Candidates often worry about exceeding schools' requested word limits, even by a mere word or two. While we certainly think staying within the limits is best and advise candidates to do so, we are also of the belief that admissions directors are rational individuals and are not unnecessarily punitive; we don't imagine an admissions director out there who would 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 candidates use good judgment and try to avoid consistently exceeding them on each essay. We have certainly seen candidates get into HBS with one or two 420-word essays, despite word limits that are set at 400.
While we invite candidates to make judgments with word limits, we treat page limits differently. We insist that our candidates stay within established page limits, as it is very clear when one has exceeded them. Adding an additional page, even if it is only for an extra sentence or two, sends a clear message to the admissions committee that the candidate is disregarding the rules-something you obviously do not want to do!