MIT Admissions Right to Use Shorter Essays

MIT Admissions was right to ask for more, shorter essays from its applicants in lieu of a single, long essay.

For applicants, the essays are a chance to tell MIT who they are. Essays can reveal interesting character traits that sometimes get buried among the important but repetitive activities, teacher recommendations, grades, and test scores that pepper every application.

Dean of Admissions Stuart Schmill ’86, whose staff reads those essays, said they prefer shorter essays, which are more likely to be densely packed with useful information. In contrast, when applicants must fill 500 words, each word is less precious and conveys less about the candidate. Tight word limits force applicants to forego rhetorical embellishments and focus strictly on content.

Schmill contends — and we agree — that the primary purpose of an application essay is not to be a “test” of writing ability.

To be sure, some applicants may be world-class essayists who got a chance to shine when presented with a 500-word blank page. But just as a resumé should not be written in conversational English, application essays should not be evaluated as traditional essays. They are a tool to learn as many interesting facts as possible, in a way that scales to more than ten thousand applications.

Still, if applicants really enjoy writing, this change is hardly bad news. The new format asks for 600 words over three short essays — 100 more than was required in any previous year. And prospective members of the Class of 2014 can look forward to three chances to stand out — two more than before.

Further, the 200-word essay is still an effective measure of an applicant’s ability to be concise, an important skill at an engineering school where people like to get to the point. Besides, MIT Admissions has and uses other ways to figure out whether you’re a good writer — test scores and teacher recommendations, to name two.

The “long essay” format may very well be a dated concept that is no longer an effective way to select students for a science and engineering university.

Still, we won’t really know until we hear from Admissions about their experiences with this year’s incoming class. If the office finds that multiple short essays let applicants express themselves more effectively, across more character dimensions, then this is the right change for MIT.