Many business schools use open-ended essay prompts, which are usually variations of “I wish the admissions committee had asked me…” or “What is a question that you wish we had asked?” The most common among these open-ended questions is the optional essay, which offers you free rein to discuss anything you feel is important, something you do not have the opportunity to address anywhere else in your application.
Our clients are often uncertain about how to use these spaces, which actually offer an excellent opportunity to round out one’s profile. Before you start thinking about a topic to write about, first consider how many other “open spaces” you might have in the application. You might have both an optional essay space and another open-ended question, or you might have only one.
Option 1: Put profile weaknesses into context.
If the optional essay is your only chance to write about a topic of your choice, you could use it to explain any weakness or inconsistency in your profile that will be noticeable to the adcom. This would be a wise use of the space if the school has not already asked you about any weaknesses elsewhere in the application. For example, your grades might have plummeted during your sophomore year in college, your GMAT score might be low for the average accepted applicant at the school, or you might have had an employment gap of six months or longer. These issues could have occurred because of any number of reasons. Perhaps you had to undergo surgery or were dealing with another serious health issue, or you might have had a death in the family or took on too many extracurricular activities or work responsibilities.
Write about these situations directly and clearly. Don’t be vague about the issues that brought down your performance. If you are unclear or ambiguous in your explanation, the admissions committee might start guessing at scenarios and reasons, possibly assuming something much worse than the reality.
Still, keep perspective on the weaknesses in your profile. There is no need to explain a single C+ grade from your freshman year. You’re not behind in the achievement sweepstakes because you hadn’t launched your own nonprofit or business by the age of 21. You don’t have to apologize for the fact that you didn’t spend your undergrad years at an Ivy League school.
When using the optional essay to address a weakness, keep it short. It’s important to present the relevant context surrounding the facts of your situation, but it’s equally important to share what you learned or did afterward to improve or change the outcome to the extent possible. There might have been circumstances beyond your control. You might not have used your best judgment (common and understandable in very young adults). Either way, do not make excuses, but do demonstrate that the circumstances that impeded your performance are a thing of the past. Provide evidence that you have learned how to handle such circumstances should a similar situation arise in the future.
Remember, the optional essay question almost always comes right at the end of the essay portion of the application. It will therefore probably be the last thing the adcom reads, so do your best to give them something positive to remember you by.
Option 2: Highlight your well-rounded personality.
Because MBA application essays often focus heavily on work examples, career goals, and/or why you are interested in attending a particular school, the optional essay is also a great place to show the adcom a more personal side of yourself, demonstrating that you are a well-rounded and interesting individual. If you simply come across as “the project manager with the 740 GMAT,” you could blend in with too many competitors and lose your advantage. Similarly, because you almost certainly will have already written about leadership, don’t use the optional essay to write about a secondary leadership role, even if it was incredible and you’re very proud of it. Instead, really stand out as “the project manager who used skydiving as a team-building exercise,” “the investment banker who teaches salsa dancing to senior citizens,” or “the marketing manager who taught herself five languages in her spare time.” Now that is an application to remember!
What about Harvard’s single, open-ended question?
Harvard Business School (HBS) asks, “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?” We work with clients all the time who are very intimidated by this question, but by the end of the process, we have convinced them that the school’s prompt is really a gift – though one that must be used wisely. The adcom has given applicants a completely blank canvas to fill with up to 900 words (as of the 2023-2024 application cycle) in answering the question. Harvard is hoping to learn a few things about their successful admits:
- A complete picture of the applicant through a carefully planned use of the space
- An essay that does NOT present what the candidate THINKS the committee wants to hear (whatever you think it is, it’s not)
- The applicant’s ability to deal with ambiguity and show clarity of thought and succinctness
If you are applying to HBS, carefully read our blog for its detailed insights into how to best realize the potential of this open-ended question.
What about the prompt “I wish the admissions committee had asked me…”?
Let’s start with how NOT to respond to this prompt. Believe it or not, some applicants will waste this opportunity by discussing bland “catchall” topics – for example, “I wish the admissions committee had asked me how I achieve excellence in everything I do.” Please don’t do this. Not only will this type of answer usually end up being way too generic and even arrogant.
You can definitely take a more lighthearted approach here and write about an aspect of yourself that is uniquely, distinctively, memorably YOU. Lighthearted does not mean frivolous. For example, you might say that you wish the committee had asked you about the book that changed your life, your favorite musical instrument, the historical personality who fascinates you the most, the moment you realized you weren’t a kid anymore, or what you admire most about a friend, relative, or mentor. Your enthusiasm for these topics will yield more interesting and engaging answers, while also providing insight into you on a more personal level. Beyond the work experience and academic abilities you have already discussed, these answers might also convey your potential value as a member of the incoming class and the teams you will work with.
You could also consider responding to the prompt with any of the following: “What do I do for fun?” “How did my grandmother’s immigrant journey from Korea influence my values?” “What have I learned about the creative process from learning to build websites?” “Why was getting fired from my first job one of the best things that ever happened to me?” The sky’s the limit!
Open-ended essay questions in your MBA application present fantastic opportunities for you to round out your candidacy for the adcom. You can bolster your profile by explaining any deficiencies in it and proving that you have addressed them. Plus, you can surprise the adcom by unveiling a more personal, memorable aspect of yourself that will make you stand out for all the right reasons!
Do you need help answering these questions or any other MBA application questions? Check out Accepted’s services, and work one-on-one with an admissions pro who will answer your questions and help you get ACCEPTED.
By Judy Gruen, a former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a master’s in journalism from Northwestern University and is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business Schools. Want an admissions expert to help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!