“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.