When to Submit an Optional Essay

November 11, 2014 | by Matt Symonds

When working in admissions departments at top MBA programs, some of the questions that we were asked each year were whether a candidate should write an optional essay, and what kinds of topics should be addressed in the optional essay space. In the last few years, as many MBA programs have reduced the number of required essays and essay count, the answers to these questions are less clear-cut. Applicants are eager to share unique information about themselves but now due to word count constraints there’s less space to communicate this kind of information. While in some cases we can easily determine whether or not to write an optional essay, in other cases the answer requires more thought and discussion. Judith Silverman Hodara, former Acting Director or MBA Admissions at Wharton shares her own advice around this topic in our new Fortuna video “Latest trends in MBA Admissions” so click here to hear her tips. We will also provide some guidance here to help you determine how to approach the optional essay.

It’s important to read the information presented for the optional essay at each school since some schools can treat this application component differently. Do your research and read postings on the schools’ online admissions pages and blogs as these can sometimes provide suggestions for how to handle the question. At University of Michigan Ross, for example, after removing application questions from prior years about applicants’ goals and reasons for pursuing an MBA, the Admissions Director’s blog requests that applicants NOT use the optional essay to write about these topics. Instead, Ross prefers to discuss career goals and reasons for an MBA in an interview where they can ask follow-up questions and get a deeper understanding of each applicant’s plans in person.

Wharton’s instructions for the optional essay invite applicants to use the optional essay (up to 400 words) to “highlight any additional information that you would like the Admissions Committee to know about your candidacy.” Judith suggests that applicants not use the optional essay to reiterate content covered in other parts of the application for this section. If, however, there’s something that you could not fit into the first essay which you believe is integral to help demonstrate a clearer picture of who you are, this could be the place to include it. It’s important that you use good judgment in what you write about and ask yourself if this information is worth another ten minutes of time by the person reading your application. Do you think that this information cannot be garnered from other parts of your presentation?

Topics to include in most optional essays

There are some topics that a school will expect you to address in the optional essay. Examples of these are poor grades in college (or in masters degree programs), low GMAT score (particularly on the quant section), breaks in education or employment, and recommenders who may not be considered your managers. Hopefully you have an explanation for these, especially poor grades, which does not come across as an excuse. You should keep these explanations brief and if there’s something that you have done to address these issues, this is the place to include that information. One applicant we worked with had several “C” grades in analytical courses in college but she recently took additional quantitative classes through a continuing education program and received “A” grades to show that she can handle the rigor of coursework in a top MBA program. The rule of thumb is that if you feel that there is something about your candidacy that you “think” the admissions office may wonder about, it’s better to address it clearly and concisely rather than wonder if it’s perhaps impacting the review of your file.

“Grey area” topics

Some topics are not as straightforward and in these cases, we suggest you run your ideas by someone you trust. In some situations, what you consider a weakness might not be an issue and writing about it in an optional essay might draw more attention to something that wasn’t even noticed. A few common areas that we get questions about are college suspensions, trouble with the law, or marginal grades or GMAT scores. Fortuna’s co-founder, Matt Symonds, even published a recent article in Forbes, called “50 Shades of Admissions Grey”. In this article he discusses common admissions concerns and advice for how to handle them. In these situations, we take the time to understand the circumstances and help our clients make the best decision. Overall, we suggest that you be judicious around what you include or omit in an optional essay since this can send a signal to Admissions about your personal judgment.

If you have questions about your own presentation and how to approach your optional essays or other admissions questions, we are happy to provide a free 30-minute consultation. Please click here to contact us.

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