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Editorials

Dissent: Does Length (of Writing) Really Matter?

By Ruby J.J. Huang and Joshua Ochieng
Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

In response to the Supreme Court’s curtailment of how race can be considered in college admissions, Harvard rolled out new prompts for its application essays. The format of the five new required short-essay prompts, in our opinion, is a welcome deviation from the previous format with three optional prompts about extracurriculars, “intellectual experiences,” and an open-ended supplemental essay. The Board, however, does not believe this to be the case, and on that point we disagree.

The Board’s opinion posits that longer essays give applicants from less privileged backgrounds more room to express themselves in a way that a short essay cannot. Implicit in this statement is the assertion that longer essays are somewhat “easier” to write and require less experience.

Suffice it to say, writing is an idiosyncratic process that, dependent on a myriad of factors, will require different skills from different people. For some, brevity may be necessary to get the point across, while for others, a little elaboration may drive the point home. Ergo, it is likely that applicants with similar experiences exhibit different levels of comfort writing longer versus shorter essays.

Furthermore, the Board’s discussion of whether longer forms give prospective students more agency in their applications misconstrues what lies at the heart of the issue. A comprehensive discussion of the prompts themselves is a much better approach than fixating on word limits.

The new five prompts ask applicants to talk about different aspects of themselves, from their intellectual interests, extracurriculars, and family responsibilities to their life experiences. These prompts give clear guidance on what Harvard wants to know about its applicants. For a student with limited experience in writing an application, the prompts assuage the burden of trying to determine the aspects of their life that are of interest to Harvard.

Given that the application is assessed holistically — a candidate’s academic performance, personal essay, interview, letters of recommendation, and supplemental materials are all considered — the five targeted prompts, collectively, tell with clarity the applicant's background story as one may have envisioned the open-ended long essay would. Additionally, applicants can elaborate on their experiences through the Common App optional essay should they find the word limits constricting.

At the core of the application debate lies a concern with diversity in a post-affirmative action world of higher education. To this end, the collective Board — ourselves included — share the same priorities in improving the representation of students from underprivileged backgrounds.

Unfortunately, the Board’s concerns with the length of the essays, albeit well-intentioned, are ultimately misguided. As such, we dissent. Neither the Board nor us can speak judgment to what length of essays are easy to write. That determination lies solely with the applicants.

Ruby J.J. Huang ’24, an Editorial Comp Director, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. Joshua Ochieng ’24, an Associate Editorial Editor, is an Economics concentrator in Quincy House

Dissenting Opinions: Occasionally, The Crimson Editorial Board is divided about the opinion we express in a staff editorial. In these cases, dissenting board members have the opportunity to express their opposition to staff opinion.

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