How Strictly Must I Stick To The Word Limit On MBA Admissions Essays?

Here’s a question I get a lot from clients: “How strictly do I have to stick to the essay word limit? How much can I go over? Does it matter if I’m under?”

To answer this, it is essential–as always–to think about it from the MBA AdCom’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. Why do they set a word limit? What are they trying to achieve? How does it help them?

So, what is AdCom trying to do with word limits? First, if there were no limits, applicants would be emailing and incessantly asking the equivalent of: “Please Miss, how long must it be?”

Second, some applicants would write the great American novel, which would waste both their time and the Committee’s.

Third, limits provide a way of getting essays from different applicants to be more directly comparable, being the same length.

But there is play in the system. The purpose of the essays is to get to know you via your writing, and everyone knows that writing is a creative process. Certainly nobody expects you to hit the word count on the nail.

Note: don’t fuss the word count until they have exactly the number asked for. This is not an engineering or accounting task. You get no credit for being exact. You only get credit for a meaningful essay, well told.

Anyway, application forms often talk about a word “guide” rather than word “limit.” So you can clearly go a bit over, but by how much?

My advice to clients is not to go more than +5% in any essay. This kind of margin is a natural “rounding error” in finishing up what you have to say and will not hurt you if your reader is a reasonable person, which we assume she is.

More than this will start to look like you are taking advantage and/or asking for an indulgence that your competitors are not getting.

However if you write a number of essays that are noticeably short it is fine to have one or two that are commensurately longer, so that the whole comes out more or less right.

Can you go under the limit? Similarly, I advise clients not to go less than -5% on any essay. In one sense, like all professional communicators, I believe in: “say what you have to say; say it once, strongly and clearly, then stop talking.”

This is the royal road to more powerful communications. Certainly there’s no merit in padding, waffling, or repeating yourself.

But admissions essays are relatively short pieces of writing, and — if you merit a place at a top b-school — you are a multifaceted, talented individual with a valuable track record.

So if you can’t find enough  to say to take up the word count, this in itself flags that you have not bothered to (or been able to) fully investigate your own motivations or present your merits.

MBA Admissions Optional Essay: To Do Or Not To Do?

As I look across my clients pushing their MBA essays for Round 2 deadlines, one common question I get is “should I use the optional essay?” (The add-on question at the end of the set, that basically says: ‘If there’s something else you’d like say, say it here.’)

So do you use it, yes or no? And if yes, what should you be talking about?

Traditionally this essay has been the place to mention and mitigate weaknesses. If your work history has been a little choppy, or your GPA a bit up-and-down, or similar, here is where you get credit by (a) ‘fessing up in advance of being ‘found out’ (Adcom sees all, so better to get in ahead of it) and (b) giving your explanation.

In this sense, the optional essay is not ‘optional’ if you have a weakness in your profile. If you have a gap in your employment history, or an ‘F’ on your record, or any such item that is not addressed elsewhere, it MUST be addressed here.

Use of the optional essay should be short and didactic. This is not the place to get poetic. Reveal the problem; make the most of the steps you took and/or are taking to ameliorate it, and stop writing. You don’t need to use the full length in this essay.

MBA admissions death comes to you via this essay if you name the problem but then find ways to excuse yourself or blame others. The admissions test is: can you take responsibility for your own mistakes? If yes, your application goes forward. If no, you’re dinged.

But, here’s the rider in choosing to use the essay or not: if you don’t have a good explanation for a problem, better to say nothing. In other words, if your salary is low in comparison with the applicant pool because you are working in a non-profit environment, that’s worth a mention. If your salary is low because you haven’t been promoted in 4 years, better to say nothing than draw attention to it.

All this, above, applies when you have a weakness or irregularity that demands discussion. But how about if you don’t? Can you use the optional essay to add another story, to tell Adcom a bit more about you, and make one final push for admission?

Traditional MBA admissions thinking says don’t use the optional essay in this way. It looks under-confident and can be interpreted as overreaching. But times change. And current practice seems to accept that if you have a positive point that is additional and special, that the admissions committee needs to know to have a genuinely better understanding of you, then you should put it down here.

Whatever you do, don’t use the essay to provide a summary of your application, just in case Adcom isn’t smart enough to have gotten it the first time you said it. What happens if you do that? I know you know… ding.

10 Ways To Win The Game Of MBA Fairs

MBA fairs are events where many business schools are present in one place, each at a school-branded stall or booth, ready to interact with and provide information to prospective applicants.

How should you, the applicant, navigate these events? Here’s a 10-point guide:

1. Know why you are there. You are there to find out information about schools that is *not* on their Website. You want to be asking questions that will fill out your knowledge of the institution and the program, so that you can make good decisions where to apply. Some of what you learn should also be useful in your MBA admissions essays.

2. Know why they are there. The schools pay large sums to attend, and their goal is to promote their school brand and get the best set of applicants. They also want to provide enough information about their timelines so the good potential candidates get themselves into the process on time (including getting visas, etc.)

3. Be realistic about how many potential applicants any school rep will see in a day. That is, hundreds. That means no, he or she very likely will not remember you when you apply. But you may reference a conversation you had at the booth in your MBA essay.

4. Keep a savvy distinction in your head between a school rep and the admissions committee. It’s possible but unlikely that anyone from Adcom is at the booth.

5. Knowing your’e not talking to Adcom, and that the rep won’t particularly remember you, you can relax. This is not the time or place to sell yourself. Ask questions. Find out as much as you can. That’s what you’re there for and all that matters. If you are simply yourself it’s not going to harm your chances in any way. (For the same reason, there’s no need to dress up for an MBA Fair. Dress normally. And wear comfortable shoes!)

6. Knowing the school rep you’re talking to doesn’t make any admissions decisions –not even the first cut– also means there’s no point in monopolizing their time. Find out what you need and move on. Play nice for others who may be waiting.

7. Depending on your style, it’s worth having a planned route. You will have a good idea of the schools you want to talk to, and with a floor plan you can cover your ground in the most efficient way. But don’t shut out serendipity. Part of the benefit of an MBA admissions fair is discovery of the hidden gem.

8. Quality of engagement is more important than quantity. Having had a handful of significant chats with school reps is more valuable than saying hello and picking up the marketing material from 20 booths.

9. Go early. You want to catch the reps when they are fresh and when they have relatively more time for you.

10. Keep it professional. You’ll share some of your back-story and motivation in a decent conversation with a school rep, but you should remain at a business-like level. Your time at the booth can’t get you admitted, but it could circumscribe your chances.

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