How to Tackle MBA Optional Essays in Your Business School Application?

After months of polishing your MBA application essays, you are faced with the optional essay dilemma. Should you hastily toss a few points into the MBA Optional Essay (s)? But here’s the problem: you’re clueless about its actual value. You’ve consulted experts and other applicants and even tried to gauge the mood of admissions officers through YouTube Videos. Some seem oddly excited about the optional essays, while others can barely hide their impatience. Well, if you ask us, it’s really up to you to decide whether you’ll shine with an extra essay or bore the admissions officers to death.

What do B Schools Ask in the MBA Optional Essays?

Every business school allows applicants to submit an optional essay or additional information of some kind. Schools may narrow the focus by suggesting that you address areas of concern, extenuating circumstances, or aspects that need explanation. They may also steer you toward specific topics that are relevant to your application.

NYU Stern MBA invites you to elaborate on;

“hardships you have encountered, current or past gaps in employment, further explanation of your undergraduate record or self-reported academic transcript (s), plans to retake the GMAT, GRE, Executive Assessment, IELTS or TOEFL, or any other relevant information.”

Wharton MBA offers an optional essay to explain;

“extenuating circumstances (e.g., unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, areas of weakness, etc”

Should You Write the Optional MBA Essays or Should You Not

A. The Don’t Write Argument

Applicants who don’t write the optional essay(s) see these essays as only for explaining excuses- bad grades, test scores, or other issues. After pouring your heart into the main essays, who has the energy for an optional one? Plus, spare a thought for the poor admissions officers—do they really need yet another essay to read? Why risk annoying them when you’ve already worked hard on the main essays?

B. The “Should Definitely Write” Arguments:

  1. Business school applications have seen a trend of fewer essay questions and smaller word limits per question. Despite this, applicants are as multidimensional and accomplished as ever. As space for storytelling diminishes, the optional essay becomes more valuable in conveying a fuller picture.
  2. Many schools explicitly invite applicants to provide additional information they consider necessary, indicating that optional essays are valued. While poorly written essays may exhaust admissions officers, a well-structured and coherent essay can leave a positive impression.
  3. Admissions officers are professionals seeking unique and qualified applicants. The optional essay offers another chance to highlight your distinctive qualities and stand out from the crowd.
  4. Highly selective schools may presume that applicants have more to share. Schools encouraging applicants to skip the optional essay might inadvertently suggest a lack of accomplishments or distinctive experiences.

7 Topics To Address In The MBA Optional Essays

What Should You Write About?

There are two main camps when it comes to optional essays: the negative and the positive. The negative includes all those topics that you’re probably only discussing because not doing so might raise eyebrows with the admissions officers. The positive, on the other hand, encompasses everything else—the topics you choose because they offer valuable insights into who you are. Whichever category you fall into, remember that readers might approach the optional essay with slightly less enthusiasm than your main ones, so keep it direct and to the point.

Here are some topics that applicants must address in the Optional MBA Application Essay;

1. The Obvious Weakness

If you’ve spotted a clear flaw in your profile, you can mitigate its impact by presenting evidence that suggests it’s not as detrimental as it seems. Acknowledge the weakness, but provide evidence of how you’ve grown and moved beyond it. Provide convincing explanations for any challenges you’ve faced. Some schools might even throw scholarships your way for a killer turnaround story. Keep your essay concise and focused. Wrap up with one or two examples illustrating how you’ve overcome or are currently addressing the issue, whether it’s a low GPA, a gap in employment, or even a past conviction. It’s all about showing your recovery game strong!

2. Address Low GMAT Scores In The Optional MBA Essay

In the MBA Optional Essay, discussing a disappointing GMAT score may not offer much help, as admissions committees have seen such tactics before. You may mention personal challenges, like health reasons but it won’t change the score’s impact. Keep your explanation brief and outline your plan for retaking the test.

We have seen some applicants citing a mismatch between their academic capabilities and ability to succeed in standardised tests. This is a daring argument for an optional essay and requires strong proof through previously taken standardised tests and proof of academic success. If you have been a school topper or a class valedictorian but still struggled with your SATs, the AdComs might see some sense in your argument.

But if your grades or test scores contradict this argument, it’s best to avoid it. If your quantitative and verbal scores are unbalanced, focus the optional essay on showcasing relevant skills and experiences to reassure the committee. If your quantitative and verbal scores are imbalanced, consider using your optional essay to demonstrate why this should not worry the committee. For instance, if you have a low quant score, you could highlight your experience with quantitative models and data analysis in your finance role. Similarly, if your verbal score is low, you might discuss your written and oral communication skills, such as writing white papers or delivering presentations. Your recommenders can also support your case by emphasizing your strengths in their letters of recommendation.

Your recommenders can also support your case by highlighting your strengths in their letters of recommendation.

3. Address Poor Grades In The Optional MBA Essay

Dedicate MBA optional essays to poor grades only if you have a series of Ds and Fs during a difficult semester or in core business courses. There is no need to explain non-business education relevant courses and rather use that space to bring forth new stories.

But if you had a lower grade point average in the last two years compared to the first two years, it’s better to explain. A common excuse we see is the argument of lack of concentration. But why were you unfocused? It’s one thing if you struggled because you were the first in your family to attend college and needed time to adjust. But it’s another thing if you spent your freshman year goofing around and having a blast. The most effective justifications come from specific circumstances beyond your control.

If you were faced with particular challenges or unavoidable commitments, such as demanding extracurricular activities or working full-time to fund your studies, admissions officers are likely to show some leniency.

4. No Recommendation From Current Supervisor

If you have skipped a recommendation from your current boss., this omission, akin to dodging poor grades or test scores, might raise eyebrows among admissions committees, hinting that maybe your supervisor doesn’t think highly of you. Many applicants dodge including a letter from their boss to avoid risking their job if they’re not admitted. Business schools understand you are treading on thin ice. If you’ve been with your current boss for less than a year, slipping in a letter from a previous boss is totally fine. Just a quick note in your application does the trick, freeing essay space to add other interesting details.

For self-employed/ family business candidates-

Another valid reason for omitting a current supervisor’s letter is if you’re self-employed or work for a family business (letters from family are not considered credible). Inform the school you’re submitting letters from clients, colleagues, or vendors. If unemployed, explain your activities during the gap period in your essay.

5. Address Employment Gaps In The MBA Optional Essays

You should explain the circumstances behind your current unemployment positively to do damage control. Short-term unemployment, like two months, may not require a detailed explanation. If you were terminated for cause, decide whether to explain fully in an optional essay or briefly in the application’s data section based on your situation. If the termination was due to company-wide downsizing, there’s no need to be defensive; many others are in the same position. Negative circumstances like these won’t necessarily be seen as deal-breakers by schools. Use the optional essay to highlight the activities you’ve been involved in since losing your job.

6. Address Weak Extracurriculars in the MBA Optional Essays

Business schools hold extracurricular activities and community involvement in high regard. If these areas are not your strong suit, you have a couple of options: either avoid drawing attention to it and rely on other aspects of your application to shine, or provide a detailed essay explaining your other specific commitments. This could include your involvement in college, mentoring juniors at work, or examples from your family life that demonstrate similar traits to community work, such as being a single parent or providing extensive care for family members.

7. Other Challenges to Explain:

Situations worth explaining could be dropping out of college early or taking longer to finish your degree than normal. If you have been unhappy with a first MBA or a MiM, explain why you are so enthusiastic about pursuing a second management degree. If you are so enthusiastic but applying in round 2, that could call for an explanation. If have had plenty of applicants explain why they applied in late rounds! Keep it short, though, so you can focus on the good stuff.

Sometimes, the optional essay can help you explain less common issues, like how being in a wheelchair or dealing with depression doesn’t stop you from flying and aiming high. It’s also a chance to show how you’ve changed since past mistakes, like facing disciplinary action in school.

5. The Good Stuff: Positive MBA Optional Essays

As we’ve seen, many B schools are receptive to optional MBA essays that offer new insights or details not included in your main application. So, what should you focus on?
One strategy is to showcase a different side of yourself that hasn’t been fully highlighted in your other essays. For instance, if you’re known for your coding or analytical skills but also have a passion for cooking, your optional essay could delve into how you’ve honed your culinary expertise through experimentation and hosting cooking workshops for friends and family.

Perhaps you wanted to highlight your passion for photography or your involvement in a local theater group but didn’t find the right opportunity in the main essays. Your optional essay could be the ideal platform to shine a spotlight on these unique interests or pursuits.

Alternatively, if you’re an avid hiker or nature enthusiast, you could share anecdotes about memorable outdoor adventures that have shaped your perspective and leadership abilities. The key is to choose an aspect of your personality or experiences that adds depth and richness to your overall profile, while also aligning with the values of the school you’re applying to.

Confused about your chances to top 20 B Schools? Get a free one-to-one personalized MBA Consultation and advice tailored to your specific situation. We do not cap discussion hours with our applicants.

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