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Optional MBA essays are not always “optional”

November 10 2015 By The MBA Exchange
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Business school applications typically feature one of the following two optional essay questions:

1. Are there any extenuating circumstances that you would like to explain?

Applicants should consider this question as an opportunity to mitigate a significant weakness or vulnerability that constrains their candidacy. Topics could include a low GPA or GMAT score, limited professional experience, a lack of community involvement, an academic suspension or legal matter, the absence of a supervisor’s recommendation, etc.

If there’s a relevant problem or challenge that could harm your chances if the admissions committee is left to interpret it on its own, then use this essay to provide sufficient background information to put it in context. The last thing you want is for admissions officers to think you tried to fool them by disregarding a topic in hopes they would miss it.

And, depending on the circumstances, you should go beyond just summarizing the facts to also convey appropriate remorse (e.g., immaturity as a freshman led to a 1-semester suspension) and a description of what you’ve done to overcome or overshadow the issue in question (e.g., I earned A’s in rigorous extension courses).

If your candidacy is at-risk, this optional essay question is not “optional” for you. A well-structured, thoughtful and thorough message here can neutralize almost any problem and, at the very least, will convey to the adcom that you’re a sincere, self-aware and mature individual. And remember, most schools have a background verification process that scrutinizes each admit prior to matriculation. If a sensitive topic shows up in the background check that was ignored in this essay, the impact on your MBA candidacy could be far more severe and painful.

That said, don’t be paranoid. If your professional, academic and personal standing is solid, then don’t invent issues that aren’t there. Getting a “B-“ in 400-level calculus is not the end of the world! If there’s no significant problem or issue in your past or present, then just leave this question unanswered — and enjoy a well-earned a sigh of relief.

2. Is there any additional information that you would like us to know?

The second kind of optional essay is very different from the first. It is not truly “optional.”

If your candidacy has issues like those described above, then seize this opportunity to clear the air with the same kind of response. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have no constraints that could tarnish your profile, then use this essay as an opportunity to showcase strengths, achievements, experiences, passions, etc., that would otherwise remain unknown to the admissions committee. Capitalize this question to go above and beyond the narrower focus of required essays. Furthermore, if the rest of the application has not provided the chance for you to answer “Why an MBA? Why now? Why this school?” then this is the place to do so.

Help the adcom really get to know you as a person by sharing something relevant and distinctive that doesn’t appear on your resume or in your transcript. A blank space under this question sends a message that you probably don’t want to send: “There’s nothing more to say about me that’s interesting, valuable, distinctive, important, etc.” In our work with business school applicants at The MBA Exchange, after they draft the required essays, we go back to our original assessment of the candidacy to identify relevant strengths and weaknesses that have not yet been presented and therefore belong in this final essay.

So, if and when you see the word “optional” on an MBA application, instead of asking yourself IF you should answer it, take a step back and consider HOW you should answer it. This could be the content that ultimately convinces the adcom that you merit an interview so they can learn even more about your candidacy. Seize this “option” and make the most of it!