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5 Tips for Writing a Concise B-School Admissions Essay

Applicants who avoid flattery and learn to edit themselves can keep sentences tight, experts say.

It can be tempting to use a dramatic intro in an essay, but a more direct opening can lower an applicant's word count.

It can be tempting to use a dramatic intro in an essay, but a more direct opening can lower an applicant's word count.

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Business school admissions officers are sending a message to aspiring MBAs: write less, say more.

A number of schools have recently trimmed the length of essays. For future applicants, the University of Michigan's Ross School of Business lowered the total maximum word count for essays by 450 words. The Business School at Columbia University slashed one essay from 500 words to 250.

The admissions team at Ross made the change in part to indicate how much – or little – time applicants should spend on essays.

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"So many people were spending a lot of time on the essays and probably not as much time thinking about the other things, like their interviews or talking to their recommenders or even studying for the GMAT," says Soojin Kwon, the school's director of admissions.

"The whole purpose of the essay and the interview is to just get a better understanding of where they're coming from and where they want to go to. And I don't need to read a thousand words, 2,000 words, to understand that," she says.

Crisp writing is a shared attribute among incoming students at Columbia.

"Many of our successful applicants have benefited from really being succinct and direct in writing their essays," says Amanda Carlson, assistant dean of admissions at the business school.

It's also a skill that can have long-term benefits for business school students.

"If you're called on in class it's going to be really important for the students to be able to answer in kind of a clear, direct, succinct way. And that's going to happen in the real world, too," she says.

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Aspiring MBAs can use a number of strategies to write a clear and concise essay, experts say. Here are five of their suggestions.

1. Write as much as you can: If prospective students think they should start by writing as few words as possible, they should think again, says Dave Bolick, creator of the site MBA-admissions.net. For 20 years, Bolick has been helping applicants improve their MBA application essays.

"Starting with more is definitely better than trying to fill space," says the graduate of the Haas School of Business at University of California—Berkeley. If a candidate is asked to discuss leadership experience, it's best to come up with five or six examples instead of committing to two or three, says Bolick. Then, an applicant can review the examples with others and evaluate which sound best.

"If you started out with less material, you never would have gotten to the one that you're really excited about," he says.

2. Keep the intro simple and sharp: A lot of people make the mistake of using a dramatic introduction, says Bolick.

"They think they have to say something gripping," he says. "Like I used to be a sky diver or I climbed Mount Everest." He encourages MBA applicants to be more direct, as a sensational introduction can inadvertently lead students to ramble and not answer the question.

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3. Avoid flattery: A great school already knows it's great, says Bolick. It's a waste of space to tell them otherwise, and it can hurt a candidate's chances of admission.

Flattery tells the admissions committee "this person has nothing to say," he says. "This person hasn't investigated the program to any significant extent."

4. Allot time for rewriting: Writing the essay can take as few as two hours, says Brandon Royal, author of "Secrets to Getting Into Business School: 100 Proven Admissions Strategies to Get You Accepted at the MBA Program of Your Dreams." It's improving it that takes time.

"Your first draft, you try to get the information out. Your second draft, you refine it. You let it sit for a day at the least, maybe a couple of days, and then you go back and refine it again," says Royal.

5. Learn to edit yourself: "It's pretty much a line exercise," says Royal, who graduated from the Booth School of Business at University of Chicago. He encourages applicants to take a pen and check off "all-star sentences" that are necessary for the essay. Anything without a check mark can go.