Truncate: transitive verb; 1) to shorten by or as if by cutting off; 2) to abbreviate, abridge, curtail, or cut back.
When I was in high school, I lived by the essay-writing philosophy that “More was better.” If a teacher asked for a five-page paper, I wrote ten, proving that my interest in the subject was deep and thorough. A paper that was to be “ten pages or more” became a 15 to 20 page tome. “Be sure to document with five or more sources:” I provided a full page of references to books and articles (No URLS in those days, either). It always worked.
However, things change. In my freshman year of college, I took a course called “The Comic and Satiric Tradition.” My professor assigned the first paper with what I assumed was a suggested length of three pages. Three pages? I had written introductions that were longer. I lovingly crafted a seven-page paper, worried that I hadn’t covered the topic as thoroughly as I should have.
And then, the truncation.
The professor collected the papers. He took the first one in his hands, counted the pages aloud: “One, two, three…,” ripped the remaining pages from their staples, and threw them into the trash can.
Faces pale, stomachs churning, my classmates and I watched in horror as he truncated every paper in the pile. And when he finished, he said, in an appropriately satirical voice, “When I say three pages, I mean three pages.”
We learned quickly that, at least in his class, we would adhere to the page limit.
The college application process has undergone incredible transformations over the decades, moving from handwritten to typewritten statements, emailed Word documents, and now, in an effort to avoid the waste of paper and to streamline the process, applicants upload their essays directly onto an online application. There are word counts and character counts – with and without spaces. Some questions require you to fill in blanks with no more than 20 words. And if you don’t, your words are…truncated.
For many years, the directions for the personal statement on the Common Application suggested “250 words or more.” More could mean 275, 500, 800, or 1000 words. Applicants gloried in the stories of their lives, ethical dilemmas, role models, fictional characters, the importance of diversity, and of course, the “topic of your choice.” One student recently emailed me a document that was 25 pages long.
This year, although the topics have not changed, the word length has. The personal statement is expected to be 250 to 500 words. If you upload a lovely 700-word essay, it will be truncated in the middle of a word in the fifth paragraph. No mercy. RIP to the rest.
So now that brevity truly is required to be the “soul of wit,” you’ll need to adhere to those word and character limits!