Category Archives: MBA Adcom

MBA essay word count: we can’t go over it. We can’t go under it. Or can we?

“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?” is a question I get a lot from clients and people who pop up on email.

To answer this, it’s essential, as always, to think about any process or task or limit in admissions from AdCom’s point of view. Put yourself in their shoes. Why do they ask for it? 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 ask incessantly: “Please Miss, how long must it be?” Second, some applicants would write the great American novel, which would waste 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 the applicant via their writing, and everyone knows that writing is a creative process and certainly nobody expects you to hit the word count on the nail. This is not engineering or accounting. (Believe it or not, some clients fuss the word count until they have exactly the number asked for, taking touching comfort in a detail that will provide them absolutely no refuge.) 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. In fact, Stanford GSB explicitly allows this: its guidance is both per essay and for the essay set as a whole (1,800 words), so you are invited to trade off between essays as you see fit. How well you do this is, by the way, a test of your communications judgment.

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 strongly in “say what you have to say; say it once, strongly and clearly and then stop talking.” This is the royal road to more powerful communications. Certainly there’s no merit in padding, wafffling, and repeating yourself. But admissions essays are relatively short pieces of writing, and you — if you merit a place at a top b-school — are a multifaceted, talented individual with an valuable track record, and if you can’t find things to say to take up the word count this in itself flags that you have not been able to (or haven’t bothered to) properly investigate your own motivations or fully argue your merits.

‘Blink’ in MBA essays, resumes, interviews, and emails to Adcom

“Blink,” by New Yorker writer and celebrity author Malcolm Gladwell (Little, Brown & Co, 2005), is a book about first impressions, the first few seconds during which we appraise information and make instant judgments. Gladwell says these conclusions oftentimes produce better, more accurate, conclusions than those made by way of exhaustive analysis. One example he gives is of an art dealer who looked at an antique sculpture and just “knew” it was a forgery–and was right–well ahead of the subsequent analysis to prove this, which would take months or years. When people talk about “love at first sight” or “you never get a second chance to make a first impression,” they are talking about the Blink factor.

Michael LeGault came out with a rebuttal – “Think!: Why Crucial Decisions Can’t Be Made in the Blink of an Eye,” and the jury is certainly still out on whether “Blinking” provides a better basis for decision-making than formal analysis. But the point is it certainly provides, in every situation, an ever-present alternative basis for decision-making (whether the decision-maker is aware of it or not).

The implication for MBA admissions is that, while b-school Adcoms everywhere would assert that they rigorously analyze the strengths and weaknesses of each candidate–and they certainly do–there is also considerable “Blink” involved in how they choose one over the other. Note that Adcom essay readers and committee members are not seeking to make an impressionistic judgment. In fact the opposite is true. But they will be picking up impressions at every turn. After all, they have to make a big decision, fairly quickly, about a complex situation (you and your future prospects) and they don’t actually have that much formal stuff to go on.

So, the Blink factor counts for a lot in MBA admissions, and before Adcom even gets to fully considering an applicant’s grades and scores, performance metrics, and work history, they will have formed an impression from the first things they see. It’s hard to know what they will see first of course, but very often it will be the file data and/or resume. An impression or “instinct” will form almost immediately and build through the course of considering your application, as they continue to absorb first impressions about each part of it–the essays, particularly their erudition and tone; the tone and warmth of recommendations and interview report, and so on. (The interview itself is of course another “Blink” decision situation.)

Note that this is all the fuzzy stuff of “tone” and “impression” that often cannot exactly be backed up with data. But it is crucial, and this is the way the admissions committee will get its working impression of your personality, motivation, determination, charisma, team orientation, and overall prospects, all of which will precede and then run in parallel with their more formal analysis.

Managing the Blink:

The best way to deal with Blink is to realize it is there, and always will be, and provide ways for admissions officers to use this mode in judging you. Expecting snap judgments about your motivation, take care that everything you submit is carefully checked and complete. Expecting snap judgments about your pre-MBA work experience, take care to get the highlights high up in the essay. Expecting snap judgments about your professionalism, take care that any correspondence you enter into (by phone or email) is scrupulously professional, and so on. In general you should play to the impression mode first, and follow this with data and detail that corroborates the impression.

Getting distinctiveness into your MBA application even if you think you have none

One of the biggest problems I have as an MBA admissions adviser – friend, coach, confidant, drill sergeant, etc., to applicants trying to crack top-tier schools – is explaining to clients that “good is nice, great is nicer,” but neither will get you into a top-tier MBA program. Only “good + special” will get you in.

Everyone knows that there are far fewer places than excellent candidates, but not everyone understands the implication of this, which is that the standard “good profile” application is more likely to fail than succeed. I do ding analyses: often there is something clear to point to, but often there is not. I’m left saying “there was no juice,” and I don’t mean this as a carry-all cop-out. What I mean is – putting it another way – the applicant has provided reasons for Adcom not to reject them, covering all bases, saying the right things, but has not given Adcom a compelling reason to say yes.

Easier said than done. What if there is no specialness (distinctiveness) there? “I haven’t done anything that special,” they will say. “I have not won Olympic medals; never hot-air ballooned over the Atlantic; not pulled anyone from a burning car …”

I won’t kid you – it’s great if you’ve done something memorable like this. But there are two types of specialness. Specialness of what you have achieved AND specialness of who you are. Not everyone has the first type in their bag, but everyone can have the second.

Here are examples of the second type:

1. Distinctiveness of insight, self-reflection, and self-understanding. Unfortunately (but fortunately for you, dear applicant) it appears these days that it takes a special person to be willing to reflect on their path, their roles, their identity, their motivations. But this is exactly what Adcom wants of you. That’s why they ask complex, motivational questions. The quality of genuine self-reflection is so unique among 20-something-year-olds (and so highly correlated with real leadership ability) that if you can do it right, you’ll be special just for this.

Note: doing it right means being open and honest, but also circumspect, professional, to-the-point, and focused on the essay question using practical examples and stories. It does not mean wallowing self-indulgently as if your essays were for the Agony Aunt magazine column or your personal diary.

2. Specialness of communication. Writing and (in the interview) speaking is the basis of your interaction with Adcom. Words are your tools. You do not need to be a fancy creative writing major to write a wonderful MBA admissions essay, but there are basic tools of storytelling and essay building that make a piece of text stand out. Be aware how much turgid, timid, repetitive prose your Adcom reader has to wade through. Getting your point across in a bright, clear, and organized way will make you stand out. (More about the how of this to come in future posts, and in my MBA Admissions Strategy book.)

3. Specialness of direction and goals. You can’t change your past. You should present it in the best light, but for better or worse, it’s set. Your future is ahead of you. It can be anything — you can make any claim, within reason. It is a “free hit ” in the sense that you are pretty much invited to distinguish yourself from the crowd through the extent of your ambition, and the relevance, interest, and worthiness of your career path.