After writing the four or five required essays that most business schools ask for, my clients often ask me whether they really need to write another one for the optional essay.
My short answer is, “It depends.”
It depends on the individual’s background, how the school phrases the question, and whether there is anything else to say that would materially add to the application.
The optional essay is not an option if there is a weakness or inconsistency in your application. If your grades plummeted your sophomore year in college, this is the place to explain that you underwent surgery that semester. Or, if there is a gap in your employment, you provide the explanation. In other words, don’t leave the admissions committee guessing or assuming the worst.
When using this essay to address a weakness, keep it short and keep it simple. State the facts, the pertinent reasons surrounding the facts, and what you learned or what you did subsequently to improve or change, to the extent possible, the outcome. A straightforward presentation is the goal. Keep in mind, it is important not to make excuses for actions for which there is no excuse.
Let’s say you have no such weaknesses. Your next step in deciding whether you need to write the optional essay is to look at how the school defines it. Read the instructions carefully. Does the school say this essay is to be used only to explain gaps and problems? There’s your answer: If you have no inconsistencies, do not write the optional essay.
Most schools, however, are not as blunt, and allow you to provide additional information that would be helpful in reviewing your application. Note that schools do not ask for a summary of your essays, so take a look at your entire application. Have you presented a well-rounded picture of your candidacy? If you have nothing to add, then you do not need to write an optional essay just because it’s there. Are your essays heavily weighted to professional experiences? If yes, use the opportunity to showcase another dimension of your life, perhaps your community service activities or involvement in a sport. If you are still uncertain, consider what you could add that provides another reason to accept you.
Use or do not use the optional essay to your advantage to add value to your application.