Five Reasons to Write an MBA Optional Essay

As you are working on your MBA applications, you will inevitably come across an opportunity to write an optional essay. Virtually every application has one. But do you need to write an optional essay? What exactly is it for? And who should use it?

Most business schools offer the optional essay as a space where you can proactively address weaknesses in your profile or preemptively answer any questions you feel an admissions committee reader might have after they review the other parts of your application.

Here is what a sample optional essay prompt looks like:

If needed, use this section to briefly describe any extenuating circumstances, unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, etc. or if you wish to provide further information or additional context around your application to the admissions committee, please upload a brief explanation of any areas of concern in your academic history or personal history.

Usually, you can tell from the wording of these prompts that the admissions committee does not expect every applicant to use the space. For example, this prompt begins by specifying “if needed.” You should really only take advantage of the optional essay or the “additional information” text box if you feel you have something that is critical to explain or address.

We have identified five scenarios in which you should definitely consider writing an optional essay. These are not the only reasons you might submit such an essay, but if any of these resonate with you, we strongly urge you to take this opportunity to clarify your circumstances for the admissions committee.

Reason 1: Poor academic performance

One of the topics we see MBA applicants address in the optional essay most frequently is a weakness in their past academic performance. If you feel that your academic record is not as strong as it should be for your target program, then proactively discussing this potential concern or weakness in the optional space can be beneficial. For example, you might have a low overall GPA, or your grades dipped substantially during a particular semester, or you have a few specific failing grades, an academic probation, a number of dropped or incomplete classes, a change of major in the middle of your degree, or some other aberration on your transcript.

You might be wondering why you would draw the admissions committee’s attention to your academic weakness this way. Be aware that the committee is going to see and notice everything in your profile, and they will note any shortcomings on your transcript whether you mention them or not. The schools always look closely at applicants’ academic records, because they want to know that the candidates will be able to successfully manage the MBA coursework. If your academic background includes anything that might call your abilities into question, you want to take control of that narrative and reassure the admissions committee, rather than leaving them to guess or wonder. You want to offer the necessary information that will enable them to either view your challenges in the most positive light possible or understand how you have overcome them. Simply put, you cannot hide your weaknesses. So you should use the optional space to explain anything problematic from your past and/or to reassure the admissions committee about your future academic potential. 

So, how should you address these issues? First, explain and acknowledge the weakness in a straightforward manner. Provide any additional context, as needed, and of course, be honest. If you had a personal situation that negatively affected your academic performance, such as an illness, a family problem, or financial challenges that required you to work a full-time job while you were studying—whatever the issue might have been—spell out the situation clearly yet briefly.

Second, take responsibility for any factors over which you had control but perhaps did not manage in an ideal manner—for example, you might have struggled in your transition to college life or engaged in behavior you are not proud of. Third, if applicable, make the case for how you have grown and changed since that time and why you are prepared for the academic challenge of business school now. 

Reason 2: Gaps in your resume or transcript

Admissions committees will pick up on any notable gaps on your resume or academic transcript. Perhaps you were laid off or fired from one of your prior roles. Or perhaps you had a personal health or family issue you were dealing with during that time off. The admissions reader will not know what your situation was unless you share it with them.

Many MBA applications specifically ask whether you have any gaps of a certain length, typically, three months or more. If you feel you can offer a sufficient explanation in the space provided in the application, you probably do not need to use the optional essay space, but if you have a gap that could use some clarification, and the application does not offer a dedicated space in which to do so, you can submit an optional essay that addresses the issue.

Reason 3: Disciplinary or criminal issue

Again, you will not be able to hide a problematic issue from the admissions committee. Even if a certain matter is not apparent anywhere in your application, if you are offered admission to a school, they will conduct a background check, and this could uncover anything you might have hoped to keep quiet. Rather than letting the admissions committee wonder about the details of a situation—or worse, make up their own theories—the best thing you can do is offer clarification yourself. Use the optional essay to help them fully understand what you dealt with, what you learned from the incident, and, most importantly, how you have changed since that time. Explain the occurrence succinctly. Take responsibility for your actions, and demonstrate your subsequent growth. We have seen numerous clients overcome these kinds of situations and get accepted to business school—including an applicant who had been charged with drunk driving and got into the Stanford Graduate School of Business. 

Reason 4: Lower than average test scores

Another common weakness that applicants address in the optional space is a lower than average test score that they do not feel is indicative of their potential academic performance in business school. However, be aware that simply acknowledging your lower test score in the optional space does not mean that the admissions committee will overlook it or give you a pass. If your score is lower than the program’s average, it will still be a weakness in your application that you will need to mitigate in some way.

That said, if you feel that your score does not reflect your true academic ability, you can use the optional essay to highlight other evidence of your quantitative, analytical, data interpretation, verbal, and/or communication skills. Schools will be particularly interested to see that you have demonstrated quantitative ability somewhere in your past, given that MBA programs are inherently quantitative.

If you have a low Quant score on your GMAT or GRE, for example, the admissions committee will definitely want to see your quant skills evidenced elsewhere. Maybe in your professional life, you regularly perform quantitative analysis, create financial models, or do extensive analytical problem-solving. You can point this out in the optional space. Also, spotlight any certifications you have earned that are quantitative in nature, such as the CFA Charter or the CPA; these can serve as additional evidence of your ability to handle the rigors of business school.

Reason 5: Choice of recommender

Applicants also commonly use the optional essay to explain why their current supervisor is not providing a recommendation for them, especially if the school’s application instructions note that a letter from one’s supervisor is preferred. You would therefore need to explain why you did not choose this individual as your recommender. This is actually relatively common. For example, you might not want to disclose yet that you plan to go to business school, because doing so could negatively affect your chances for a promotion or bonus. Or perhaps you have not worked under the supervisor for very long, so they would not be able to speak to your abilities and past achievements. Simply explain the situation briefly and clearly.

Be aware that many applications actually include a short-answer question that specifically asks you to comment if you have not asked your supervisor to recommend you. So, before you move forward with writing an essay about the situation, review your target school’s application thoroughly to see whether it includes such a question. If so, go ahead and use that space instead. 

Optional essay tips

When providing an explanation in an optional essay or additional information text box, keep your submission brief, take responsibility for your actions (if needed), and demonstrate growth, when applicable. Do not waste an admissions reader’s time with long-winded storytelling. And remember that this is optional. Not submitting an optional essay or leaving an additional information box blank will not be detrimental to your candidacy if you have nothing in your profile that warrants clarification. So unless you indeed have something problematic to address, do not use the space at all.

If you are not sure whether your specific situation merits an optional essay or any other form of additional explanation, feel free to reach out to our experienced MBA admissions consultants for advice. We offer complimentary 30-minute consultation calls across many time zones, and we would be happy to discuss your personal situation and ideal plan of attack. Also, download a copy of our free Optional Essays Guide for even more tips and examples.

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