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Should you complete the optional essay on your MBA application?

Katie Schenk - January 05, 2018

Should you complete the optional essay on your MBA application?

If you’re just beginning to work on your MBA admissions essays, you’re likely filled with a combination of trepidation and optimism.

That makes perfect sense.

After all, there’s a lot riding on those words; your GMAT score is only a foot in the door, and your CV is what will prompt admissions officers to take another look. But once you’ve got their attention, your essays can make all the difference between an interview request and the dreaded rejection letter.

So, should you complete that optional essay?

Shouldn’t you make sure you do all you can to demonstrate your strong candidacy?

Unfortunately, this is another one of those blurry spots in the application process that you’ve got to consider quite carefully; there’s no blanket answer that works for everyone. On the other hand, there are a few guidelines you can use to help.

When should you complete the optional essay on your MBA application?

The optional essay is your chance to explain any discrepancies in your application. If you’ve got a perfectly clean CV that you’re proud of and a GMAT to die for, then you probably don’t need to complete the optional essay. (Feel free to exhale now.)

However, if there are any inconsistencies, you’ll want to give that optional essay a second chance. These are a few of the troubling areas to consider writing about:

  • Low marks in your undergraduate studies, or any educational opportunities undertaken since then. There are many reasons this could have happened, but if you don’t spell it out for the admissions team, they’re free to think the worst.
  • Low GMAT results. This test isn’t the end-all, be-all of MBA admissions, but a low score will raise more than eyebrows unless you explain the reasons behind it.
  • A missing reference from your current employer. There are a few reasons why you’d choose not to request a reference from your boss; it’s most likely that you don’t want your company to know you’re leaving. But, if you don’t explain this, the admissions board might believe you’ve not behaved adequately in your present position.
  • Gaps in employment or education should be addressed in this essay. If you don’t mention that you were travelling the world, the board could assume the worst. And, even if it is the worst thing you can imagine – you can always turn it around to your advantage by demonstrating what you’ve learned.

What do ad comms want to see in an optional essay?

Usually, optional essays don’t carry a word limit. But, you don’t want to go to town, writing pages upon pages of information.

Given the sheer number of words ad comms must read from the thousands of applicants interested in their programme, you can bet they’re not interested in superfluous texts. Any applicant completing an optional essay should keep it as short and to the point as humanly possible. If you only need two or three sentences to get your point across, then do so. Never expound because you think it’s too short; it’s not.

The optional essay is there for you to elaborate on a particular issue that you know ad comms will spot and question instantly. It’s not a place for emotion, however.

For example, if you’re final semester as an undergrad was marked by terrible grades that brought down your entire GPA, you want to let the ad comm know why. If your dog was sick or you were consumed by your job search, say so; whatever the reason, take responsibility for it.

But, don’t tell ad comms how they should look at it or feel about it. Indeed, you shouldn’t even mention how you feel about it. You should, however, explain what you learned from the experience and how it shaped you as a human being or a business leader.

The important aspect of the optional essay is to acknowledge the gaps in your application and to provide additional information to avoid lingering questions. You can’t assume that you’ll have a chance to clarify a gap when you get to the interview phase – you won’t get the invitation to speak if they can’t make heads or tails of your application.

As with every part of your application, you should be as clear and succinct as possible – you don’t want to repeat information found elsewhere in your file, all you want to do is fill in a gap.

To address the low GPA example, you could simply say, “My final term marks were lower than average as I was coping with an illness in the family. The experience taught me about dealing with unavoidable situations and my instinctive reactions to overwhelming factors. While it didn’t assist with my GPA, I was able to use this understanding to more successfully navigate the challenges when faced with a similar situation during my time with AB Company, where I employed better communication and delegation skills to overcome the shortfalls previously experienced.”

It’s less than 100 words, answers the “why” question, demonstrates that you recognise where you may have gone wrong, shows what you learned from it, and provides proof that you’re not stressed about what the low GPA could mean for your entire application.

Now, if you have a few gaps to address, it’s time to get cracking with that additional essay. If not, perhaps it’s back to revising your CV. 

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