It’s the first day of class at HBS. You are in Aldrich Hall meeting your “section.” This is the group of 90 classmates who will become your close companions in the first-year MBA classroom. Our signature case method participant-based learning model ensures that you will get to know each other very well. The bonds you collectively create throughout this shared experience will be lasting. Many of may be wondering, “So…what is the word limit?!” Just like last year, there is no word limit for the HBS essay prompt. But that doesn’t mean you should go crazy and submit a 10-page essay that chronicles your life from birth until the present moment. Because it can be very stressful to figure out how long an essay without a word limit should be, I wanted to go ahead and give some guidance on what I believe is a reasonable length for the essay.
Why is there no word limit for the HBS essay?I’m not sure why HBS has decided not to include a word limit, but I have some ideas. Sometimes, people get overly attached to the word limit and try to write an essay that is exactly the word limit, thinking that “word limit” somehow means “exact word count.” Secondly, it’s a great way to weed out people with poor judgment. If you submit an essay that is far too short or far too long, it shows a lack of self-awareness and a lack of consideration for the reader (when it’s too long) and lack of consideration of the seriousness of the task at hand (when it’s too short).
What length is too short for an HBS essay?I’ve read hundreds—if not thousands—of admissions essays so I have a pretty strong sense of what is too short and too long. I also draw conclusions based on other parts of the application or on other school’s applications. Considering that the joint degree essay that joint degree applicants to HBS have to write has a 400-word limit, I would say anything shorter than 400 words is a bit too short for your main HBS essay. Does that mean that there won’t be a few people whose amazing 350-word introduction to their section wows the admissions committee? No, it doesn’t. In a class of 900+, there will surely be some outliers and wild cards. However, unless you strongly think you are one of those outliers or wildcards, I suggest writing at least 400 words in your HBS admissions essay.
What length is too long for the HBS essay?I’ve never seen a top graduate school have a word limit that is more than 1200 words in the 5+ years I’ve been in business and in the 10 years (I can’t believe it’s been ten years!) since I applied to business school. Therefore, I would say that an essay that is 1200 words or over is approaching the territory of being too long. It’s imperative that applicants understand that a longer essay does not equal a better essay. In fact, I often find myself getting bored and impatient once an essay starts to cross the 1000-word mark. My legs starts to shake and I’m thinking, “Okay, so what is the point? Get to the point!” The admissions committee has to collectively read and evaluate thousands of essays. Do you really want to exasperate them with one that drones on and on?
What is the ideal word length for the HBS essay?Remember, the length of your essay is up to. But if you want my professional opinion as an admissions consultant, as a writer, and a lover words, the ideal word length for the HBS admissions essay is 850 words. Why? There’s no magical formula. I choose 850 words, because that’s what the word limit was the last time HBS actually gave a word limit for the essays, and when I read my client’s final draft essays that are in the 850-word range, that feels like a good length to me. Remember—if you get admitted to HBS, you’ll have a chance to share your essay with your sectionmates. Of course the priority is on actually getting admitted, but you should also consider how long of an essay you want to stand up and read in front of your classmates (if that is in fact how the essay will be shared. I’m thinking it will probably be a part of a compilation type book rather than a live reading). So for those of you who are applying to HBS or to other schools with essay prompts that have no word limits, how long is your essay?
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