At mbaMission, we frequently get asked, “If I write the optional essay about my [low GMAT score, low GPA, bad semester in college, long stretch of unemployment], will it call attention to that weakness and overemphasize it?” In short, no. Writing the optional essay about a weakness instead allows you to control the narrative.
The admissions committee will notice a low GMAT score or a low GPA—and if you do not use the optional essay to address such an issue, they will be left with unanswered questions about why that weakness occurred. Rather than putting the committee in the position of having to guess at an explanation, take control of the situation and grab the opportunity to explain the details behind the weakness. For example, let’s say you have a weak GPA overall because in your first two years of college you worked full-time, but your GPA from your last two years is much stronger. Not writing the optional essay means that you are hoping the admissions committee will take the time to search through your transcript, note the higher GPA, then examine your job history to learn that you worked full-time during your first two years—and then make the connection between your two years of full-time work and your subsequently lower grades during those years. On the other hand, if you write the optional essay and explain exactly what happened, you no longer have to simply hope that they will put in that extra effort and will know for sure that they are evaluating you using full information. Liewise, they will not have to guess at the reason behind your low GPA, because you will have filled in the story for them.
The bottom line is, the admissions committee members are professionals whose obligation is to notice all aspects of your profile. While they are not punitive, they are also not careless and will identify weaknesses like those we’ve mentioned here. At the same time, they are only human and are dealing with thousands of applications. Any way that you can save them work by guiding them through the story of your application can only work to your advantage.