Admissions Tip: Word Limits and Character Counts
MBA candidates naturally have a good deal of information they want – and need – to convey in their materials, and getting the important ideas down under restrictive word counts is a difficult task. While it might be tempting to run a bit beyond the guidelines to slip in that one extra thought, it’s important to keep the reasons for these limits in mind.
In addition to being a forum for explaining your goals and sharing your story, the essays and short answers also serve as a test of the applicant’s ability to communicate clearly and concisely, not to mention follow directions and answer a question. Because business schools and post-MBA employers place a premium on all of these elements, adhering to word and character counts ultimately works to the candidate’s advantage.
Another important consideration is the reader’s time. Because of high application volume and the need to give every applicant fair and thorough consideration, schools are forced to limit the amount of information in each file. If you consistently extend your answers beyond the suggested limits, you are essentially asking the reader to give you more time than they are devoting to the other applicants. In other words, if you were to ignore the limits and overshoot by 30% throughout, this might imply that you consider yourself to be 30% more interesting than everyone else who applied – which could create concerns for your own lack of self-awareness.
That being said, there can be some leeway. For the vast majority of programs, it’s generally acceptable to exceed the word limit by 5%. There are, of course, a few exceptions:
Caveat #1: If a school gives you a range (e.g., 250-750 words), you should ideally stay within that range.
Caveat #2: If a school gives you a page limit (e.g., 2 pages), you should stay within that limit – without excessive margin manipulation or font size reduction.
Caveat #3: In the rare case that a school’s application system truncates the answer once the limit is exceeded, then it is absolutely important to remain under the limit.
In terms of the other end of the length issue, it is unwise to consistently fall more than 5% below the limits; this is valuable room in which to share further relevant information about your candidacy. By falling short, it might signal a lack of effort on your part for developing your best application, or a lack of experiences or accomplishments for you to share with the admissions committee. There is one exception to this, the schools’ optional essays. While some of these essays include word count limits, brevity is typically the rule when choosing to include additional information; the word limit should not be the target.
Beyond the long-form essays that most schools require, many programs also include what are commonly referred to as ‘short answer’ questions in their application data forms. These range from schools asking candidates to describe their post-MBA career plans in a sentence or two to broader queries about how a candidate first learned of a given MBA program. In these ‘short answers’ schools often use character limits instead of word count, and their online systems often truncate responses that run long. As such, we advise a more strict adherence to the word count or character limits associated with ‘short answers’
Best of luck to all those fine tuning their applications!
Posted in: Admissions Tips, Application Tips, Essay Tips & Advice, Essays, Feature Small, General
So you’ve taken the GMAT, you’ve lined up your recommendations, and you’re sitting down to write your business school application essays. Dreaded as they are, they’re also supremely important.
Just a few years ago, I was there too, and I remember it being a bit daunting. I wanted to go to Harvard—but no one I knew well had gone there before. I didn’t go to a prestigious private high school or Ivy League college. I also wasn’t an investment banker or a management consultant (I was an engineer). I did have good undergraduate grades and a great GMAT score—but I strongly suspect it was my essays that landed me my acceptances to both Harvard and Stanford.
There were a few key principles that helped me when I was writing my essays. And no matter what school you’re hoping for, the same strategies can help you get there, too. Here’s what to consider before you start typing.
1. Line up Your Critics
You don’t have to go through the process entirely alone. In fact, you’ll need outside perspectives—after drafting, revising, re-revising and re-re-revising, you will lose your ability to be objective. From the beginning brainstorming stages to the final read-through, you need people to sanity check what you’re writing to make sure it makes sense and is interesting.
Line up one person to be a consistent primary feedback-giver, and plan to touch base with him or her fairly regularly. You should also have two or three other people review your essays to get some different perspectives, but be careful adding more than that—getting too many differing opinions may give you feedback whiplash.
The best feedback-givers are people who have been accepted to the schools you’re applying to—they’re most familiar with the application process (and they obviously did something right). In the absence of a B-school alum, someone with good business sense and writing skills will work just fine, too.
2. Share Your Passions
In 2005, I heard Indra Nooyi, CEO of Pepsi, speak, and she said something that has stayed with me ever since: “Success is what happens when the passion for what you do outweighs the fatigue of doing it.”
Top programs are looking for passionate people—they’re more likely to be successful and, frankly, more interesting to be around. Schools want to know that you understand yourself and what you’re passionate about, that you have interesting examples of how that passion has surfaced in your life, and that you want to channel your passion to do big things after business school. (There you go, beginning, middle, and end to the “what matters most to you and why?” essay question from Stanford.)
So, tell a story about your passions. Be consistent, and be genuine. Admissions officers read thousands of essays and if you’re not authentic, they will sniff you out—if not on first read, then during the interview process.
3. Show Upward Trajectory
Like a good story, your essay should build. One strategy to do this effectively is to talk about something small that becomes bigger and better over time. (Even better if you can show that you’ve overcome obstacles to reach the bigger and better state—everyone loves an underdog.)
It’s a given that you need to illustrate how you’ve progressed professionally, but you should also show growth in your extracurricular endeavors. For example, did your weekend volunteering at a non-profit turn into you landing a board seat? If you’re passionate about mountain climbing, did you start with Mt. Rainier and then rise to the challenge of climbing Mt. Everest?
4. Illustrate Your Ability to Give Back
Business schools aren’t completely altruistic—they want to know that you’ll make their campus richer by participating in community events and taking on leadership roles in campus organizations. And because the best predictor of future behavior is past performance, it’s smart to use at least one essay to illustrate how you’ve previously given back to a community.
The best examples of charity hit on two points: they demonstrate your benevolence and also reinforce your stated passion. If you’re passionate about environmental sustainability, have you volunteered to speak to high school students on the topic? Did you lead a fundraising campaign for a preservation organization?
5. Be Concise (and Correct)
There’s absolutely no excuse for going over a word limit or making grammatical errors. Both are just plain lazy—and in some cases, might get your essay tossed in the trash without a second thought.
So, once you’re done with your applications, go back with a critical eye. Cut out all unnecessary words by using contractions (doesn’t vs. does not) and eliminating excessive adjectives (“successful” is just as effective as “very successful” and “a long, dangerous, windy path” can be shortened to “a path”). Leverage your feedback-giver to help you figure out all the places where adjectives and adverbs aren’t adding anything to your story.
And please, proofread. Multiple times. Have someone else proofread, too.
Beyond that, don’t overthink it. Pick up 65 Successful Harvard Business School Application Essays—I was impressed (and reassured) by how straightforward the essays were. After all, it’s not about showing schools something that’s never been seen before—it’s about showing them that you’re a good fit.
Want more? Ask your essay and admissions questions on Twitter @ssahney. Good luck!