Candidates often worry about exceeding schools’ requested word limits, even by a mere word or two. Although we certainly believe that staying within the stated limits is best and advise candidates to do so, we also feel that admissions directors are rational individuals who are not unnecessarily punitive. We have a difficult time imagining that an admissions director would ever say, “We think this candidate will be the next great CEO, but he exceeded the limit by 20 words, so we don’t want him.” Basically, we recommend that candidates not exceed word limits by more than 5%, but we also suggest that applicants use good judgment and avoid exceeding them on each essay. We have certainly seen candidates get into HBS with one or two 420-word essays, even though the school’s word limits are set at 400.
We invite candidates to make case-by-case judgment calls with word limits, but we view page limits differently. We insist that our candidates stay within established page limits. When one exceeds a set word limit, this is not immediately clear, but this is certainly not the case when one exceeds a set page limit! Adding an additional page, even if only to include an extra sentence or two, sends a clear message to the admissions committee that you are disregarding the rules—something you obviously do not want to do!