One of the most common questions we get from applicants is, “How strict are schools about word limits in their admissions essays and personal statements?” While the answer itself is rather straightforward, we often 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, we’ll answer the question directly: Schools are not out to reject you for going over a word limit by a small amount. Okay, okay… “What’s a small amount?” you’re asking. 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 essay, you probably are okay.
Having said that, we rarely encounter 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 that we’ve covered that, let’s think about what admissions officers are saying when they assign a word limit to an essay. In essence, they’re saying, “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’ve 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 moot 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 “down in the weeds” issue that the uninformed applicant will focus on; the latter is the kind that a smart, prepared applicant will ask.
It’s sort of like watching a movie… If you don’t like a movie and it’s longer than two hours, you will probably mention the length of the movie when you tell you’re friends not to bother seeing it. “That movie was unrealistic, boring, and… way too long!” But, if it’s a great movie, the length will never come up. You won’t even notice the length; you’ll just know that you enjoyed the story and were glad that you made the journey with the main character. The movie was right-sized for the story it told.
Your admissions essays and personal statements will work in much the same way. You don’t have carte blanche — the word limit that admissions officers provide isn’t an arbitrary one — but the quality of your essay is more important than the actual length. If it does its job well (by answering the question and helping admissions officers) 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, “How much longer will this go on?” then you know that the essay missed the mark.
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.
One final note: You would be amazed at how accurately application readers can estimate an essay’s word count just from one glance. Yes, they read enough essays every year that they can tell whether you went over the word limit just by looking at the essay on the page (or, increasingly, on the screen). Around the offices here at Veritas Prep we find that we can usually guess an essay’s word count within about 25 words, just by looking at it. Admissions officers will still read your essay even if it’s long, but know that they may already start to form an opinion about you before they’ve read the first sentence!
If you’re ready to start building your own application for Ross or other top MBA programs, call us at 1-800-925-7737 and speak with an MBA admissions expert today. And, as always, be sure to find us on Facebook and Google+, and follow us on Twitter!
Hitting the Target Word Count in Your College Admission Essay
Don’t worry; even if the application calls for a word or page limit, your reader is not going to bother to count your words and hold you to a ten-word range. However, you don’t have a completely free hand either. The admissions counselors are skilled at estimating the length of your essay. If they specify “an essay of no fewer than 250 words,” they expect at least one typewritten, double-spaced page with normal fonts and margins. And if they ask for no more than two typewritten pages, they will be annoyed to receive ten. They know how to count. They do have fingers.
If you wrote the essay on a word processor, you can find out the number of words quickly. In Microsoft Word, for example, click on Tools –> Word Count for a total. If you used a typewriter, assume that one page, single-spaced, with normal fonts and margins, contains about 500 words (if double-spaced, 250 words).
If no word or page count is specified, aim for 250-500 words — long enough to show depth and short enough to hold their interest.
A normal font, such as Times New Roman or Arial, looks like the print in a book or magazine. Don’t shrink or expand the type size abnormally; the best choice is probably 12 point. A normal margin is about an inch. If you’re writing the essay on a computer, the default style of fonts and margins for your word processor is a good bet.
If the word count of your essay is off by just a few words, you’re probably okay. But if the essay is significantly longer or shorter than it should be, you’ll have to adjust. Here’s how to cut to fit and lengthen to suit.
Chopping excess words
A great way to get rid of excess words is to cut repetitive or wordy material. After that, try these tactics:
- Check the introduction and the conclusion of the essay especially carefully. A lot of repetition and unnecessary detail show up in these two spots, and many people ho and hum a bit before they get to the point. Can you pull the reader into your subject more quickly or sum up the point in fewer words?
- Look for boring details that the reader can do without. For example, if you’re writing about the fund-raising campaign that you organized to assist retired professional athletes (the people least likely to need such a campaign, by the way), you don’t need to explain exactly how you created mailing list labels. Dump that detail, but keep the part describing the celebrity auction.
- If your essay is a general survey or a “mosaic” of your experiences, trim the essay by eliminating one element. For example, if you’ve surveyed the development of your interest in grasshoppers over the course of three summers, you may want to limit yourself to two summers, with a half-sentence reference to the third summer in the introduction or conclusion.
- Hunt for any material in the essay that duplicates information available elsewhere in your application. Suppose you wrote an essay about your work on the school newspaper. Besides describing some of your big stories and the challenge of dealing with the editorial board, you included a paragraph listing all the positions you held on the paper throughout your high school career, including coffee-maker and senior advertising editor. If those positions are included in the “list your extracurricular activities” section of the application form, you may delete that paragraph from the essay. Remember, the essay should add to the committee’s understanding of your identity, not reiterate a bunch of facts.
- If you have any dialogue that may be paraphrased or summarized, you may save some space. But don’t cut all the interesting stuff!
- Consider refocusing if your essay is seriously overlong. Remember, a narrow and deep focus is better than wide and shallow. You don’t have to explain every single affect your grandmother’s existence had on your life. One or two main ideas should get your point across.
If the university accepts word-processed printouts, you may be tempted to write in a teeny-tiny font or with miniscule line spacing and margins in order to keep to the page budget. Bad idea. Some of your readers may be middle-aged, and they won’t take kindly to reminders that their reading glasses have to be strengthened again. And even if all your readers are young enough to go around bare-eyed, everyone recognizes a rip off. They will notice your tricks, and they will resent them. Follow the rules!
Adding to the essay
Usually, the problem that afflicts most essayists is excess verbiage. But from time to time applicants end up with an essay that’s below the recommended word or page count. One major rule applies to this situation:
Don’t pad. Add.
“Don’t pad” means:
- Don’t throw extra words into your sentences just to make the essay longer, as in this example:
- Original: I grew up in Brooklyn.
- Padded: Where did I grow up, you may wonder? It was in Brooklyn that I first saw the light of day and lived during my formative years.
- Don’t provide meaningless details, such as those italicized in this example:
- After I was rescued from the sinking ocean liner, I had a lovely lunch consisting of a bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. Then the president gave me a medal for heroism.
- Don’t repeat material listed elsewhere in the application. A review of all your courses or extracurriculars will not enhance an essay on the meaning of your high school experience.
How do you lengthen a too-short piece? Try these tactics:
- Add a level of thoughtfulness. Suppose that you’re writing an essay about an exchange program you participated in. Besides being exposed to new cultural experiences and a foreign language, what else happened to you? Did your world view alter? Did you appreciate your home country more upon your return? Did your career plan or life goal change? Chances are you addressed at least one of these issues in your essay, but perhaps another is also relevant.
- Add detail. If you wrote about your summer as a storyteller for the local public library, you may want to include a longer description of a typical session, including interactions with parents, discussions with the librarian about appropriate books, the children’s reactions, and so forth.
- Change a summary to a description. If your essay includes a general statement, consider changing it to specifics, as in these examples:
• Summary: The children were often mischievous but always delightful.
• Specifics: At one session a little girl nestled into my lap and stroked my hair. Only later did I find out that she had just eaten a peanut butter sandwich, most of which she left entwined in my braid. But her joy at hearing Curious George made the stickiness worthwhile.
- Expand the introduction or conclusion. Either of these two spots may contain the main idea of your essay. Are you certain you’ve given the issue the appropriate explanation? Read these sections to an impartial audience and add as needed. (But remember: Don’t repeat and don’t pad.)
- Touch upon another example. If your essay is a survey, you may want to include an additional example. Suppose that you’ve written about the affect your dad’s career has had on your character. You’ve mentioned the family’s stint in Antarctica, but you neglected to describe that awful winter at the North Pole. Bingo! You’ve got plenty of new material, all relevant to the topic of the essay.