Optional MBA Essays: How to decide if you should use them

After you’ve taken care of the compulsory MBA essays, there’s the open canvas of the optional MBA essay looking at you enticingly…all white and pure…waiting for you to colour it with the palette that you hold. Will you jump at the opportunity or will you let it go?

The enthusiastic ones would look at it as the last open window to squeeze in all the brilliant things that they think the Adcoms need to know about them. Stuff that they were not able to cover in the mandatory MBA essays. Others may treat it like the psychologist’s couch where you can explain all the things that went wrong in your life and why you were not the one to blame.

The lazy ones (‘overworked’, sounds better?) would think ‘These business school admissions guys are making me work so hard. I’ll only submit things that are absolutely essential.’ A simple equation sums it up:
Optional = Not important = Ok to skip

Even if you aren’t being over-zealous or lazy, you may still wonder what you should do with the optional essay. Some schools may provide guidelines about what they expect in the optional essay. If there is no specific information provided and they’ve left it to your discretion, here’s what you need to do.

First, decide whether an optional essay would really help you. For this, try to get an insight into the essence of an optional essay and why Adcoms might want to read it. The optional essay (as the name suggests) is not an essential requirement and you will not get penalty points for not using it. You don’t need to feel insecure about not having submitted this essay while your competitors might have.

Think of what you want to cover in the main essays and analyse whether the answers provided in there are good enough to paint a clear picture about your professional profile as well as other aspects related to your student or personal life. If yes, then consider your job with essays done. You don’t need to bother about the optional essay. Move on to exciting activities like word-count reduction.

If you aren’t able to figure that out, get somebody else (preferably somebody who doesn’t know you well and won’t be able to mentally fill in the gaps within your application) to browse through your application components – essays, recommendations, transcripts, resume. Ask them if there’s any glaring question that pops up in their mind or any ambiguity about aspects you’ve covered in your essays or application. Evaluate how critical these observations are and if you can fix them in the mandatory essays. If not, then you have a strong case for addressing these grey areas through your optional essay.

A straigthforward example of this could be a bad academic performance in any one of the semesters. You may have had some genuine reason; maybe your health suffered or you may have had some personal problem in the family that adversely affected your academic grades. However this explanation would make sense only if the low grades happened in 1 or 2 semesters. Or a very low GMAT score. Or a career break.

Like with the mandatory essays, resist the temptation of pouring your heart out. Keep it short, and non-whiny.

Other than dealing with discrepancies, ambiguities or unexplained gaps in your application, the optional essay may also be used to present original information which may have been beyond the scope of the compulsory questions and which can add significant value to your profile and present some unexplored aspect of your personality not discussed earlier. Be cautious about not repeating something which may have been covered earlier in your application.

In summary, use your discretion, weigh out the pros and cons and take your stand on whether to provide an optional essay or not. An optional essay means extra work for the MBA application reviewers. So make it worth their effort. And yours.

If you have queries about optional essays, post them as a comment here and we’d be happy to share our views.

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Sameer Kamat //
Sameer Kamat
Founder of MBA Crystal Ball. Author of Beyond The MBA Hype & Business Doctors. Here's more about me. Connect with me: Linkedin | Facebook | Twitter | Youtube

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