Shorter and fewer essays have been an ongoing trend of business school application essays for the past few years. Every year, B- schools have been cutting down on the number of application essays and their word limits. Continuing with this trend, Stanford has reduced the word limit of two required essays from 1150 to 1050. Duke Fuqua has cut down its second essay from two pages to only 300 words. Ross has further reduced the length of its two required essays from 600 to 400 words. UCLA Anderson now asks applicants to submit a single required essay of 250 comments instead of two required questions of 300 words and 250 words each from last year.
Schools even have character limits. For example, CBS asks 'What is your immediate post-MBA professional goal?' (50 characters maximum). In mere 50 characters, including space (approximately 8 words), candidates have to mention the job they wish to have after completing MBA. To cite one specific example of this ongoing trend over the past few years, in 2012, Ross required 5 essays totaling 1700 words, and for the 2020-21 application season, Ross needs two essays of only 400 words.
Thus, the requirement for fewer essays with fewer words emphasizes the urgent need to say 'more' in 'less' for B-school application essays. To meet these difficult word limits, you need to keep your writing concise succinct.
Reasons for B Schools' Preference for Fewer Essays and Fewer Words:
There are multiple reasons for B schools' ongoing preference for fewer essays and words. First, Admission officers have thousands of applications to review, so they do not have the bandwidth to deal with heaps of overly lengthy essays. Reducing the number of essays and their word limits eases the burden of the admission committee.
Moreover, B schools aim to evaluate future business leaders for their ability to make their point concisely and succinctly without beating around the bush. It is easy to write a lengthy piece than a short one. Finally, exceeding the word limits reflects your unwillingness to follow the guidelines.
Thus, you must strategize and choose your words thoughtfully and meticulously to make each word in your essay vouch for you. To say more in few words is an art that we all can master by using some strategy tips.
Strategy #1: Do Not Worry about Word Limits When Writing Your First Draft
First and foremost - do not bother about word limits when writing your first draft. You first need to comprehend the essay prompt, reflect on it, and then begin brainstorming ideas. To generate ideas, you may use any prewriting technique that works for you (freewriting, listing questioning, mapping, or outlining).
Then begin writing without worrying about the word limits. I always advise my students not to be daunted by word limits when creating their first drafts. At this initial stage, you don't want to restrict your thought process and hold on to details crucial to your story. Your goal at this stage is to put down on paper all your ideas without fretting about the essay length. Dig deeper to reflect on your experiences and choose the examples that touch upon various key themes.
Next, once you have made sure that you have penned down all relevant details of your best story that directly address the essay prompt, organize your narrative in an engaging manner. Next, identify areas that you think are not directly related to the essay prompt and begin eliminating them.
Let's see how………….
Strategy #2: Get to the Point -Be Precise
Precision and specificity are the key requirements of MBA essays. Read the essay prompt carefully, understand what the school wants to know through this question, and provide those specific details. Avoid generic information that is unrelated to the prompt. For example, if the essay prompt is "What are you most proud of and why?" you don't need to narrate your career history and all of your accomplishments throughout your career. Instead, you will share a single achievement that makes you feel proud of yourself.
Let's look at an example:
Before: Life lesson has taught me a goal without a plan is just a wish, and the plan is first to pursue EMBA to get a solid footing. I know the journey will be tough, but I have already gone through some of the changes and survived. I am confident that I can do it again. (55 words)
In this version of a leadership essay, the writer only provides generic details about what life experiences have taught him. He doesn't provide any specific info.
Now let's look at the revised version with specific information:
After: To create a platform where teams could collaborate, I used some presentations from my MS classes to foster team learning. I started doing these presentations in front of the team during lunch hour. Gradually, these presentation sessions turned into a formal one-hour Lunch and Learn Program,' attracting more people to bring current issues for discussion. (55 words)
In this revised version, using the same number of words, the writer shares specific details about one of the initiatives he took at work and its outcome. This is far more impactful than the previous version that is filled with generic statements.
Strategy #3: Do Not Use Jargon
In their enthusiasm to showcase their technical expertise, applicants often detail their industry's technicalities and omit relevant information such as 'What were the main challenges?' 'How did you deal with the situation?' or 'How was the experience meaningful?' etc. The use of excessive jargon makes it challenging for the readers to comprehend your story and distracts them from the real story and makes the essay bulky. Please note that these technical terms/ details are comprehensible only to the people of the same industry, so we should keep the essay free of technical information.
Let's look at the example:
Before: I am currently working on a project to leverage historical buying data of the four largest advertising holding companies in the world to forecast the pricing of online media inventory and provide valuable insights to the media buyer during negotiation with publishers. The results of this project could have huge implications on how the inventory is priced in the digital marketplace, providing the holding companies with a tool to truly unlock the value of their data. Right now, different operational workflows, the absence of standards, and the fragmentation of data prevent most of the holding companies in the advertising industry from getting the true value of scale. My experience of providing solutions to such industry issues will complement the academic knowledge that I will gain through the part-time MBA program at XXX and will accelerate my career growth. (138 words)
Here the writer has described his recent project at length to explain how he will complement his skills with the knowledge he would gain from his target MBA program.
After: I am currently working on a project to leverage historical buying data of the world's four largest advertising holding companies to forecast online media inventory pricing and provide valuable insights to the media buyer during negotiation with publishers. I believe my experience of providing solutions to such industry issues will complement the academic knowledge that I will gain through the part-time MBA program at XXX and accelerate my career growth. (70 words)
This version brings down the 138 words version to only 70 words, conveying the intended message clearly and concisely.
Strategy #4: Do Not Use Quotations
I have often seen essays where the applicants used quotes of famous and distinguished people (leaders, philosophers, and scientists, etc.). It is a general perception that using quotations of eminent personalities is a powerful way to impress the readers. I, however, do not recommend using precious words to quote someone else. These essay questions about your goals, accomplishments, leadership skills and life experiences are designed to evaluate YOU to determine your 'fit' with the school. Using someone else's words, no matter how eminent that person is or was, is often a waste of valuable words. Filling precious space of 250 or 300 words essay by quoting famous people will not get you in.
Here is an example from a goals essay where the student starts his essay with a quote:
Before: "We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained." - Marie Curie
Post-MBA, I will assume a CIO role with xxx and contribute to the business strategy and development. Today, there are countless research achievements in the medical research community sitting on the shelf waiting to be realized/ for commercialization. (61 words)
In the above example, the writer starts his goals essay with a quote from a famous scientist Madam Curie and uses up 22 words in a 300 words goals essay. Also, there is a disconnect between the quote and the following statements. The second sentence provides background information related to his goal; though it is relevant, we do not have space to accommodate it.
Now let's look at the revised version:
After: My post-MBA goal is to take up the CTO role with XXX and contribute to the strategy of business development and operations. I intend to lead our startup into different industry verticals beyond entertainment by defining a varied product portfolio and expanding the customer base and geographical presence. (49 words)
In the above-revised version, the writer begins his goals essay with a direct statement about his post MBA goals and then expands on it. The final version is only 49 words but much more effective without the quotation.
Thus, quoting someone does not necessarily enhance the quality of the essay. However, if you feel that an eminent leader, philosopher, or writer's words of wisdom have played a significant role in shaping your personality, in that case, you may use it, but make sure that it supports your story effectively. The word count constraints hardly leave you an option to use up precious space by quoting someone. 'Quote' only if you MUST.
Strategy #5: Avoid Empty Adverbs
Some words that are often a part of our conversation do not add any value to our writing. We can safely omit empty words without impacting the meaning of the story. Here are some empty adverbs that you can part with to save one word.
Strategy #6: Avoid Repeating Information
Avoid repeating information. You need to strategize how you plan to use different parts of your application (short essay questions, optional essay, other essays) to present different aspects of your profile.
I will add significant value to the program. Apart from sharing my learnings from my professional experience, I am looking forward to getting engaged and contribute to community causes at XXX. In my past, I have volunteered in door-to-door visits for disease awareness campaigns in rural India. I have also been part of pet adoption, rescue, and sterilization drives. (59 words)
After: I will add significant value to the program by sharing my learnings from my professional experience and contributing to community causes. (21 words)
In the revised version, we removed the last two sentences about extracurricular activities because the writer has already detailed his ECs in one of the short answer questions in the application form. Also, we pruned the first two sentences from 31 to 21 words
Strategy #7: Minimize Descriptive Details
Descriptive details indeed paint a picture of the situation in the minds of the reader. But in these short essays of 200-250 words, such descriptions take away a big chunk of the allowed space. I would omit them or keep them to the minimum (depending on the permitted length) and focus only on the essential details. For example, Cambridge Judge's essay about a 'difficult decision you had to make' or Darden's essay of 'meaningful impact you made' or are tall orders for mere 200 words and leave no room for descriptive details of the situation. Using the STAR method (situation, task, action, result), you will give 30-40 words to each part of the story to cover and stay within 200 words. Let's look at an example of McComb's introduction essay of 250 words:
Before: You are at a social gathering with a lot of unfamiliar faces. Suddenly, you hear laughter across the room. It is the kind of joyous, infectious laughter that catches on and spreads throughout the room. Unsure of who made the joke or what the joke was, you begin laughing as well. But who is it? Who is the "ice breaker" who lightened up the atmosphere and brought a smile to everyone's faces? (72 words)
As much as I loved reading the writer's storytelling, I advised her to delete this description as it consumed 72 words of a 250 words introduction essay.
After: My name is Priya, and one of the qualities I treasure the most is my great sense of humor. My humor and high energy stem from my positive attitude that allows me to face challenges head-on. (36 words)
Here is the final version that talks about the writer's funny and cheerful demeanor in 36 words. By omitting that description, she threw a spotlight on two other personal attributes that defined her personality.
Strategy #8: Minimize the Use of Passive Voice
We always recommend using active voice for admission essays. Your experiences and accomplishments, irrespective of how impressive they are, will fail to impress the reader if they are written in a passive voice. A story narrated in a passive voice will weaken your message, making your essay impersonal.
Before: In January 2018, at TCS, when one of my colleagues was hospitalized, he had to leave in the middle of a project. Thereon, after intense discussions, it was decided that I would lead the team for the live upgrade of the biggest oil refinery on the east coast. (50 words)
The use of passive voice in this example makes it difficult for the reader to understand who decided to lead the project. Now let's look at the revised version.
After: In January 2018, at TCS, one of my colleagues left in the middle of a project due to a medical emergency. After intense discussions, I volunteered to lead the team for the live upgrade of the biggest oil refinery on the east coast. (44 words)
We saved six words and articulated that the writer volunteered to lead the team when his colleague had to leave the project.
Strategy #9: Avoid Verbosity
To be concise and succinct, we should retain only the essential elements and remove the fluff.
Before: Transcending from a descendant of a rural agricultural family to an Emergency caregiver as a cardio-& neuro-physician, and further to a President of India appointed Officer in civil services, I, for sure, have come a long way. My typical day comprises of implementing laws passed by Parliament and executing policies formulated by Cabinet. (53 words)
The first version is wordy.
After: Transcending from a rural agricultural family to an Emergency caregiver as a cardio-&neuro-physician, and further to a President of India-appointed civil servant, executing Parliamentary laws and Cabinet policies, I have come a long way. (34 words)
We pruned the 53 words version to 34 words, making it simple and concise.
More Examples of Verbosity:
Before: It is evident from this example as to how my prior experience as a technologist has helped me in providing solutions. (20 words)
After: Thus, my prior experience as a technologist has helped me in providing solutions. (13 words)
We replaced six words with just one word, 'thus', conveying the same message.
Before: The reason I am proud of this accomplishment is that (10 words)
After: I am proud of this accomplishment because (7 words)
I often see applicants filling precious space by using expressions such as 'It goes without saying,' 'needless to say.' When there is no need to say something, why say it? Also, starting the sentence with "I would say…." adds nothing to the essay. You are the writer of this essay, so the reader knows that you are voicing your opinion. So why waste four precious words in saying, 'I would say that?'
Strategy #10: Combine Two Sentences into One
We, as writers, sometimes do not realize that many a time, we can easily combine two sentences into one sentence without altering the message.
Before: Talking to Ajay Singh (GSB Class of 2021), I came to know about the various platforms available at GSB to develop my leadership skills. I also learned about GSB's various available platforms to hone leadership skills and its philosophy of 'leadership through developing others.' (45 words)
After: Talking to Ajay Singh (GSB Class of 2021), I learned about the GSB's philosophy of 'leadership through developing others and various platforms to hone my leadership skills. (27 words)
By combining two sentences into one, we saved 18 words
Strategy #11: Use Shorter Phrases
As we have seen in many examples above, we must choose our words wisely to achieve brevity by replacing longer phrases with shorter ones. We may need to edit our essay multiple times to present all aspects of the story within the allowed word boundaries. The truth is you will find more ways to express your thoughts succinctly and concisely than you can anticipate. We have compiled a list of some phrases that you can replace by their shorter equivalents.
|A number of||Several|
|An example of that is||For example|
|At this point in time||Now|
|Come to the conclusion||Conclude|
|Despite the fact that||Although|
|I am of the opinion||I think|
|In addition to||Besides|
|In the years to come||In future|
|In view of||Given|
|Is indicative of||Indicates|
|It is incumbent on me||I must|
|Make a decision to||Decide|
|Not only but also||And|
|On the grounds that||Since|
|Over a span of||Over|
|Perform an analysis of||Analyze|
|Prior to that time||Before|
|Provide information about||Inform|
|Reached an agreement||Agreed|
|Under no circumstances||Never|
|With a view to||To|
|With regard to||About|
|With this in mind||Therefore|
|Within a couple of days||Soon|
|In order to||To|
Thus, the above tips and examples illustrate that meeting rigid word limits is achievable if we choose our words wisely. Brevity is a skill that you can master by prioritizing the essential details and by editing, re-editing, and re-editing. Get to the point and follow the principle of 'less is more.' The essence of writing is rewriting, so revising and editing your essays multiple times using these strategies will help you tell your stories convincingly and compellingly, following the allowed word restrictions.
At MER, we have pruned the essays from 600 words essays to 250- 300 words without sacrificing any essential elements of their story.
Here is YouTube link to the webinar we did on meeting stringent word limits:
You may email Poonam at firstname.lastname@example.org with questions about your application. You may sign up here for a free consultation.