A number of schools have variations on this question, and clients regularly ask what they are supposed to do with a topic like this. The answer: It depends.
The role of the optional essay
Ask yourself: 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?
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, you must discuss them here (there are ways to do so effectively). Please bear in mind that 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 nonprofit 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 school.
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. With some creativity (and hopefully enough word count left over), you can also highlight some positive aspects of your candidacy in this space as well.
The importance of highlighting your well-roundedness
Now ask yourself this: Have you used the other essay topics effectively to illustrate your personal background and community involvement as well as your academic and professional history? Is there anything you really wanted to write about but couldn’t fit in, for whatever reason?
Sometimes essay questions simply don’t give you the opportunity to give a 360-degree view of yourself, since the questions may focus exclusively on work examples, your career goals, and/or why you are interested in attending a particular school. This essay provides you with the space to add dimensions and give that well-rounded sense of you. It 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.”
A 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.
Open-ended MBA essay questions (like Harvard’s)
In recent years, some business schools (Harvard most notably) have switched to entirely open-ended questions. Harvard’s is: “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?”
While we work with clients all the time who are very intimidated by this question, by the end of the process we have convinced them that Harvard has actually provided a gift with this question – though, a gift one must use wisely! By providing unlimited space to answer this question, Harvard is hoping for a few things from successful admits:
- The wise use of the space to provide a complete picture of themselves
- An essay that does NOT present what the candidate thinks the committee wants to hear (whatever you think it is, it’s not)
- The good judgment to refrain from writing a lengthy novel, and to instead show clarity of thought and succinctness
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 more lighthearted (though not frivolous) 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 incoming class and the teams you will work with beyond your work experience and academic abilities.
A lot of times this question is worded in an open-ended way (like Harvard’s), but if the question really does request what you wish they had asked, you need to develop the question that allows you to reveal what you want them to know. It could be, “What do I do for fun?” It could be, “How did I come to develop the goal that I have?” It could be, “What do you want us to know that we don’t yet know about you?” First and foremost, though, don’t forget to ask yourself — and answer yourself honestly: what DO you wish they had asked you?
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