What to say-- and NOT to say-- In the Optional Essay

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It is tempting to think that you can win the heart of the admissions committee by adding an optional essay. You may be burning to expand upon the cross-cultural insights you learned from your trek to Peru. But, before you power up your PC, think about the point of the optional essay.
Quite simply, it exists only to address the questions that an admissions committee member might have after they review the required materials. These questions usually center on your academic readiness, your career potential, or your choice of recommenders.

Is there some reason why you had all those "D's" and "F's" junior year? What were you doing during the six-month gap on your resume? Was there an illness or personal situation that led you to withdraw from school for a semester? Why isn't your direct supervisor writing a recommendation? If you do not have this kind of situation, there is no reason to include an optional essay.

I can tell you from direct experience that no admissions officer wants to read any more than is needed to evaluate you application. If you still think the optional essay applies to you, here are a few tips:

1. The best defense is a good offense. Address any significant gaps in work history or anything that you think could be confusing or unclear to the admissions committee. If you were laid off from your job and it took you six months to find a new one, just state that and briefly mention how you have grown from the experience. If you were relocating as a trailing spouse or had Visa issues that played a role in employment gaps, explain. Stick with facts and not opinions when addressing sensitive topics.

2. Offer context for a low GPA. There is a difference between providing context and making excuses. Simply state that you were not mature enough to focus on academics early in college and offer an example of how you are now ready for rigorous academic work. Consider taking a quant class for academic credit and receiving an A. If you do not score well on standardized testing, provide other evidence of your quantitative readiness for an MBA program.

3. Address recommender choice. Perhaps you have only worked for your current supervisor for a few months. Alternatively, if you let your manager know that you are applying to business school you will risk not getting the promotion you are up for in a few months. Admissions committees understand. Simply explain why then share what qualifies the individuals you selected to write recommendations.

4. Show that you have grown. Self-awareness and the ability to learn from your mistakes are both valued by admissions committee members. If you do have any past disciplinary actions (academic suspension or arrest), simply state how you learned from your past mistake and make it clear that it will not happen again.

1. Offer any excuses or blame. This is not the place to throw shade. Just provide an explanation to help the admissions team understand the situation.

2. Write a novel. In fact, you don't even have to write an essay. If you can clarify and provide the necessary context in just a few sentences, do that.

3. Ramble on to other areas. You shouldn't try to sneak in a few more points that you wanted to address in the regular essays but ran out of space. If you do this, you run the risk of harming your overall application.

4. Address problems that don't exist. While you might feel bad about the C you got in microeconomics, if your overall GPA is strong there really is no need to call attention to one or two C's on your transcript.

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Kellogg MBA

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