Applicants always ask us how strictly they need to follow word limits in their MBA admissions essays. There’s no better source to go to than the head of admissions at HBS, Dee Leopold. He had this to say on the subject on the HBS admissions blog earlier this week:
Your essays do not get cut off if you go over the word limit. That being said, after reading many, many essays, we have a good feel for whether an essay is going over the limit. I think it’s fair to say that we expect a candidate to be able to edit effectively, but don’t stress over a few extra words.
We’re getting a lot of similar questions from recommenders wondering if their remarks are being cut short. They aren’t. We have suggested word limits for recommenders that amount to roughly a page of text; we do this to give those not familiar with writing recommendations a sense of an appropriate length of response. If your recommenders have more to say, that’s fine. Their file upload doesn’t get cut off after a single page or after a certain number of words.
While the following guideline can’t be really quantified, you want to avoid having an admissions officer think, “Hmm, this is getting pretty long.” Many consultants and applicants talk about the “10% rule,” which says that you’re fine if you don’t go over an essay’s word limit by more than 10%. While there’s nothing magical about the number 10%, we do believe this is a reasonable rule of thumb. Beyond that, and your application reader is much more likely to notice that you’re going over the limit.
Remember that going too far over the word limit not only indicates an inability to express yourself succinctly, but it also suggests a lack of respect for admissions officers’ time. What you’re writing surely is important to you, but keep in mind that admissions officers each must read hundreds and hundreds of applications every year, and they appreciate it when an applicant doesn’t waste their time (They also like it when you can lighten their day with a fun essay or a unique story, but we’ll cover that another another day!)
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