When it comes to the optional essay question posed by most business schools, MBA hopefuls often wonder if it is really optional. Many applicants feel an obligation to write something, and struggle with what that something should be.
While some programs state explicitly that this essay should only be used to address extenuating circumstances, others ask more broadly whether there is anything else about your candidacy you would like to share with the admissions committee.
My advice regarding the optional essay is to first complete your entire application package, except for the optional essay. Don’t worry about that piece of the puzzle just yet. Once you have finished, review your application and ask yourself if there is something extra you would like to communicate. Make sure that you cannot address the subject elsewhere in the application. However, if there is something missing, by all means, use the optional essay as an opportunity to say what you need to say.
The following advice should be considered within the context of your overall strategy and the school you are considering, but these areas are prime material for the optional essay.
If there is a grade of C or below on your undergraduate transcript, the admissions committee will want to know why and feel comfortable that it’s simply an outlier in your overall academic record. Strike an upbeat tone here and avoid excuses. Make sure you emphasize your improved performance either later in your college career or in subsequent work or classes since college.
Explain your issue clearly and focus the balance of your essay on looking forward. Explain what have you done in the recent past to prove your skills and intelligence. If you have a new GMAT score or took classes in calculus or statistics, you have a solid case for improved academics.
If you had a disciplinary issue in college, spend most of the essay demonstrating that you learned from the experience and have been an ideal citizen ever since. If there are extenuating circumstances that affected your academic performance, definitely explain what those were.
But if it was a simple case of immaturity, you need to own up to that also. Though embarrassing to admit, if you don’t provide those details the admissions committee will make assumptions that may not be in your favor.
Employment Gaps or Major Career Changes
You don’t have to explain a short gap between school and a secured job, but something like several months between two jobs should be addressed. Otherwise, the admissions team may assume you spent that time binge-watching “Game of Thrones.”?
Did you use that time off to do volunteer work in Guatemala, or care for an ailing parent? Maybe you used the time away to focus on an entrepreneurial dream unencumbered by the 9-to-5 grind. Ideally you can point to additional education, training, volunteering or traveling that you engaged in while unemployed.
If you recently switched careers and feel concerned that the admissions committee may not see how you arrived at the conclusion that an MBA would help further your professional aspirations, use the optional essay space to make an airtight case for why you want to go into this new field and show that the decision was not capricious, but reasoned and well-thought-out.
Choice of Recommender
Business schools almost always ask for a letter of recommendation from a current supervisor, as typically this is the person most able to observe and comment on your abilities and leadership skills as they stand today. Not every applicant feels comfortable asking their employer for a recommendation letter, however.
Perhaps they aren’t ready to let their boss know of their MBA plans, or maybe there is a personality conflict that might not lead to the most glowing recommendation. Sometimes, the issue is that the applicant hasn’t worked with the supervisor long enough for him or her to comment meaningfully on the candidate’s performance.
Whatever the reason, you should briefly address your decision not to seek a recommendation from your current supervisor in the optional essay space. The admissions committee understands the various circumstances which may prevent it, but you need to explain why anyway to eliminate any doubts or wrong assumptions about the quality of your working relationship with your employer.
Information That Adds to Your Candidacy
This is where you can introduce information about yourself that you simply couldn’t find a way to incorporate elsewhere. If you are a re-applicant, the optional essay is the ideal place to explain what you have done since your last application to strengthen your case for admission – such as receiving a promotion – which would signal career development and leadership. Even if you don’t have a clear-cut development to describe, you can use this space to explain how you have improved your thinking, career goals or fit.
Finally, if you don’t have a weakness to address and the school has an open-ended optional essay question, this is opportunity to provide information you couldn’t work into the other required essays. For example, if you have an unusual background, hobby or extracurricular experience, this may be a chance to showcase your unique profile.
Yes, the optional essay truly is optional. So take advantage of it if necessary, but exercise good judgement and restraint.