up to her so much and I learn so much from her each day.” First of all, I hope your essay wouldn’t be this ridiculously cheesy, but nonetheless, those two sentences had 91 characters. They could be rewritten to minimize character counts like so: “My mother, who I look up to and learn so much from each day, is my role model.” This sentence had 78 characters (and, not to mention, reads much better too). Saving 13 characters may seem petty, but remember, when applied over the entirety of the essay, it adds up. Plus, on a micro level, saving 13 characters may be all you need…

Once you bring your character overdose into the 30 character region, you can start working on a more micro level.

Now, start looking at the words. Are there unnecessary words you can cut out? For example, I tend to put prepositional phrases at the start of most of my sentences, which are, for the most part, not needed. (Like in the previous sentence, I could’ve cut out “For example,” and replaced “which are, for the most part, not needed” with “unnecessarily.” So the whole sentence could easily be cut down to “I tend to put prepositional phrases at the start of most of my sentences unnecessarily.” This would cut character counts from 128 to 87.)

Also, oftentimes, longer verbs can be replaced with shorter ones. For example, using the word ‘put’ instead of ‘placed’ cuts out three characters. Also, with verbs, certain tenses can add length. For example, instead of ‘had been playing,’ depending on the context of the sentence, ‘was playing’ could be used, and it would cut out five characters.

Also, remember that, with very few exceptions, character counts include spaces and punctuation. So, sometimes eliminating unnecessary commas is effective. If you get really desperate and the above tips still don’t do the trick, you could start using contractions. “Don’t” instead of “do not” eliminates one character. Or, you could start using symbols, which I don’t necessarily encourage. For example, “cats and dogs” could be written as “cats & dogs,” eliminating two characters. (Again, I don’t encourage this; avoid it if at all possible because it doesn’t make the writing look as professional.) One or two characters may be exactly what you need, but remember to always start broad and work your way down to a more micro level.

Overall, remember that dealing with character counts does involve a great deal of trial-and-error. You need to experiment with different possibilities to see which options reduce characters so that your essay can fit in the online application form, without gravely affecting the content, tone, or style of your writing.


Entry filed under: Character limit, College trends, Common application, Essays, Grammar, Online application, Punctuation, Tips/Tricks, Word limit, Writing.

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1 Comment Add your own

  • 1. elizabeth  |  November 30, 2006 at 4:21 pm

    Hi I just submitted my uc application yesterday and realized that I went over the word count limit by 35 words. What can I do? Will the college just cut off my essay or should I mail each campus a letter?


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