We realize that the questions of whether or not to answer an optional essay—and, if so, what to say—are ones that loom large for many MBA applicants. In addition to our school-specific Essay Topic Analysis, we wanted to suggest a few questions that applicants might want to consider when making this call.
Is it relevant?
Perhaps this goes without saying, but the only information worth sharing in an optional essay is that which will make a material difference in your candidacy. Whether you wish to comment on an exciting leadership role you’ve just taken on or explain that you were overextended extracurricularly during that one bad semester in college, make sure to think carefully about whether this information will enhance the reader’s perception of your potential to succeed in the classroom and contribute to the school’s MBA community.
Was it requested?
Most schools do request that applicants use an optional essay to address certain issues, such as a failing grade in a degree program or the absence of a recommendation from one’s current direct supervisor. In spite of the technically optional nature of the question, it’s very important to follow directions and provide this information if a school requests it.
Also along the lines of what information is requested, it’s wise to think carefully about a school’s other essay questions before deciding to provide “bonus material” in an optional essay. Each required essay response affords applicants a chance to introduce the information about their background and interests that they consider to be most important (within the confines of the prompt, of course). Your objective should be to provide as complete a picture of your candidacy as possible within the framework of a school’s required essays (as these are a good indication of what a given program is most interested in hearing about) and to only introduce information in an optional essay that you could not have covered elsewhere without sacrificing something more essential.
Is it welcome?
As many schools have reduced the number and length of their required essays over the past several admissions seasons (and thus reduced the opportunities applicants have to offer information about their backgrounds), it has become increasingly acceptable to use an optional essay to showcase one’s strengths and potential to contribute to the community. Most programs signal their openness to “bonus” content in the wording of their optional essay prompts. If a school invites applicants to use the space to share anything else they would like to convey to the adcom, then it’s appropriate to highlight material that supports your candidacy and might not have fit with the program’s required essay responses. Meanwhile, if a program specifies that the optional response be used only to address extenuating circumstances or explain potential liabilities, it’s generally not advisable to stray from those subjects.
Is it constructive?
Once you’ve decided that a detail is relevant to your candidacy and merits mentioning in an optional essay, the next step is to think carefully about the way this information might be perceived and make sure that the impact it makes on your chances of admission is a positive one. For instance, an essay that simply alerts the adcom to a serious medical condition might help its author stand out from other applicants, but it could also leave the reader wondering whether this person could handle the demands of a rigorous academic program. On the other hand, a few details about this applicant’s strategies for achieving success in spite of some kind of disability and commitment to supporting others with a chronic illness or impairment might make him or her seem like a very valuable addition to the business school community.
Is it concise?
It’s always a good idea to be mindful that when you respond to an optional essay, you’re creating extra work for the person reading your file. While this should not dissuade you from addressing a topic that you have deemed important based on the considerations above, it’s very important that you demonstrate good judgment by limiting your comments to the most relevant information and keeping your response as direct and concise as possible.