Posted on September 30, 2014

Business School Application Essays- ‘Less is More’

Since the past couple of years, B- schools have been cutting down on the number of application essays and their word limits every year. To cite an example, two years back, Ross Business School, needed the applicants to write 4 required essays (1400 words), and one optional essay. Last year, following the principle of “more is not more” Ross dropped one essay and wanted the applicants to write only three required essays (950 words) and one optional essay. This year, it has again gone on a diet and now requires only 2 essays of 400 words each. Similarly, UNC Kenna Flagler, INSEAD, and Stanford also have also dropped one required essay question this year.

What is the reason behind this changing trend? First, Admission officers have thousands of applications to review, so they don’t want to be frustrated  with essays filled with overly lengthy paragraphs or sentences that they need to read 2-3 times to make sense of. Clearly, reducing the number of essays and their word limits will ease the burden of the admission committee. In Adam Rubenfire‘s article, Want to Get Into Business School? Write Less, Talk More, the author shares a table showing how the Harvard Business School application has changed since the 2004-2005 seasons.

Secondly, B schools expect their prospective students and future business leaders to be original and innovative. According to Soojin Kwon, admissions director of Michigan Ross School of Business, “applicants increasingly tell us what they think we want to hear.  They have become quite cookie-cutter, so now they need to write just two short essays totaling 800 words. Sara Neher, assistant dean for MBA admissions at UV Darden School of Business, explains that they moved to a single essay of 500 words three years ago because they discovered “applicants were writing one essay specifically for Darden and then recycling essays from their applications to other schools.”

Furthermore, by expecting you to answer the essay questions within the stringent word limits, B schools aim to evaluate you for your ability to make your point concisely and succinctly without beating around the bush.  Also, exceeding word limit reflects your unwillingness to follow the guidelines.

However, following stringent word limits, and sometimes character limits as well (e.g. Duke’s short answer goals question of 250 characters) has undoubtedly become one of the biggest challenges for applicants.  Some students find it hard to figure out when to stop writing and end up writing over1000 words for an essay with a specified word limit of 400 words, while some students limit themselves so hard that even their first drafts of a 500 words essay is composed exactly in 500 words. With the result, they hold on to many relevant details that the school wants to know about them through that question.

So the challenge is “How can I tell my story effectively within the word limit specifications?

I always advise my students not to be daunted by word limits when brainstorming ideas/stories for their essays.  At that stage, your goal should be to put down on paper all of your ideas related to the essay prompt without fretting if the essay exceeds 100 or 200 words over the word limit. Go on a soul searching journey, reflect on your experiences/stories and choose the examples that touch upon a variety of key themes at once.  Once you have made sure that you have chosen your best story and have narrated it in an organized and engaging manner, you should identify areas that you think are not adding significant value to the story. Then go ahead and begin eliminating those details without compromising on the essential components of the story. Also, omit repetitive content (if any), and replace big phrases by shorter ones. Brevity is the key here. If you choose your words wisely, you can accomplish this feat.

Following is the list of some phrases that you can replace by their shorter equivalents:

Strategy Tips on Dealing with Word Limits

 Instead of Use
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
Is indicative of Indicates
It is incumbent on me I must
Make a decision to Decide
On the grounds that Since
Perform an analysis of Analyze
Prior to that time Before
Provide information about Inform
Reached an agreement Agreed
Subsequent to After
Under no circumstances Never
With a view to To
With regard to About
With this in mind Therefore


Let’s look at some examples:

Bad Example:

I would say that my family is the major factor which, to a large extent, led me to where I am today. (22 words)

You are the writer of this essay, so it is understood that you are voicing your opinion. So why waste 4 precious words in saying ‘I would say that?”

Good Example:

My family is the major factor which, to a large extent, led me to where I am today. (18 words)

Bad example:

When one of my best friends was placed on academic probation, I made it my personal mission to help her regain good academic standing.  I spent many hours tutoring her in chemistry and calculus, and with my support, she regained good academic standing. (43 words)

Good Example:

When one of my best friends was placed on academic probation, I spent hours tutoring her in chemistry and calculus and helped her regain good academic standing. (27 words)

To sum up, in order to be able to present your personal and professional stories in an engaging manner within the stringent word limits, you need to remember two things:

  1. Do a lot of reflection and choose your best stories/experiences to address the essay prompt.
  2.  Follow the principle of ‘less is more’ and be as precise and succinct as you can.

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