How Flexible are MBA Admissions Essay Word Limits?

One of the most common questions we get from applicants is about word limits: How strict are they? Is there any wiggle room? While the answer itself is rather straightforward, we usually 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, know this: Schools are not out to reject you for going over an essay word limit by a small amount. Okay, but what is a small amount? 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 MBA application essay, you probably are okay.

Having said that, we rarely see 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 let’s think about what admissions officers are saying when they assign a word limit to an essay. In essence, they are telling you, “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 have 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 unimportant 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 small-time issue that the uninformed applicant will ask; the latter is the kind that a smart, prepared applicant will think about.

Your business school admissions essays will work in much the same way. You do need to heed word limits, but the quality of your essay is more important than the actual length. If it does its job well, 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, “When will this end?” then you know that the essay isn’t going to help you.

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. Why that that risk?

For more business school admissions advice, take a look at our book, Your MBA Game Plan, now in its 3rd edition. And, be sure to find us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter!

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