Last week, we discussed taking responsibility for blips in your personal, academic and/or career history via the optional essay. This week, we follow up with a broader discussion about the optional essay. Our title for this post, “The Optional Mistake,” is a double entendre in that candidates often make the mistake of writing an optional essay when they perhaps should not and then make mistakes within the essay as well.
1. Choosing to submit an optional essay: Many candidates feel compelled to write an optional essay, concerned that neglecting to do so will send the message “I am out of additional fascinating stories.” The truth is that the admissions committee (in virtually all cases) has offered the optional essay (or additional information space) to allow you to discuss unique circumstances in your candidacy—if needed—not to submit another 500 words on your career or an interesting personal accomplishment. Unless you have something vital in your candidacy that must be discussed, you should approach the idea of submitting an additional essay with caution.
2. Writing an optional essay: If you feel you need to write an optional essay, be as brief and direct as possible. By submitting one, you are essentially asking the admissions officer to read yet another essay—basically, to do even more work—and are thus demanding more of this person’s valuable time. The key to writing an effective optional essay is therefore to respect this individual’s time and be as concise as possible, while still conveying all the necessary information. Thus, a discussion of your academic problems need not begin with a detailing of the excellent grades you earned in high school; a gap in your work experience need not begin with a chronology of how consistently you worked before the gap occurred. We have seen candidates overcome any number of seemingly insurmountable obstacles, from a very low GMAT score to drunk driving arrests. We always encourage applicants to address such issues in a “short and sweet” manner (completing any optional essays well within word limits), and time has proven that this strategy can yield results.
For more assistance with writing an optional essay (or even just deciding whether you need to write one), see our Optional Essay Guide.