Dropping the Long Essay: Change for the Better?

New MIT Application Will Minimize Stylization But Restrict Freedom of Choice

MIT Admissions’s recent decision to drop the long essay in favor of three short ones on the 2009–2010 application is something of a mixed bag. Like Admissions says, it could give MIT a more multifaceted and genuine picture of potential students. But at the same time, it may deny students the opportunity to write beyond a short-essay prompt and beyond a 200 word limit. Both options have their merits, and clearly, it remains to be seen how effective the new application will be.

First, there is a lot to like about the new essay format. Instead of one long, 500 word essay on one of two topics, students are prompted to essentially cover both of those topics in shorter, 200 to 250 word mini-essays. Plus, a previously optional short essay was made mandatory. Many current MIT students will remember the mix of one long and two short essays they faced on their applications — and the significantly more relaxed tone of the short essays (“Tell us about something you do simply for the pleasure of it … This isn’t a trick question.”). From an applicant’s perspective, these kinds of questions aren’t as worrisome and probably result in much less polished responses than a long, “Common Application” style essay. They force the student to respond directly and, at least from my experience, tend to elicit more honesty — which is great from an admissions perspective.

Three short essays also give Admissions more information to work with. Even by solely considering word count, assuming applicants stick to word limits, applicants will write at least 100 additional words this year. And considering essay content, three short essays require students to respond in three distinct and personal ways. This means that students are much less likely to “recycle” content from their Common Applications.

So what does a long essay have going for it? After all, they may pressure students to choose a single “paramount” character trait and expound on it for 500 words. They’re also liable to be poked, prodded, and tinkered with by parents, teachers, and application advisers. Not to mention, they’re difficult for students to write and probably difficult for admissions officers to read. So where’s the upside?

I found that MIT’s long essay allowed me to tell a story about myself. Granted, the new short essay questions that appear in this year’s application were long-essay options in previous years, but applicants may find it difficult to adequately “describe the world [they] come from” in 200 words. A question like that is much more suitable for thoughtful development, not bite-sized admissions morsels. And a more open-ended long essay also lets admissions officers see where an applicant will go when they’re given control. It may not sound nice, but allowing students to take their essay in the direction they want to could be revealing when it comes to deciding who is a good “fit” for MIT.

But as Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill ’86 pointed out in an interview for a September 18 Tech article, students still have the option of including supplemental materials, including a longer essay, if they feel it may substantially add to their application. However, there may remain the perception that “supplemental” materials may not be valued as highly as the mandatory prompts.

Besides abandoning the long essay, are there better ways to overcome excessive “stylization”? Admissions might find it worthwhile to try alternative schemes before completely breaking from the long-essay format. For example, variations in tone and style of the long-essay prompt might elicit more genuine and more meaningful responses while preserving the freedom applicants have to craft their own story. Or, students could have a choice: write one long essay, or write two shorter ones, but not both. It may turn out that applicants self-select for those who express themselves best through long essays, and others who benefit from the focused topics of the short essays.

By gathering data using alternative application formats, and principally, formats which provide choice, Admissions may be able to design an even more effective application. But regardless, it is good to see that MIT Admissions is proactive in countering the effects of an increasingly competitive college admissions environment — namely, the immense pressure on high school students to create an application that represents who they think a college wants them to be. If abandoning the long essay can demonstrably counteract that pressure, then such a change should be greeted with open arms.