The Optional Essay: Use it or Lose it?

You’ve just spent hours – or more likely weeks – writing the two to four essays that most top MBA programs require. The last thing you want to do is write another essay…unless of course that essay will help you. How do you know if it’s worth it to spend the time composing an optional essay?

Answering the “Weakness” Optional Essay

First, keep in mind that the optional essay is not an option for applicants who have a weakness or inconsistency in their application that is not addressed elsewhere. If the question asks you to address a weakness, and you have a weakness or two, then you should definitely use this space to provide context. For example, if you had one bomb of a semester during college, you’ll want to explain how a death in the family or an emergency surgery got in the way of one semester’s grades. If you have a gap in employment, provide the reasons why you were forced to leave your job before having a replacement position lined up.

In these cases, your optional essay should remain short and to the point, making sure that you also reveal the steps you took to ameliorate the weakness or improve your circumstances. Don’t reach for excuses when you don’t have any – most adcoms see through a superficial explanation. And don’t whine or blame. Take responsibility for mistakes. We’ve all made them.

Answering the Open-Ended Optional Essay

If you face an open-ended optional essay question, then you have a decision to make, and an opportunity. You certainly don’t need to write an optional essay. It is NOT required, but if you have anything additional that you’d like to offer the adcom readers, then this is your chance.

Frankly, if you are a talented, accomplished multi-faceted individual, you will not be able to provide all pertinent information in the required boxes and essays. In my view – while if one has nothing to say, one should say nothing – the open-ended optional essay is simply another opportunity to sell your ability to add a unique perspective, voice, or talent to the class. However, don’t use it to rehash material found elsewhere.

Bottom line: use this space to your advantage. Toot your horn and share with the adcom readers one more reason to admit you.

By Linda Abraham, CEO and founder of and co-author of the soon-to released book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools.  Linda has been helping MBA applicants gain acceptance to top MBA programs since 1994.

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