Always Address These 4 Areas in the Optional MBA Essay

The Tuck: 360 MBA Blog at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business has some timely advice on how to address all of those tricky situations in your b-school application you may wish you could just sweep under the rug.

The optional essay is not something to use just to fill up space, however. The Tuck AdCom points out four instances when you should definitely take advantage of the opportunity to explain your situation fully to avoid anyone reading your application from jumping to the wrong conclusion about something in your profile.

Even if Tuck is not on your short list of schools, these tips from the admissions team can help every MBA applicant this season.

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Employment Gaps

If you’re feeling anxious about explaining a gap in employment history, take heart. Admissions committees are comprised of human beings who can and will empathize with someone who has faced a lay-off and lived to tell the tale.

The key is to address the issue head-on, because the AdCom will notice and you don’t want there to be any doubts about how you spent that time away from work. Did you use that time off to do volunteer work in Guatemala, or to care for an ailing parent? Or maybe you used the time away to flesh out an entrepreneurial dream unencumbered by the 9-to-5 grind. Whatever the reason, you’ll want to show how you used that break in your career productively and the optional essay is the best place to explain that.

Says Tuck: “In this type of situation, we don’t know if the applicant is doing something amazing or if they are sitting on the couch binge watching Netflix. Moral of the story: never make us guess about anything, because we may guess wrong.”

Choice of Recommender

Business schools typically want to see a recommendation from a current supervisor since this person is the most familiar with you and your work style, but that’s not always possible.

It may come as a surprise, but some successful and well-positioned professionals won’t understand why you would want to go to business school. They may even be actively against it. Maybe they don’t want to lose you as an employee for two years, or maybe they aren’t really your biggest fan. If for some reason you cannot have your current supervisor write your recommendation, you should submit a quick note to explain why.

Says Tuck: “Many people are hesitant to ask their current supervisor for a letter of recommendation because they fear it might jeopardize their employment. This isn’t a big problem if you tell us that’s the reason, but if you don’t explain it, we are left with the equally realistic assumption that you don’t have a good working relationship with your supervisor.”

Major Career Changes

By some estimates, two-thirds or more of graduating MBAs use the degree as a means of switching careers. If you’re looking for the fast track to gain the skills and network to launch your career in a new direction, a popular way to do so is through an MBA program.

Make sure you clearly convey your long-term career goals within your application and essays, and explain in detail how you arrived at the conclusion that an MBA would help you further your professional aspirations.

Business school demands a huge investment of your time, energy, and finances, so make an airtight case to the admissions committee for why you want to go into this new field. Show that you know what the industry requires, the challenges you expect to face, and convey all previous experiences that demonstrate you have the transferable skills to make this switch.

Says Tuck: “Things that might seem obvious to you are not necessarily obvious to us. Because you’ve probably been thinking about this switch for a long time, the reasons for the change may seem clear to you, but if you don’t explain them to us, we’re left guessing. Remember, we don’t know you beyond what you tell us.”

Academic Weaknesses

Many applicants worry that a ho-hum undergrad performance will hamper their chances of getting into a top MBA program. Keep in mind that a 3.5 or better undergraduate GPA isn’t considered low for the purposes of most MBA applications, so look at the mean GPA for admitted students at your target programs to determine whether you have an issue to overcome in that area.

If there is an issue, the most important thing is to show exceptional focus and leadership skills in your career, and to openly acknowledge to the admissions committee the reason or reasons for your lackluster college GPA.

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 fess up to that also. It may be embarrassing, but if you don’t provide those details, the admissions committee will make assumptions that may not be in your favor.

Says Tuck: “Acknowledge your academic flaws, whether it was one course or a whole semester. Give us an understanding of the situation (is there a specific reason for the poor performance you can point to?), what you learned from it and, most importantly, why this is an anomaly and not a reflection of the student you will be at Tuck.”

As in life, the best bet with your MBA applications is to be honest, show introspection and growth, and let the chips fall where they may.  And good luck to everyone submitting an application today for Tuck’s Early Action deadline!

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