When working with students on their applications, one question that I always get is, "Should I write an optional essay?" Applicants often wonder if it is really an optional essay or if not writing an optional essay will hurt their application? Well, there is no "one shoe fits all" answer to this question. First, every candidate has a distinct profile, and some candidates also have some red flags. Secondly, different schools have different requirements for optional essays. So, my advice on the optional essay is based on two factors– candidates' profiles and each school's optional essay requirements.
In this blog, we will discuss three types of optional essays and 12 reasons you should write an optional essay. We will also illustrate them with examples from MER students' essays.
You may also see the recording of our webinar on the reasons to write an optional essay:
Types of Optional Essays
Optional essays roughly fall into three categories.
Type 1- Optional Essay to Address a Weakness: Some programs state explicitly that this essay should only be used to address any unclear information or extenuating circumstances, such as academic weakness, employment gap, education gap, choice of recommender, etc. For example, Chicago Booth, Yale, UCLA, CBS, Kellogg, Duke Fuqua, and Ross ask applicants to submit optional essays only to address any weakness in their candidacy. In addition, some schools clearly indicate that no preference will be given to candidates who choose to respond to the optional essay (e.g., UCLA, CMU).
Example (UCLA Anderson): Are there any extenuating circumstances in your profile about which the Admissions Committee should be aware? (250 words maximum)
UCLA Anderson specifies: No preference is given in the evaluation process to those who choose to respond to this optional essay, so please use your best judgment.
Type 2- Optional Essay to Provide Additional Information: Some programs ask applicants an open-ended question about additional information to help the Ad Com evaluate their applications. (LBS, Oxford, and UNC). In such cases, the candidates can write the optional essay to reveal to the Ad Com the aspect of their profile which they did not get an opportunity to share in any other part of the application- resume, essays, and short questions.
The candidates need not have a red flag in their applications. Still, they may have some essential dimensions of their personal/ professional story to showcase their uniqueness to the Ad Com.
You may also use this essay to shine a spotlight on the experience or a side of your personality that has not been revealed elsewhere, such as a leadership role or volunteer experience.
Example (LBS): Is there any other information you believe the Admissions Committee should know about you and your application to London Business School? (Optional) (500 words)
LBS asks about 17 short questions about academic performance, English language ability, and additional information about main interests and international experiences in the application form. You must think of the best way to use this essay to your benefit by telling the Ad Com about your life experience or achievements. We usually use this essay for outlining potential contribution to the program or a life experience that make applicants stand out of the crowd. This open-ended question allows you to cover almost any topic that you want to clarify or elaborate on. For example, if you have issues like the choice of recommender or employment/ education gap, you can address them here because the data form doesn't include these subjects.
Type 3- A Combination of Both Type 1 and Type 2
Some schools follow a broader approach and ask candidates to provide additional information about their candidacy while also indicating extenuating circumstances that they would like to communicate to the Ad Com. For instance, Wharton, NYU Stern, CMU Tepper, McCombs, Tuck, Cornell asks candidates to share additional information as well as extenuating circumstances that they think will help the Ad Com review their application.
Example (Wharton): Please use this space to share any additional information about yourself that cannot be found elsewhere in your application and that you would like to share with the Admissions Committee. This space can also be used to address any extenuating circumstances (e.g., unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, areas of weakness, etc.) that you would like the Admissions Committee to consider.
A. 8 Reasons You Should Attempt the Type 1 Optional Essay
1. Low GPA: If your undergraduate GPA is low, you must take advantage of the optional essay to explain your lower-than-average GPA. There may be many reasons/ circumstances that resulted in your low GPA- e.g., sickness of self or parent, accident, employment, excessive involvement in extracurricular activities in college, or simple immaturity. Whatever your reasons are, address them objectively without making any excuses. After explaining the reasons/ circumstances that led to your GPA, you should discuss the efforts you made to demonstrate your academic prowess. The best way to do it is to earn a high GMAT/ GRE score.
You should also describe other steps you took to make up for your academic weakness. For example, if you took additional courses to brush up on your quant skills, make sure to list them here. Also, Ad Coms might be a little more lenient when you receive a lower GPA from a STEM field or top-ranked institution where the grading is stringent.
Here is an example of an optional essay written by a military candidate to explain his low grades:
Although my leadership experiences in the military taught me many valuable lessons in teamwork, perseverance, and management, they impacted my grades. Thus, I do not view my undergraduate performance as an accurate representation of my academic abilities. Nevertheless, I grew from this experience and took a dedicated approach to professional education. Therefore, I request the admission committee to consider the above reasons when reviewing my application.
This candidate was working full time and serving his country as a marine while continuing his education. He had to miss his classes due to deployments and training events which affected his grades. To justify his low GPA, he wrote an optional essay to explain his leadership experiences as a military candidate.
2. Low GMAT/ GRE: Though GMAT /GRE is a critical component of the MBA application, it is not the end-all, be-all of MBA admissions. A strong GMAT score helps you get your foot in the door, but it cannot guarantee an admission offer. Some schools consider accepting new and improved GMAT scores after the application deadline, while some schools have gone test-optional. However, if your score is lower than the school average or does not represent your abilities, the optional essay is the right place to address this. You may also submit an optional essay to explain your low verbal or quant score. In addition, you can highlight how you have excelled in other areas. For example, multiple promotions, leadership, initiatives, and achievement at work, extensive community work, or excellence in extracurricular activities- are some of the ways that can mitigate your subpar GMAT score.
Below is an example from an optional essay written by a candidate to explain his low Verbal score.
My GMAT score might not be the true reflection of who I am and what I can offer to the business school. While my verbal score might not be competitive, I have an excellent quantitative aptitude and analytical skills. This is evident from my quantitative score and the integrated reasoning score. Also, I was a consistent performer throughout my academic life. I was ranked among the top 5% of the graduating class in my undergraduate class, and I have a GPA of 3.34 in my graduate degree.
This candidate had a low verbal score, so he focused on his competitive quant score and integrated reasoning score as well as his consistently good performance throughout his academic life. As an example, we wrote about his ranking in his undergraduate and graduate studies.
3. Education Gap: If there is a gap between your undergraduate studies for any reason, such as academic probation or sickness, or personal hardship, you must write the optional essay to address that. For example, you likely had to leave college in the middle of your studies to take care of your sick father or faced mental issues after facing unexpected personal setbacks that made it impossible for you to continue your studies. Whatever the case, explain your situation here, and conclude your essay by describing how the experience matured you as a person.
Here is an example of an optional essay by a student who faced academic dismissal after losing focus on academics due to a personal tragedy.
After dealing with a personal tragedy in 2016, I became extremely depressed and isolated and stopped attending classes, which led to my academic dismissal. To recover from the trauma, I went back home to be with my family. I spent a year supervising the construction of our house. After I completely recovered, I decided to complete my degree. Apart from completing my degree, I got trained in software and started working full time as a Software Developer.
In the above example, the candidate sought support from his family and occupied himself in constructive work. After two years, he bounced back and completed his degree and training.
4. Employment Gap or Major Career Change: If you have a long gap between the two jobs, explain it in the optional essay. A short gap between school and your first job post-graduation doesn't need to be explained here, but an employment gap of more than three months needs to be addressed in the optional essay. There may be many reasons for your employment gap, e.g., a personal hardship or family emergency, the pursuit of a hobby (learning music/dance or writing a book), a community service opportunity, travel plans, or a startup venture that needed total commitment. Explain everything here so it doesn't raise any eyebrows.
Below is an example from an optional essay written by a candidate to explain her employment gap:
"The past eight months have provided me adequate time for reflection for my next professional move. I researched potential employers and job profiles and reached out to my mentors to assess how to use my capabilities and skills. As a result, I have evaluated my career goals and have now decided to enhance my skill set by pursuing an MBA. On the personal front, this period allowed me to devote more time to the care of my child and pursue my hobbies, such as swimming and traveling.
In the above example, the candidate explains that through she was unemployed for eight months, she made productive use of that period, both personally and professionally.
5. Choice of Recommender: It's not uncommon for people to feel uncomfortable sharing their plans to leave the job to pursue an MBA with their current supervisors. Also, many employers do not support their employee's decision to advance their education. In such cases, applicants request other referees (past supervisors, mentors, clients, etc.) to write their LORs. Though Ad Com understands this, it is advisable to address this directly in your optional essay, so they know your situation with the recommendation letter. Also, make sure to explain why the chosen recommender is an excellent fit to evaluate your professional skills and accomplishments.
I have chosen my previous supervisors (names of superiors) as my recommenders. In the past 2+ years, I have worked closely with them, so they are the best people to evaluate my work in a professional setting. I have been working with my current direct supervisor since July 2018. I believe 2-3 months may not be sufficient to gauge an individual's performance, so I have not requested him for a recommendation.
In this example, the candidate also explains why their current recommender doesn't know them that well.
6. Course Work in Core Business Subjects: Some schools (UNC) ask applicants to explain their academic preparedness if they have not completed core business subjects such as calculus, microeconomics, statistics, financial accounting. If you are one of them, you should explain in the optional essay what actions you have taken to take additional courses to handle the program's academic rigor.
I studied calculus during my under-graduation engineering degree. My analytics career taught me the fundamentals and applications of statistics for specific deliverables. Also, I have been applying a few microeconomics concepts such as price elasticity and margins for competitive pricing projects at work. I intend to learn the fundamental theoretical aspects of microeconomics and financial accounting in the coming months.
Please note that here the candidate highlights his knowledge of calculus and statistics and how he is applying microeconomics aspects at work. He also shares his plans to learn microeconomics and financial accounting in the coming months to show that he can handle the academic rigor.
7. Unemployed Status: If you are unemployed when applying, make sure to explain in the optional essay why your employer laid you off. Many people had lost their jobs during the pandemic, so your unemployed status under these unprecedented circumstances will not hurt your application. However, the Ad Com needs to know about your situation. So, make sure to explain it in the optional essay so they don't assume anything.
8. Job Hopper: Sometimes, people switch jobs that do not meet their creative, financial, or other needs. However, if you have held more than three jobs in a five-year career, you may be viewed as a job hopper. In such cases, you must justify your frequent job switching. You do not want to give the impression that you make your decisions in haste or find it difficult to get along with others.
B. Type 2- Optional Essay to provide Additional Information
4 Reasons You Should Write the Type 2 Optional Essay
Let us now discuss how you can use the optional essay to showcase your uniqueness to the ad com if you do not have any red flags or unclear information in your application.
1. Additional Info- Personal, Professional, or Entrepreneurial Experiences: If you feel you have covered all aspects of your candidacy in other essays but want to elaborate/ re-emphasize the most significant aspect, here is your opportunity to do that. For example, if you have any additional accomplishments, leadership positions/ opportunities, but could not describe them in other essays because of limited space, you may share them in the optional essay. Perhaps you want to clarify something about your personal background, your life experiences that have made you who you are.
Also, you may want to appraise the admission committee of your leadership experience in a volunteer role. To do so, describe who was there, what you accomplished, and how you felt. Also, if you did not find a place anywhere else to discuss your international experience or entrepreneurial experience, then your best bet is to use this platform to highlight that. Business schools are looking for maturity, leadership, and diversity in applicants. This essay is an opportunity to show these qualities. Make sure to provide specific examples to help the admissions committee understand you better.
Here is an example of a candidate who described his entrepreneurial experience in the optional essay.
After completing my Masters in June 2008, I rejected an offer to become an IBM consultant because I wanted to be an entrepreneur. I was on a shoestring budget and needed two developers to code the software I had planned to sell. So, I talked two classmates into getting into that business venture right after graduation. Eventually, I managed a 9-person team and led that company for three years.
This candidate ventured into a startup soon after his Master's and led that company for three years. He wrote an optional essay to explain his entrepreneurial experience and his learnings from it.
2. Extracurricular Activities or Volunteer work: Perhaps you feel that the essays and short questions do not provide enough space to reveal your non-professional side of your extracurricular accomplishments (sports, music, writing, painting, adventure activities, etc.) or a community welfare activity that you initiated or led. In that case, the optional essay is a great place to describe them. Your non-work activities paint you as a well-rounded individual and showcase your personal attributes, such as integrity, compassion, grit, and perseverance.
At MER, we have advised and guided many candidates to write an optional essay to explain their extensive volunteering experiences, and the learnings and pleasure they derived from their involvement.
After graduating college, I joined Lions Club International and enjoyed serving the community under its banner. I earned recognition from the Lion's Club Regional Chairman for volunteering in Lions Club's 'Sight First' programs that are designed to prevent blindness, restore eyesight, and improve eye health for poor people. In 2010, I started, I started a yearly leprosy drive with Lions Club's support. Every year, I fund and promote the leprosy drive and distribute food and clothing to the leprosy-affected people in the area. It is an enriching experience to bring smiles on their faces.
The above example outlines an applicant's voluntary experience in the optional essay.
3. Delayed MBA: Some candidates get ready for an MBA later than others because of their personal and professional reasons. They are anxious that pursuing an MBA at thirty or a little later may not hurt their chances of success because they now belong to the category of older candidates and are more experienced than the average class. In such cases, it is advisable to spell out in an optional essay that now is the right time for you to pursue management education. At MER, we have successfully assisted many older candidates with their application to the top programs.
Here is an example from a student essay who pursued an MBA after 15 years of work experience.
Having worked for several years in the hospitality industry, I realized that there were very few opportunities for businesses to thrive and zero competition in the hospitality industry. Observing my friend's achievements as an auditor, I sought opportunities in auditing. Having gained three years of significant auditing experience, I understood that I lacked the necessary skills and knowledge to accelerate my career. However, circumstances in my personal life (divorce proceedings) for the next three years forced me to quit my job and delayed my MBA aspirations.
4. Second MBA: Many candidates pursue their MBA in their home country immediately after college. However, after being in the workforce for a few years, they realize that their first MBA only offered them theoretical knowledge. So now, they are keen to pursue a second MBA from a top global program to gain international exposure and gain those specific skills to realize their career aspirations. An optional essay is a great place to justify your rationale for a second MBA. At MER, we have supported some second MBA candidates.
Here is an example of a second MBA candidate who pursued an MBA from a US business school immediately after graduation from India. After 6-7 years of professional experience, he realized that he needed another MBA to fulfill his post-MBA goals.
Like many Indian students, I undertook an MBA shortly after college. The XXX (name of school) MBA brought me to America, where I gained finance skills and adapted to a multicultural environment. However, in retrospect, my limited corporate experience made my approach to the MBA more academic than practical. While XXX MBA prepared me for a core finance role, it could not equip me with the skills needed to imbibe non-financial subtleties that influence decision-making.
In the above example, the candidate explains that his learnings from his first MBA were more 'academic than practical, so he needs a second MBA to learn decision-making skills and approach the program through a practical lens.
C. When NOT to Write an Optional Essay
1. When you do not have any weakness: As explained earlier, if you do not have any weakness in your profile discussed above and the school specifically instructs you to use this space for extenuating circumstances, then do not feel obligated to write an optional essay. In such cases, it will not be viewed positively.
2. When you have communicated everything elsewhere: For an open-ended optional essay, look at your entire application and ask yourself: 'Have I presented a well-rounded picture of my candidacy?' If yes, there is no need to write an optional essay. Writing an optional essay to repeat information from other parts of the application will not add additional value to your candidacy. So, use your best judgment before making your decision.
D. 4 Key Tips to approach Optional Essays
Be Brief, clear, and direct: Brevity is the key to MBA admission essays. Make sure to use this space discreetly and make your case succinctly and directly. To meet the stringent word limits, make every word count.
1. Do not Make Excuses: When talking about weaknesses in your profile - low GPA/GMAT, employment/education gap, or any other unclear information- do not make any excuses. Instead, state the facts objectively.
2. Focus on learnings: When explaining extenuating circumstances for the education gap/ employment gap or low GPA/ GMAT, focus on the positive aspect of your experience and explain what you learned from that experience and became a mature individual. For example, while unemployed for taking care of a sick parent, you took some online courses to upskill yourself. Perhaps you added to your experience and knowledge while traveling or fulfilling your entrepreneurial dream. Make sure to focus on the positive aspect of your unemployed status.
3. Pay attention to the school's directions: Lastly and most importantly, all schools have different directions/expectations regarding their optional essay, so do not recycle one school's optional essay for another school. Even when the two schools have similar instructions, their word count specifications will be different. For example, we worked with a candidate in three European schools, and all three had significantly different instructions on the word count, i.e., HEC- 900 words, NUS 150 words, and IMD 50 words. Moreover, some schools encourage applicants to use bullet points instead of writing a formal essay. (Haas, CBS, and Ross) So it's critical to pay attention to each school's instructions regarding the optional essay.
At MER, we carefully review each applicant's personal and professional stories and then advise them on approaching optional essays for different schools. Based on each case, we sometimes recommend discussing more than one topic in their optional essays. Remember, each applicant is unique in some way or the other, so their subjects for discussion in the optional essays will also be different.
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