When to Submit an Optional Essay

Luckily for business school candidates, MBA admissions teams recognize that behind every application is an actual human and that one’s story does not always fit neatly into designated boxes. This is where the optional essay (or “additional information” section) comes into play, allowing applicants to explain or clarify any potentially negative elements of their profile and provide additional perspective that should be considered in the admissions committee’s assessment of them.

Importantly, the optional essay is truly that—optional! If you do not have a good reason to submit one, do not feel that you need to; no points will be deducted for not taking advantage of the opportunity.

Here are some situations in which you might want to consider using the optional essay:

  • Unexplained gaps in your work history
  • Choice of recommenders, particularly if not following any explicit direction from the school
  • Unfavorable or questionable academic performance
  • Nonrepresentative GMAT/GRE scores
  • Academic disciplinary issue
  • Layoff/firing or significant professional or academic time off
  • Arrest, charges, and/or conviction

Given that the optional essay is typically used to provide further context around a blemish in one’s profile, you must take ownership of the situation you describe in your essay and show self-awareness. Openly acknowledge the element of your candidacy that warrants additional explanation. You might worry that doing so will draw attention to it, but we can assure you that the admissions committee will notice any such issues anyway! So rather than leaving the committee to make assumptions about the situation, proactively control the narrative and mitigate the issue by leveraging the optional essay in a constructive manner.

After providing brief, yet transparent, context for the situation, move on to how you addressed it, and share any positive change that resulted from it or highlight a “hidden” element of the situation that can be positioned in a positive light. For example, perhaps your undergraduate GPA is lower than your target school’s average, but you can show a trend of improvement over time and explain that you recognize the importance of taking academics seriously and regret that you did not focus more on your studies when you first arrived on campus. Ideally, you would also be able to highlight a strong test score to offset a weaker GPA. Or perhaps your quantitative test score is not as strong as you would like, so you took and excelled in supplemental coursework in such key business school topics as accounting, economics, and business analytics. You might also have successfully navigated a recent work project that called for significant quantitative prowess, driving positive results for your company. Leverage the optional essay to speak to these kinds of experiences, giving the admissions committee reason to feel confident in your ability to successfully manage the quantitative rigor the MBA curriculum demands.

Importantly, consider writing your optional essay as a final step in preparing your application submission. You want to ensure that it complements your essays and other sections of the application and is not duplicative. This is also an opportunity to assess your application in totality and confirm that all relevant elements of your candidacy are represented. If not, you can also use the optional essay/additional information field to share pertinent information that enhances your overall profile and that the admissions committee should take into consideration. Of course, any additional information you offer, even positive in nature, must be truly meaningful and not frivolous. Again, this opportunity is optional and misusing it could be a disservice to your efforts to submit the best possible application.  

The examples shared in this article represent only a few potential situations one might want to discuss in the optional essay and just some of the ways one could address them. Make sure to download your free copy of mbaMission’s Optional Essays Guide for additional guidance and specific examples of optimal wordings and level of detail to include. In addition, consider signing up for a free 30-minute consultation with an mbaMission Consultant to get an expert assessment of your specific situation and learn steps you can take to improve your applicant profile.

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