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Optional Essays: To Write or Not to Write?

Joe El Rady

Do you have to write the optional essay? Our experts give you the honest truth.

In the past, schools asked several essay questions that covered most angles of an applicant’s personal and professional history. Most experts recommended that applicants only use optional essays to inform the admissions committee of extenuating circumstances, anomalies in their backgrounds, or in some rare cases, an extraordinary accomplishment not covered by the required prompts. While we still strongly recommend candidates use the optional essay for this reason (more on that in a bit), the idea that the optional essay be used solely for this purpose is dated.

As of late, the optional essay really ought to be referred to as the “recommended essay.” Over the past few admissions cycles, business schools have reduced the number and length of required essays... But this doesn’t necessarily mean the number of essays included in a completed application should be lower. Instead, most applicants ought to take advantage of the opportunity to share further information with the admissions committee, whether it mitigates a weakness or not.

But what information should you include in an optional essay? Well, it depends. There are two primary approaches applicants should take when determining the topic of their optional essays.

1. Further discuss that which makes you a strong candidate. By answering optional questions, you can highlight your desirable skills, experiences, or elements of your background. This will help the admissions committee get a well-rounded picture of who you are as an applicant and how you will contribute to the incoming class.

2. Mitigate any weaknesses in your application. Pay attention — this is important! If you have extenuating circumstances or other anomalies in your applicant profile, it is imperative you continue to focus your optional essays on those issues. While your experience and accomplishments are relevant and should be mentioned in other areas of your application, you must first make up for any shortcomings that may affect your candidacy. Use your essays to address these inconsistencies and demonstrate the ways you’ve worked to overcome them.

Examples of application weaknesses that should be addressed in the optional essay and how to tackle them:

→ Low GPA or test scores. If you are applying to business school with numbers that aren’t quite as high as the admissions committee would like to see, it’s not the end of the world. Your academic weaknesses may be an opportunity for you to discuss challenges you’ve faced in the past and how you’ve worked to overcome them. Be sure to highlight ways you’ve improved in your later years of college, other academic courses, test scores, and/or work performance. 

→ Non-traditional choice of recommender. Typically, MBA applicants request a recommendation from their work supervisor. Because they work closely with this person on a regular basis, the supervisor is usually able to write a knowledgeable recommendation detailing the applicant’s skills and experiences. However, not all applicants feel comfortable asking their supervisor for a letter of recommendation. This could be due to a number reasons i.e. Not working together very long, clashing personalities, or the applicant not wanting the supervisor to know their plans to get an MBA. These are all justifiable reasons to request a recommendation from another individual, but it is best to tell the admissions committee up front why you made this decision in order to prevent any speculation. 

→ Non-traditional work experience. Whether you have long gaps in your employment or have made a major career change, it’s wise to explain this to the admissions committee. In general, if you have any employment gaps over one to two months, you should use your optional essay to mention what you were doing during that time. If you were continuing your education, volunteering, or gaining new, valuable experience, your employment gap can easily turn into an application strength. If you’ve recently made a big career shift, it’s in your best interest to explain to the admissions committee your logic behind the change and reaffirm the reasons you are applying to business school. No matter what career shift you have made, it is imperative that the admissions committee understands why an MBA is the next best step for you to achieve your goals.

Whatever you do, don’t do this.

Now that you know the reasons why you might want to write an optional essay, its critical you understand some key things you ought not to do in your optional essay. 

First and most importantly: Our advice that you write the optional essay is not a license to engage in frivolity or dysentery of the keyboard. Seriously. Keep your rambling to yourself and remember that the optional essay should present as professionally as your required essays. 

When writing your optional essay, we strongly recommend you adhere to the following guidelines:

  • Do not share frivolous information.
  • Do not share information that appears (or can appear) elsewhere in your application (data forms, short answer, etc.).
  • Only share information that enhances your candidacy. For example: Wharton’s optional essay question follows a required question about what candidates hope to gain from a Wharton MBA. Therefore, applicants should not use the optional essay to elaborate on reasons for applying to Wharton as those should have been covered exhaustively in the required essay. If not, then applicants should re-examine their response to that essay.

To ensure your optional essay is as effective as possible, consider these potential prompts:

  • Write about a formative experience that has shaped you, therefore explaining what you would bring to the incoming class and wider school community.
  • Discuss a proud accomplishment and the lessons from it that you can share with classmates.
  • Optional essay responses should complement required essay responses. Using Wharton as an example: If your answer to the required question (Question 1) focused on professional factors, you might consider discussing extracurricular (athletic, community, charitable) or personal information as a response to the optional prompt. You might also take the opportunity to highlight unique aspects of yourself and candidacy. If you have accomplished a truly extraordinary feat (finished a marathon, climbed a significant mountain, played a national level college sport, published research, published a book, helped bring clean water to a village in the developing world, etc.) consider expounding upon that accomplishment. Finally, consider how the answer to this essay question can reinforce your fit with the school.

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Joe El Rady

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Joe El Rady

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