What an Essay Word Limit Really Means

You have spent considerable time collecting valuable work experience since college and even more time reflecting back on this experience as you prepare to apply to business school, possibly even making notes or an outline on how you plan to ideally relate your story to the admissions committees.

Now that the essay questions have been released, your stomach sinks as you see your target school has put a 250 character limit on describing your post MBA goals, or a 400 word limit on explaining why you want to go to their school.  Worse yet, your aspirations for Harvard Business School begin to wane as you see their one essay this year has no posted word limit —is this a trick?

Word limits on essays have always been the bane of applicants everywhere, but it is important to remember the purpose of the word limits before diving in.  The word limit is not there to try and catch someone going over the count by a sentence or two, and although the admissions committees want to get to know you through the application as thoroughly as possible, years of reading essays has demonstrated a need for them to put some kind of guideline out there lest they receive novellas from hopeful applicants who do not know the meaning of the word restraint.   So what does a word limit really mean?  It means you now have a guideline straight from the committee itself in which to govern the amount of information you give them.  And in doing so, you are communicating more than just the story on the page.  If you leave it short, they will see you as possibly not having enough to say and therefore in need of another year or two of experience.  If you go too long, they may view you as someone who is lacking in communication skills or worse yet, has poor judgment or thinks rules do not apply to them.  So you see how the subtext can be just as important as the text itself.

So what do you do if you simply can’t seem to cram your story into the required word limit?  One method is to take advantage of the “optional essay,” where many schools give you a bit of extra space to communicate something you wish they had asked you about or something you feel is pertinent to their decision on your admission that you just couldn’t fit into the main essays.

And about that Harvard essay…remember that HBS has a long history of challenging applicants both in the classroom and in the admissions process.  Their stingy word limits are notorious, so to have no restriction on this year’s essay at first blush may seem out of character.  Keeping their history in mind, however, an applicant would fare well to continue the tradition of economy on the application and try to limit the essay to one typed page, or under 1000 words in my view (which is roughly the number of words they have allowed in the past under the multiple essay system).  What you should write about in that one page is an entirely different topic.

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Scott Bryant has over 25 years of professional post undergraduate experience in the entertainment industry as well as on Wall Street with Goldman Sachs. He served on the admissions committee at the Fuqua School of Business where he received his MBA and now works part time in retirement for a top tier business school. He has been consulting with Veritas Prep clients for the past six admissions seasons.

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