Rules of Thumb for Word Limits

Two good rules of thumb when writing application essays for b-school is to 1) answer the question and 2) stick to the word limits.  If you have tried your hand yet at writing these essays, however, you have probably noticed it’s a bit difficult to hit that word limit precisely.  What's the solution?

Feeling limited in what they can say will send applicants into quite a tailspin as they tweak and edit for hours on end trying to whittle or expand that essay in order to maximize the allowable number of words. 

First thing you should know is that the word limits on applicants’ essays are rarely exact. 

I have personally read hundreds of essays, both as an admissions consultant and also as an admissions committee member for a top five business school, and again I reiterate: essays rarely hit the number on the head.   Having said that, I have also seen each year the type of applicant who finds it very important to use the exact number of allowable words, so occasionally, I will see a 400 word essay that has just that--exactly 400 words.  What you should realize is that the admissions committee is not going to be impressed by this.  In fact, they rarely even count the words in your essay.  The word limit was not invented to see if you can hit it exactly, but rather to give you a guideline for how much information to give them.  If not for guidelines, the admissions committee would receive volumes of data from over-eager candidates who want to tell their life-story.

If you are the type of person who prides herself on being exact, then by all means, craft your essays to the letter.

Know that most admissions committees, however, will agree that plus or minus 5% of the total word limit is acceptable.    While they may or may not be counting the words, they do indeed notice when essays begin to venture outside of this buffer, and you don’t want to communicate that you can’t follow instructions.

One last tip is to look at the overall word count of an application package and apply the same +/- 5% rule. 

So if you go over on one essay, try to hit or come under on another. 

Give and take is a good strategy so you are not perceived as taking advantage of the reader.  Ultimately the most important thing is to give them the information you feel is vital to a positive admissions decision, and if you do it within the buffer, you won’t call your decision making into question. 

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