With applicants for the round one deadlines putting the finishing touches on their applications, the question of how strictly applicants need to adhere to word limits is perhaps more popular than ever. MBA candidates naturally have a good deal of information they want – and need – to convey in their materials, and getting the important ideas down under restrictive word counts is a difficult task. While it might be tempting to run a bit beyond the guidelines to slip in that one extra thought, it’s important to keep the reasons for word limits in mind.
In addition to being a forum for explaining your goals and sharing your story, the essays also serve as a test of the applicant’s ability to communicate clearly and concisely, not to mention follow directions and answer a question. Because business schools and post-MBA employers place a premium on all of these elements, adhering to word counts ultimately works to the candidate’s advantage.
The other consideration is the reader’s time. Because of high application volume and the need to give every applicant fair and thorough consideration, schools are forced to limit the amount of information in each file. If you consistently extend your answers beyond the suggested limits, you are essentially asking the reader to give you more time than they are devoting to the other applicants. In other words, if you were to ignore the word limits and overshoot by 30% throughout, this might imply that you consider yourself to be 20% more interesting than everyone else who applied.
That being said, there is some leeway. For the vast majority of MBA programs, it’s generally acceptable to exceed the word limit by 10%. [Note from Anna: This post is specifically for MBA applicants. For law school applicants reading this post, you should treat word count, character count, or page length instructions in your law school applications literally. Here's why that matters in the legal world.] There are, of course, a few exceptions:
Caveat #1: If a school gives you a range (e.g. 250-750 words), you should ideally stay within that range.
Caveat #2: If a school gives you a page limit (e.g. 2 pages), you should stay within that limit – without excessive margin manipulation or font size reduction.
In terms of the other end of the length issue, it is likely unwise to consistently fall more than 10% below the word limits, as this is valuable room in which to share further information about your candidacy (and might signal a lack of effort, experience, or accomplishments).
Best of luck to all those working on their application essays!
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