We realize that the questions of whether to answer an optional essay and, if so, what to say are ones that loom large for many b-school applicants at this time of year. While we've been offering a great deal of school-specific essay advice over the past few months, we wanted to take some time to suggest a few considerations that applicants might want to take into account when making this call.
Is it relevant?
Perhaps this goes without saying, but the only information worth sharing in an optional essay is that which will make a material difference in your candidacy. Whether you wish to comment on an exciting leadership role you've just taken on or explain that you were overextended extracurricularly during that one bad semester in college, make sure to think carefully about whether this information will affect and enhance the reader's perception of your business school candidacy.
Was it requested?
Most schools do request that applicants use an optional essay to address certain issues, such as a failing grade in a degree program or the absence of a letter of recommendation from one's current direct supervisor. In spite of the technically optional nature of the question, it's very important to follow directions and provide this information if a school requests it. Also along the lines of what information is requested, it's wise to think carefully about a school's other essay questions before deciding to use an optional essay or provide additional information, as each of these topics affords applicants a chance to introduce the information about their background and interests that they consider to be most important. Your objective should be to provide as complete a picture of your candidacy as possible within the framework of a school's required essays (as these are a good indication of what a given program is most interested in hearing about) and to only introduce information in an optional essay that you could not have covered elsewhere without sacrificing something more essential.
Is it constructive?
Once you've decided that a detail is relevant to your candidacy and merits mentioning in an optional essay, the next step is to think carefully about the way this information might be perceived and make sure that the impact it makes on your chances of admission is a positive one. For instance, an essay that simply alerts the adcom to a serious medical condition might help its author stand out from other applicants, but could also leave the reader wondering whether this person could handle the demands of a rigorous academic program. On the other hand, a few details about this applicant's strategies for achieving success in spite of some kind of disability and commitment to supporting others with a chronic illness or impairment might make him or her seem like a very valuable addition to the business school community.
Is it concise?
It's always a good idea to keep in mind that by answering an optional essay, you are creating extra work for the person reading your file. While this should not dissuade you from addressing a topic that you have deemed important based on the considerations above, it's very important that you demonstrate good judgment by limiting your comments to the most relevant information and keeping your response as direct and concise as possible.
We hope that these general guidelines have helped to clear up some confusion and shed some light on the optional essay issue. For more tailored feedback on your personal situation, feel free to send your resume or CV to firstname.lastname@example.org for a free initial consultation.
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