The optional essay provides you with an excellent opportunity to tell the Ad Com what you could not tell because you were bound by the specifications of essay questions. This question is also meant to shine a spotlight on the experience or a side of your personality that has not been revealed in the other parts of your application: essays, recommendation letters, and resume.
Four ways to use an optional essay to strengthen your candidacy:
1. Reveal your non-work side
First, you may use this question to reveal your non-professional side. If you have significant extracurricular accomplishments (sports, music, writing, painting, etc.) or a community welfare activity that you initiated or led, you should go ahead and share those stories. Do not worry if it gets personal because the personal side is always reflected in our professional performance in any way. For example, a person who is hardworking, honest, conscientious, and accountable in his personal life is expected to demonstrate the same degree of sincerity in his/her professional life as well.
2. Elaborate on your most unique trait
Secondly, if you feel you have covered all aspects of your personality in other essays but would like to elaborate /re-emphasize the most significant of them in detail, here is your opportunity to do that. For example, if you have an amazing example of your ability to take initiative or to think outside the box or exceptional work ethic, but could not describe it in detail in other essays because you had a lot of other ground to cover in a limited space, it is a good idea to provide details of that particular story here. Remember, you need to build a story from your life experience while doing that. For example, simply stating that you have an extraordinary work ethic would read like a hollow claim unless you illustrate it with an amazing story from your professional life.
3. Address a weakness in your profile
Also, you can use optional essay questions to provide context for a weakness in your profile, like a low GPA or GMAT or a gap in your job history. Make sure your reason is genuine to convince them that your low grades occurred due to unforeseen circumstances beyond your control. One of the applicants I worked with had an excellent profile: a stellar GMAT ( 750+), an impressive 7 years of work experience, and numerous other academic achievements to his credit, but he had a low GPA because his family circumstances forced him to work round the clock throughout his undergraduate years in order to support his and his sister's education. He effectively used this life- experience in his optional essay to justify his low GPA.
Moreover, if you choose to discuss a gap in job history, it should not be because you were being lazy, or you decided to take a break to watch cricket matches. Justify a gap in a job only if you were involved in something creative that contributed to your overall growth e.g. a world tour, a community service opportunity, the pursuit of a hobby (learning music or writing a book), a serious family matter that absolutely needed your time and attention. Lastly, if you have a pressing reason that has prevented you from taking a recommendation from your current supervisor, share that story here so the AD Com is aware of why your current supervisor has not provided you his recommendation.
4. Showcase your international experience/cultural adaptability
Almost all B-schools look for international experience as one of the desired assets in their potential candidates. So, if you have one, your best bet is to use this essay for your most impressive story that showcases your international exposure, global outlook, and cultural adaptability. For example, if you are an Indian IT applicant who has worked in a foreign country, you must have surely experienced cultural differences, work culture differences. Here is a platform for you to discuss how you adapted to those differences, worked through challenges, and finally succeeded in producing great results. Thus, you will be able to demonstrate to the AD Com your ability to gel with people of diverse cultures with perfect ease.
In view of the above, I would recommend applicants to utilize the optional essay to bring to the attention of Ad Com those aspects of their personality, or those areas of professional career (initiative, cultural adaptability, international experience) that have not been highlighted anywhere else in your application. Most importantly, it is your chance to address or justify flaws in your profile e.g. low GPA or GMAT, or gap in a professional career, or your inability to get a recommendation from your current supervisor.
Note: Please refer to the Sample-3 essay, for an applicant's story of her personal tragedy that brings out her ability to maintain composure at times of crisis, her conscientiousness about her duties. toward her parents, and above all, her extraordinary power of turning her misfortune into opportunities.