“I wish the admissions committee had asked me…”
OK. A number of schools have variations on this question, and over the past few days, quite a few people have asked me what they are supposed to do with a topic like this. My answer: “That depends.” (No, I’m rarely capable of just giving a simple answer! Sorry!) But I’d like to take a few minutes here to discuss exactly what that depends ON.
- Does the application offer an “optional” essay space *as well as* asking this question, or is this the only place where you will get to write about a topic of your choice?
- Have you used the other essay topics effectively to illustrate your personal background and community involvement as well as your academic professional history? Is there anything you really wanted to write about but couldn’t fit in, for whatever reason?
- Do you have any big “red flags” to deal with on your application? Please bear in mind that “big” is the operative word here. You don’t have to explain away a single C+ grade from your freshman year. You don’t have to justify the fact that you hadn’t started your own non-profit organization by the age of 19. You don’t have to apologize for the fact that you didn’t spend your undergrad years at an Ivy League college. But there are things that you might have to address somehow , such as a major GPA crash in your junior or senior year, a GMAT score leaning towards (or falling below) the lowest score that the program generally accepts, a major gap in work experience, and so on. Is this the place to do it?
That’s where my first question comes in. If a school offers you a space to explain any academic or career “glitches,” use that space to do so, not this one. Remember, this question almost always comes right at the end of the essay portion of the application — it will probably be the last thing the adcom reads, so if at all possible, use it to give them something positive to remember you by. (If that’s not possible–if this really is the ONLY place where you can deal with the negative aspects of your application–deal with it. There are ways to do so effectively, but I’ll save that for another time.)
If you make the most of this space, you can really personalize your application. You may drift out of the adcom’s minds pretty quickly if you simply come across as “the project manager with the 740 GMAT,” but with this essay, you have the chance to make yourself stick with them 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.”
This positive and distinctive use of this essay will be much more effective than telling them about your SECOND most important leadership experience (since you’ve probably already had a chance to write about the most important one). And it would be a Very Good Idea to stay away from bland “catch all” topics like “I wish the admissions committee had asked me how I achieve excellence in everything I do.” Those types of essays usually end up being a) far too much to handle in the space provided, and b) way too generic, and don’t tend to offer the adcom anything much that they can’t learn from other areas of your application.
Assuming that you’ve dealt with the really important professional/leadership experiences before you hit this point in your application (and most applications give you ample opportunity to do so), you can definitely take a light-hearted (though not frivolous, of course!) approach here. You don’t have to write about anything huge, heavy or mind-blowingly important — rather, choose a topic that adds to the adcom’s perception of your well-roundedness, your “human interest” factor, and your potential to contribute something to the groups you work with over and above your work experience and academic abilities. You’ve already impressed them with those, naturally! Finally, don’t forget to ask yourself — and answer yourself honestly: what DO you wish they had asked you?