Admissions 101: What an Essay Word Limit Really Means

One of the most common questions we get from applicants is, “How strict are schools about word limits in their admissions essays and personal statements?” While the answer itself is rather straightforward, we often encourage applicants to stop focusing on the number, take a step back, and consider what admissions officers are really communicating when they put forward a word limit.

First, we’ll answer the question directly: Schools are not out to reject you for going over a word limit by a small amount. Okay, okay… “What’s a small amount?” you’re asking. One rule of thumb that is frequently tossed around is 10%, although it’s worth noting that admissions consultants tend to promote this rule more than any admissions officer does. However, if you can stay within 10% of the word limit for an essay, you probably are okay.

Having said that, we rarely encounter an essay that we don’t think can get down to the word limit. This is where an extra pair of eyes can be extremely helpful; someone else can look at your essay and give you an objective point of view about which details are truly necessary and which ones can be left on the cutting room floor. But, if the limit is 500 words and you’re at 530, then your time may be better spent on things other than trying to hack another 30 words from your essay.

Now that we’ve covered that, let’s think about what admissions officers are saying when they assign a word limit to an essay. In essence, they’re saying, “After reviewing thousands of applications, we’re very confident that you can thoroughly answer this question in this many words.” Even though you know yourself far better than the admissions officers do, they know the process very well, and they’ve heard it all. They really do want to get to know you well, but they only have so much capacity, so they need their applicants to communicate their stories as efficiently as possible.

As an applicant, if you know this and understand the challenge that admissions officers face, then that’s what will guide your decision. Questions such as “Is 525 words more okay than 535 words?” suddenly seem moot compared to “Is an admissions officer going to feel like I wasted her time when she’s done with my essays?” The former question is the kind of “down in the weeds” issue that the uninformed applicant will focus on; the latter is the kind that a smart, prepared applicant will ask.

It’s sort of like watching a movie… If you don’t like a movie and it’s longer than two hours, you will probably mention the length of the movie when you tell you’re friends not to bother seeing it. “That movie was unrealistic, boring, and… way too long!” But, if it’s a great movie, the length will never come up. You won’t even notice the length; you’ll just know that you enjoyed the story and were glad that you made the journey with the main character. The movie was right-sized for the story it told.

Your admissions essays and personal statements will work in much the same way. You don’t have carte blanche — the word limit that admissions officers provide isn’t an arbitrary one — but the quality of your essay is more important than the actual length. If it does its job well (by answering the question and helping admissions officers) then admissions officers won’t think about the word limit nearly as much as the content. On the other hand, if they’re halfway through your essay and they’re already thinking to themselves, “How much longer will this go on?” then you know that the essay missed the mark.

Again, having excellent content does not allow you to flagrantly disregard word limits. We’re saying that admissions officers, based on their considerable experience, know how long an essay needs to be to be great. A shorter essay can also be great, and so can a longer one, but one that is too long risks boring or annoying tired application readers.

One final note: You would be amazed at how accurately application readers can estimate an essay’s word count just from one glance. Yes, they read enough essays every year that they can tell whether you went over the word limit just by looking at the essay on the page (or, increasingly, on the screen). Around the offices here at Veritas Prep we find that we can usually guess an essay’s word count within about 25 words, just by looking at it. Admissions officers will still read your essay even if it’s long, but know that they may already start to form an opinion about you before they’ve read the first sentence!

If you’re ready to start building your own application for Ross or other top MBA programs, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!

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