When completing your MBA applications, it’s tempting to answer every possible question. The optional essay, however, has the word “optional” right in its name. MBA programs value self-awareness in their applicants; you can demonstrate this by recognizing what material is appropriate to include—if any—in the optional essay.
Quite simply, the optional essay—and it really could be called a series of optional statements—exists only to address questions that an admissions committee member might have after they review the required application materials. These questions usually center on your choice of recommenders, your academic readiness, or your career potential. MBA programs provide some guidance in their applications about the most common reasons to complete the optional essay. For example, Tuck offers this guidance on its website:
Optional: Please provide any additional insight or information that you have not addressed elsewhere (e.g., atypical choice of evaluators, factors affecting academic performance, unexplained job gaps or changes). Complete this question only if you feel your candidacy is not fully represented by this application. (300 words)
This is not the place to add another main essay. If you had a particularly difficult semester academically, it could be helpful to share some context for what was happening in your life during this time. If you have a six-month gap in your resume, provide some details to help the admissions team understand your situation.
Admissions officers have always worked exceptionally long hours and have more than enough to read with regular essays and their always-overflowing email inboxes. They don’t want to read any more than is necessary to evaluate your application. If you still think the optional essay applies to you, here are a few tips:
1. Address concerns directly.
Have a trusted advisor review your resume and application to see what questions they have, and then address their concerns head on. If you are working at two jobs at the same time, be clear about which job is your primary focus. Address any significant gaps in your work history or anything that could be confusing or unclear to the admissions committee. If you were laid off from your job and it took you six months to find a new one, explain this and briefly mention how you have grown from the experience. If you were relocating as a trailing spouse or had visa issues that played a role in employment gaps, explain that. Stick with facts and not opinions when addressing sensitive topics.
2. Explain your recommender choice if you are not using your direct supervisor.
If you are not using your direct supervisor as a recommender, explain your reasoning. Perhaps you have only worked for your current supervisor for a few months. Alternatively, if you fear a promotion or raise is at risk by sharing your MBA plans with your direct supervisor, explain this in your optional essay. Admissions committees understand such concerns. Simply explain your rationale for your recommendation choices and why the recommenders you chose are qualified to write your recommendations.
3. Offer context for a low GPA.
There is a difference between providing context and making excuses. For example, own that you were not mature enough to focus on academics early in college, and then offer an example of how you are now ready for rigorous academic work. Consider taking a quant class for academic credit to demonstrate you can master the topic with an A or B grade. If you do not score well on standardized testing, provide other evidence of your quantitative readiness for an MBA program.
4. Show that you have grown.
Self-awareness and the ability to learn from your mistakes are highly valued by admissions committee members. If you do have any past disciplinary actions (e.g., academic suspension or arrest), state how you learned from your past mistake and make it clear that it will not happen again.
1. Offer any excuses or blame.
This is not the place to throw shade at anyone—past bosses, professors, or companies. Simply provide some context to help the admissions team understand the situation.
2. Write a novel.
In fact, you don’t even have to write an essay; if you can clarify and provide the necessary context in just a few sentences, do that.
3. Ramble on to other areas.
Do not try to sneak in a few more points that you ran out of space to discuss in the required essays. If you do this, you risk harming your overall application.
4. Address problems that don’t exist.
No one has a perfect application! Although you might feel bad about the C you got in “Microeconomics,” if your overall GPA is strong, there is no need to call attention to one or two C grades on your transcript.
By providing brief explanations for any parts of your application that are confusing, you enable the admissions reviewer to avoid spending precious time deciphering the details of your past and instead conduct a thorough and holistic review of your application. If you have any questions about your situation, reach out to a member of our admissions counseling team for a free consultation.