Essay Word Count Leeway

Admissions Tip: Word Limits and Character Counts

MBA candidates naturally have a good deal of information they want – and need – to convey in their materials, and getting the important ideas down under restrictive word counts is a difficult task.  While it might be tempting to run a bit beyond the guidelines to slip in that one extra thought, it’s important to keep the reasons for these limits in mind.

In addition to being a forum for explaining your goals and sharing your story, the essays and short answers also serve as a test of the applicant’s ability to communicate clearly and concisely, not to mention follow directions and answer a question. Because business schools and post-MBA employers place a premium on all of these elements, adhering to word and character counts ultimately works to the candidate’s advantage.

Another important consideration is the reader’s time. Because of high application volume and the need to give every applicant fair and thorough consideration, schools are forced to limit the amount of information in each file. If you consistently extend your answers beyond the suggested limits, you are essentially asking the reader to give you more time than they are devoting to the other applicants.  In other words, if you were to ignore the limits and overshoot by 30% throughout, this might imply that you consider yourself to be 30% more interesting than everyone else who applied – which could create concerns for your own lack of self-awareness.

That being said, there can be some leeway. For the vast majority of programs, it’s generally acceptable to exceed the word limit by 5%. There are, of course, a few exceptions:

Caveat #1: If a school gives you a range (e.g., 250-750 words), you should ideally stay within that range.

Caveat #2: If a school gives you a page limit (e.g., 2 pages), you should stay within that limit – without excessive margin manipulation or font size reduction.

Caveat #3: In the rare case that a school’s application system truncates the answer once the limit is exceeded, then it is absolutely important to remain under the limit.

In terms of the other end of the length issue, it is unwise to consistently fall more than 5% below the limits; this is valuable room in which to share further relevant information about your candidacy.  By falling short, it might signal a lack of effort on your part for developing your best application, or a lack of experiences or accomplishments for you to share with the admissions committee.  There is one exception to this, the schools’ optional essays.  While some of these essays include word count limits, brevity is typically the rule when choosing to include additional information; the word limit should not be the target.

Beyond the long-form essays that most schools require, many programs also include what are commonly referred to as ‘short answer’ questions in their application data forms.  These range from schools asking candidates to describe their post-MBA career plans in a sentence or two to broader queries about how a candidate first learned of a given MBA program.  In these ‘short answers’ schools often use character limits instead of word count, and their online systems often truncate responses that run long.  As such, we advise a more strict adherence to the word count or character limits associated with ‘short answers’

Best of luck to all those fine tuning their applications!

Posted in: Admissions Tips, Application Tips, Essay Tips & Advice, Essays, Feature Small, General


After sharing the name for five years, I figured it was time to write about word count – not about this blog, but the number of words in a story.

You’re probably asking yourself, what’s there to know? You write your story and the little tool built into Word shows you at the bottom of the screen how many words it includes.

If only it were that simple.

It’s true that the days are gone of estimating how much you’d written by counting the words in a couple lines of type and then multiplying that by the total lines on the page or pages. I’m sure I’m showing my age by even admitting I know how to do that.

Built-in counters like the one in Word takes the guess work out of measuring word counts.

But there’s a lot more to word counts than that, including what acceptable margins are for going over or under the word count given for an assignment, and what to do if you miss your target length. Read on for more about this writing and freelancing basic.

Word count tools

If you don’t like the word counter that comes with Word, there are others. Some word-counter tools include:

  • Word Count Tool– Copy and paste your text into a box on this free, cloud-based tool to see how much you’ve written. Counts words that are entirely alphabetically and words that contain letters and numbers. Doesn’t count words that start with apostrophes, hyphens or numbers. Handy for any writing you might be doing in a non-Word program or if you’re working on a mobile devices.
  • Word Counter – Another copy and paste word-count tool. This one will also displays the top 10 keywords and keyword density of whatever you’re writing – a good thing if you’re doing SEO work.
  • WordCalc – This tool counts syllables as well as words, something that anyone writing or studying poetry would appreciate.
  • Cut and paste word counter – A Java script you can add to your website or blog to count words in a paragraph or other text.

What else to know about word counts

There’s a lot more to know about word counts than the sum total of the words you’re using.

Let’s look at some questions writers ask related to word counts:

How much can a word count be over or under and still be considered on target?

My general rule of thumb is you’re OK if you turn in an article with 5 percent fewer words to 5 percent more words than assigned. For a 500-word story, that would be 475 words to 525 words. For a 1,000-word story, that would be 950 words to 1,050 words. For a 3,000-word article, it would be 2,850 to 3, 150 words.

If you’re not sure, ask your editor. They may have their own rule of thumb on what constitutes hitting the word count.

But face it, it’s really easy to write over – at leas it is for me. So that brings up more questions.

If a story runs long, what’s better, letting an editor trim a long story, or trimming it yourself?

Always, always take the first stab at trimming a story yourself. Turning in 1,300 words for an assignment that called for 1,000 might not seem like a big deal to you. But if your editor has five 1,000-word assignments come in and they all are over by 300 words, it’s going to take a lot of extra work for him or her to trim all of them down to size while retaining all the key elements. And would you rather have an overworked editor who’s frustrated by having to make cuts to five stories in one day make trims to your well-constructed story or do it yourself?

If you trim a too-long story yourself, what’s the best way to cut?

There are a few different ways to trim a story that’s over the word count:

  • Go through line by line and tighten up the language.
  • Look at the lead: if it’s a short assignment and you used an anecdotal or “hook” style lead, is it necessary? Could you delete it and use the nut graph as the lead without changing the impact?
  • Have you used too many quotes? In short stories – and even in long ones – quotes can take up a lot of precious space. Use them sparingly, and paraphrase instead.
  • Do you have one example too many? Anecdotes and examples add color, but they also add length. As much as you love all your sources, if the piece is running long, you may need to ax one or more.
  • Here are some more suggestions: A few words about writing short.

What if you’re not sure what to trim?

If you’re unsure of what’s expendable, use brackets (as in the image at the top of this post), or Word’s Comments feature to show your editor the part or parts of an article that you would consider optional. That gives them the opportunity to read the entire story and decide for themselves if they agree with your trims or prefer to cut something else.

What if an assignment calls for 500 words and there’s no way to cover all the material the editor wants in that space?

Don’t wait until you’re filing a story to let your editor know you had trouble with the word count. Give them a heads up as soon as you realize there may be a problem. That could lead to a phone call or email exchange where you can discuss the situation in more detail. Perhaps it’s a matter of pinning down the premise of a story more precisely, which could help establish exactly what to keep and what to toss. Perhaps after hearing more about the information you’ve uncovered, your editor will OK going over the original word count. Or maybe they’ll assign a sidebar to handle some of the additional details. If you’re writing for a print publication – not as common these days – the amount of space for your story could have changed between the time it was assigned and time you’re talking, and that could affect the word count. Regardless of the situation, err in favor on contacting your editor sooner rather than later.

What if you don’t have enough to say to fill the entire word count?

This isn’t something that happens to me often (see above). But my guess is if you’re running out of words before you run out of word count, it’s because you haven’t thoroughly investigated the topic. Look back over your reporting and research: did you talk to enough sources? Did you get enough detail from the sources you talked to? Is there an avenue of the subject you could have delved into in more depth? Chances are the answer to one or more of those is “Yes” and by doing a little more digging you can come up with the additional information you need to finish the assignment.

Got a burning word count question, or have a secret for trimming extra words from a story? Let me know by leaving a comment.

Posted in Writing| Tagged calculating word count, freelancing basics, word count tools, word counts, writing basics | 3 Responses

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