Admissions Tip: Word Limits and Character Counts
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 these limits in mind.
In addition to being a forum for explaining your goals and sharing your story, the essays and short answers 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 and character counts ultimately works to the candidate’s advantage.
Another important 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 limits and overshoot by 30% throughout, this might imply that you consider yourself to be 30% more interesting than everyone else who applied – which could create concerns for your own lack of self-awareness.
That being said, there can be some leeway. For the vast majority of programs, it’s generally acceptable to exceed the word limit by 5%. 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.
Caveat #3: In the rare case that a school’s application system truncates the answer once the limit is exceeded, then it is absolutely important to remain under the limit.
In terms of the other end of the length issue, it is unwise to consistently fall more than 5% below the limits; this is valuable room in which to share further relevant information about your candidacy. By falling short, it might signal a lack of effort on your part for developing your best application, or a lack of experiences or accomplishments for you to share with the admissions committee. There is one exception to this, the schools’ optional essays. While some of these essays include word count limits, brevity is typically the rule when choosing to include additional information; the word limit should not be the target.
Beyond the long-form essays that most schools require, many programs also include what are commonly referred to as ‘short answer’ questions in their application data forms. These range from schools asking candidates to describe their post-MBA career plans in a sentence or two to broader queries about how a candidate first learned of a given MBA program. In these ‘short answers’ schools often use character limits instead of word count, and their online systems often truncate responses that run long. As such, we advise a more strict adherence to the word count or character limits associated with ‘short answers.’
Best of luck to all those fine tuning their applications!