Optional Essay Graduate School

You’ve just spent hours – or more likely weeks – writing the two to four essays that most top MBA programs require. The last thing you want to do is write another essay…unless of course that essay will help you. How do you know if it’s worth it to spend the time composing an optional essay?

Answering the “Weakness” Optional Essay

First, keep in mind that the optional essay is not an option for applicants who have a weakness or inconsistency in their application that is not addressed elsewhere. If the question asks you to address a weakness, and you have a weakness or two, then you should definitely use this space to provide context. For example, if you had one bomb of a semester during college, you’ll want to explain how a death in the family or an emergency surgery got in the way of one semester’s grades. If you have a gap in employment, provide the reasons why you were forced to leave your job before having a replacement position lined up.

In these cases, your optional essay should remain short and to the point, making sure that you also reveal the steps you took to ameliorate the weakness or improve your circumstances. Don’t reach for excuses when you don’t have any – most adcoms see through a superficial explanation. And don’t whine or blame. Take responsibility for mistakes. We’ve all made them.

Answering the Open-Ended Optional Essay

If you face an open-ended optional essay question, then you have a decision to make, and an opportunity. You certainly don’t need to write an optional essay. It is NOT required, but if you have anything additional that you’d like to offer the adcom readers, then this is your chance.

Frankly, if you are a talented, accomplished multi-faceted individual, you will not be able to provide all pertinent information in the required boxes and essays. In my view – while if one has nothing to say, one should say nothing – the open-ended optional essay is simply another opportunity to sell your ability to add a unique perspective, voice, or talent to the class. However, don’t use it to rehash material found elsewhere.

Bottom line: use this space to your advantage. Toot your horn and share with the adcom readers one more reason to admit you.

By Linda Abraham, CEO and founder of Accepted.comand co-author of the soon-to released book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.  Linda has been helping MBA applicants gain acceptance to top MBA programs since 1994.

Our Series On Perfecting Your MBA Essays:

 


Five Questions to Ask Yourself Before Submitting an Optional Essay

We realize that the questions of whether to answer an optional essay and, if so, what to say are ones that loom large for many MBA applicants at this time of year. While we’ve been offering a great deal of school-specific essay advice over the past few weeks, we wanted to take some time to suggest a few considerations that applicants might want to take into account when making this call.

Is it relevant?
Perhaps this goes without saying, but the only information worth sharing in an optional essay is that which will make a material difference in your candidacy. Whether you wish to comment on an exciting leadership role you’ve just taken on or explain that you were overextended extracurricularly during that one bad semester in college, make sure to think carefully about whether this information will enhance the reader’s perception of your potential to succeed in the classroom and contribute to the school’s MBA community.

Was it requested?
Most schools do request that applicants use an optional essay to address certain issues, such as a failing grade in a degree program or the absence of a recommendation from one’s current direct supervisor. In spite of the technically optional nature of the question, it’s very important to follow directions and provide this information if a school requests it.

Also along the lines of what information is requested, it’s wise to think carefully about a school’s other essay questions before deciding to provide “bonus material” in an optional essay. Each required essay response affords applicants a chance to introduce the information about their background and interests that they consider to be most important (within the confines of the prompt, of course). Your objective should be to provide as complete a picture of your candidacy as possible within the framework of a school’s required essays (as these are a good indication of what a given program is most interested in hearing about) and to only introduce information in an optional essay that you could not have covered elsewhere without sacrificing something more essential.

Is it welcome?
As many schools have reduced the number and length of their required essays over the past several admissions seasons (and thus reduced the opportunities applicants have to offer information about their backgrounds), it has become increasingly acceptable to use an optional essay to showcase one’s strengths and potential to contribute to the community. Most programs signal their openness to “bonus” content in the wording of their optional essay prompts. If a school invites applicants to use the space to share anything else they would like to convey to the adcom, then it’s appropriate to highlight material that supports your candidacy and might not have fit with the program’s required essay responses. Meanwhile, if a program specifies that the optional response be used only to address extenuating circumstances or explain potential liabilities, it’s generally not advisable to stray from those subjects.

Is it constructive?
Once you’ve decided that a detail is relevant to your candidacy and merits mentioning in an optional essay, the next step is to think carefully about the way this information might be perceived and make sure that the impact it makes on your chances of admission is a positive one. For instance, an essay that simply alerts the adcom to a serious medical condition might help its author stand out from other applicants, but it could also leave the reader wondering whether this person could handle the demands of a rigorous academic program. On the other hand, a few details about this applicant’s strategies for achieving success in spite of some kind of disability and commitment to supporting others with a chronic illness or impairment might make him or her seem like a very valuable addition to the business school community.

Is it concise?
It’s always a good idea to be mindful that when you respond to an optional essay, you’re creating extra work for the person reading your file. While this should not dissuade you from addressing a topic that you have deemed important based on the considerations above, it’s very important that you demonstrate good judgment by limiting your comments to the most relevant information and keeping your response as direct and concise as possible.

Posted in: Application Tips, Essay Tips & Advice

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