The MBA Optional Essay – How to Approach and Tackle it

The MBA Optional Essay is a bit of an enigma to most MBA applicants when they first see it. For most people preparing their MBA applications, the other essays adequately cover the applicant’s career goals, reasons for choosing the relevant school, and key achievements and learning. The optional essay therefore presents an opportunity to provide yet more information, but in most cases, applicants are not clear about what exactly it should contain. As a result, many applicants tend to use this essay to provide random information, extend other essays, or make a further case for their candidature. This article attempts to remove the confusion underlying the content of the optional essay, and presents a few scenarios on how it should be used.

MBA Optional Essay

The MBA optional essay – what is it exactly?

In most cases, schools have only a singular purpose in mind when providing an optional essay – helping applicants to explain extenuating circumstances like career gaps, low academic performance, or frequent job switches. Typically, no other essay will provide an opportunity to discuss these aspects, so this is the applicant’s chance to provide an explanation for these topics. While these are suggested topics that the optional essay can address, the scope of the essay need not be limited to them. For example, some applicants also use this essay to discuss why they have not requested a recommendation from their direct supervisor. In principle, the optional essay is only supposed to discuss these extenuating reasons.

Using the optional essay wisely

One of the key mistakes that MBA applicants make when deciding on what to include in the optional essay, is deciding to offer excuses for extenuating circumstances. For example, some applicant might write that he or she had extremely poor academic performance in college because he/she was not really interested in the program that he/she enrolled for. This is an excuse, and a poor one that, illustrating not just poor performance but also poor judgment in choosing a college program. Further, it shows issues with self-discipline and drive, and with the ability to follow through on a course of action. Convincing explanations will usually show why the applicant could not follow through on a course of action despite his/her best efforts, and how he/she has improved since on that aspect. For example, one of our recent clients, a state-level sportsman, clearly stated that his academic performance was not stellar as he had to stay away from college for weeks together to train with his sports team and participate in matches. He also highlighted how he later began to better manage his multiple priorities through studying when on tour, and working with his professors on weekends as a special case to make up for learning missed in class. He still did not finish with top-of-the-class academic results, but the explanation was an honest and convincing discussion around his performance. It helped him mitigate any harm to his candidature despite a CGPA 0.5 points below the successful applicant average for that school, and successfully gain an admit.

Some scenarios (not an exhaustive list) where one might like to use the optional essay for an explanation are as follows:

– When not requesting a recommendation from your direct supervisor

– When explaining frequent job changes

– When explaining valid and convincing reasons for sub-par academic performance or GMAT scores (e.g. a diagnosed learning disability)

– A job layoff that may have happened due to external circumstances beyond your control

– Any failing grades / honor code violations on your transcripts

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Is it right to not use the optional essay at all?

While using the optional essay to make an inappropriate argument will be fruitless, going to the other end of the spectrum is dangerous as well. Some applicants feel that the weaknesses in their MBA applications are best left unaddressed, and raising them in the optional essay will only highlight them. That may well be true for things like low GMAT scores, especially if no convincing explanation around them exists, but it is not true for some other aspects. For example, if one has failed some college courses, or has been given the pink slip at a previous employment, it is best to come clean and address these issues honestly. Do not hope that not explaining them will somehow make the admissions committee look at these favorably or not notice them at all.

The optional essay as an extension of other essays – a dangerous strategy

In some cases, we have also seen MBA applicants wanting to use their optional essay to make a stronger case for their candidature. Putting in yet more points on why one is a great fit with the school, why one seeks an MBA, or extending one’s career goals and ‘providing further clarity’ on them is a strict no-no. Not only will this be taken unfavorably (the optional essay is not the place for this; use the space provided in the appropriate essays wisely) but it shows poor discipline and inability to follow instructions as well. Similarly, including a list of extra-curricular activities or one’s social contributions as part of the optional essay is not recommended.

Another key caveat to consider is that the optional essay (or any other part of your application) is not the place for emotional appeals, passionate declarations, or appealing for a scholarship. Just report the facts humbly. Ultimately, one’s passion for the school will shine through in one’s statement of career goals and reasons for choosing the school in other essays. Stating facts also makes applicants sound professional, a key quality when applying to a top MBA program.

Finally, remember that it is not necessary to even use the optional essay when one has no relevant information to report. It is fine to leave the essay blank – this will not harm your candidature! Some schools like Wharton will explicitly state this fact, while others like INSEAD will be more subtle, but that does not mean that they are inviting applicants to necessarily use the space.

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