When Words Count (Against You)

Print Share on LinkedIn More

December 22, 2010; Source:  New York Times | In this age of Twitter, a lot of people pride themselves on writing short, especially their ability to never exceed the 140-character-count limit imposed by the microblogging service. But a different kind of word- and character- limitation is plaguing users of the online Common Application and the nonprofit group that created it to—at least in principle—make it easier for high school seniors to apply for college.

As the name implies, the Common Application is an admission form that those angling for a slot at a college or university can use to apply to any of 400 participating institutions.  Unfortunately, many users of the electronic version of the form – which can also be downloaded and filled out the old fashioned way – are discovering that the system is automatically truncating some of the information applicants enter online.

Rob Killion, executive director of the Common Application, acknowledges the problem, which the New York Times says sometimes cuts off text “at the margin, in midsentence or even midword.”  Common Application officials have an answer to why responses to questions are being cut off but they can’t fix the problem.  “Believe me, if there’s a way to do it, we’d do it.” said Killion.

The problem is that while the automated system tells applicants they must limit their entries to a set number of words, the program instead counts spaces and characters. Therein lies the rub—not all characters are created equal. As the Times notes, “because some letters may take up more space than others, one applicant’s 145-word essay may be too long, while another’s 157-word response may come up short.”

To help prevent embarrassing applications being submitted, applicants are supposed to review the completed forms using the preview feature before submitting.  Still, users complain that constantly reworking the entries to meet the requisite character count is not a pleasant task.  Wiley Davis, a senior at Mira Costa High in Manhattan Beach, Calif., said, “I had to do a great deal of work to get my point across without running over and cutting information.”  Anyone volunteer to tweet this story in 140-characters or less?—Bruce Trachtenberg