published : 2023-09-16

Harvard Crimson Editorial Board Raises Concerns Over Word Limit in College Applications

The board argues that limiting word count could disproportionately harm marginalized backgrounds

A photo of a diverse group of students studying together at Harvard University, taken with a Nikon D750.

The editorial board of the Harvard Crimson, the school newspaper of Harvard University, has expressed concerns about the word limit imposed on application essays. In a recent editorial, titled 'Let’s Talk About Harvard’s Brand New College Application,' the board warned that the new format could negatively impact individuals from marginalized backgrounds.

Harvard recently revamped its application process, replacing one optional open-ended essay and two optional short essays with a series of five required short essays, each limited to 200 words. The board argues that condensing discussions about formative life experiences and identities into such a strict word count could disproportionately affect applicants from marginalized backgrounds.

The board questions the equity of this change and suggests that longer essays would allow applicants, particularly those from non-traditional backgrounds, to fully elaborate on their experiences and qualifications.

A candid shot of an applicant writing their college admissions essay, showcasing their determination, taken with a Canon EOS 5D Mark IV.

Additionally, the board raises concerns about the relevance of the new mandatory prompts for certain applicants' backgrounds. One example cited is a prompt asking applicants to describe an intellectual experience that was important to them. The board argues that such a prompt seems to favor applicants from well-resourced backgrounds, as they may have had greater access to academic opportunities in high school.

The editorial board further highlights the potential significance of sharing past hardships, referring to it as 'trauma dumping.' While acknowledging the negative connotations of the term, the board suggests that disclosing past hardships can provide valuable insight into an applicant's resilience and ability to excel despite personal circumstances.

The board emphasizes that the college admissions process should be able to differentiate between those who merely list past traumas and those who demonstrate personal growth and triumph through their narratives.

An image of a person from a marginalized background confidently sharing their unique experiences in their college application, taken with a Sony Alpha a7 III.

Harvard's decision to change its supplemental essay questions in the midst of debates surrounding affirmative action presents an opportunity to reevaluate the role of 'trauma dumping' in applications.

Ultimately, the board asserts that applicants who have undergone traumatic experiences should not fear that sharing their stories will be seen as a desperate plea for admission. Instead, they argue that evaluators should recognize the strength and determination displayed by these individuals in overcoming adversity.

As the college admissions landscape continues to evolve, this discussion serves as a reminder of the ongoing efforts to create an equitable application process that considers the diverse backgrounds and life experiences of applicants.