When it comes to the optional essay offered by most MBA programs, I am frequently asked whether the essay is actually optional. Many business school applicants feel that they must write something and struggle with what they should write about. As an applicant, you should understand that there are two different types of optional essays. In one case, the MBA program will request that you write about anything that you believe is not included in your application that you would like the admissions committee to know. In this case the question is more flexible. In the second case, an MBA program is looking more specifically for gaps in work experience or other issues. In this case, an MBA program is looking for very specific information, and you should answer thoroughly if you decide to answer.
In both cases, I recommend the following for optional essays:
Complete your entire application before approaching the optional essay. Don’t worry about that part of the application yet.
Once complete, review your application and ask yourself whether there is some extra part you would like to write about to the admissions committee.
If there is anything missing, use the optional essay as an opportunity to add what you would like.
If you cannot think of anything additional you would like to add, do not write the optional essay.
I have seen a number of topics for optional essays for the first scenario where the information included could have been added elsewhere. When the optional essay is approached in this way, the applicant will take what could have been a few sentences and expand it into a full essay. This is a waste of time. Do not forget that the person reviewing your application has a lot of reading to do. When brainstorming thoughts for that optional essay, make sure that you cannot address the material elsewhere in the application.
In the second case as mentioned above you should be careful to follow their directions on the application. The following is broad advice. In general, the following topics are good material for this type of optional essay:
Explaining gaps in career experience.
Explaining choice of recommender.
Explaining circumstances affecting academic record, GMAT, or other aspects of your profile. This does not mean that you need to explain why you received a 3.4 GPA one semester as opposed to your normal 3.9. Extenuating circumstances implies something that significantly impacted your application. As example, perhaps there was a family crisis, or you were experiencing serious problems.
To answer the initial question we started with: Yes, the optional essay is optional. Be sure to exercise restraint!
For more robust guidance on your MBA application essays, check out the Stacy Blackman Consulting Essay Guide Series – school specific guides with essay tips, sample essays, information on what your target schools value and more.
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