Posted on September 28, 2015

Creating Compelling Essays: Day 11- Tip 11- Choose Your Words Wisely

Every year, B-schools are cutting down on the number of essays and the word limits of essays they require their prospective students to write. What is the reason behind this changing trend? We all know that 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. Soojin Kwon, the admissions director of Michigan Ross School of Business, said it last year, “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.

By imposing strict word limits, B- schools will evaluate you for your ability to make your point concisely and succinctly without beating around the bush. Also, exceeding the word limit reflects your unwillingness to follow the guidelines.

However, following stringent word limits, and sometimes character limits (e.g. Duke’s short answer goals question of 250 characters) becomes one of the biggest challenges for applicants. Some students find it hard to figure out when to stop writing and end up writing 1000 words for an essay with a specified word limit of 400 words. On the contrary, some students limit themselves so hard that even their first drafts of a 500 words essay are 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 Do I tell my story and adhere to the word limit at the same time?”

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 get down on paper all of your ideas required for the essay prompt without worrying if the essay exceeds 100 or 200 words over the word limit. Once you have made sure that your essay addresses all parts of the question in an organized manner, you should identify areas that you think are not adding much 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.

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

With a view to- To

With regard to- About

With this in mind- Therefore

Under no circumstances- Never

Prior to that time- Before

Perform an analysis of- Analyze

Provide information about- Inform

Subsequent to- After

Is indicative of- Indicates

Reached an agreement- Agreed

At this point in time- Now

Come to the conclusion- Conclude

Despite the fact that- Although

I am of the opinion- I think

It is incumbent on me- I must

Make a decision to- Decide

In addition to- Besides

On the grounds that- Since

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:

It is evident from this example of how my prior experience as a technologist has helped me in providing solutions. (19 words)

Good Example:

Thus, my prior experience as a technologist has helped me in providing solutions.(13 words)

Now take a look at the following examples. The first one is lengthy (43 words) and the second one is the edited version (27 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, you can always tell your story effectively while staying within the word limit constraints. Follow the principle ofless is more’ and be as precise as you can.

Often my students come up with this question if it is ok to exceed the word limits by 5-10%. I tell them that even though it appears to be an accepted practice, my personal preference is to strictly follow the word limit specification. So if the essay prompt instructions specify 400 words, I would not finalize an essay with 401 words.

Stay Tuned for Tip #12 of the story development process next week.

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