4 Reasons to Write an Optional Business School Application Essay

When it comes to the optional business school application essay, MBA hopefuls often wonder if it is truly optional. Many applicants feel an obligation to write something and struggle with what that something should be. Some programs explicitly state that applicants should use this essay only to address extenuating circumstances. Meanwhile, others ask more broadly whether there is anything else about your candidacy you would like to share with the admissions committee.

Our advice regarding the optional essay is to first complete your entire application package, except for the optional essay. Don’t worry about that piece of the puzzle just yet.  Once you have finished, review your application and see if there’s something extra you would like to communicate. Make sure that you cannot address the issue elsewhere in the application. However, if you feel something is missing, use the optional essay as an opportunity to add what you want to share.

Consider the following advice within the context of your overall strategy and the schools you are considering. These areas are prime material for the optional essay.

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Reasons to Write an Optional Business School Application Essay

Academic Weaknesses

If you have a C grade or below on your undergraduate transcript, the admissions committee will want to know why. Your task is to make them feel comfortable that the low grade is an outlier in your overall academic record. Strike an upbeat tone here and avoid excuses. Make sure to emphasize your improved performance later in your college career or subsequent work or classes since college.

Briefly explain the situation in the optional business school application essay and focus the balance of your essay on looking forward. Show what you have done recently to prove your skills and intelligence. For example, if you have a new, higher GMAT score or took classes in calculus or statistics, you have a solid case for improved academics.

If you had a disciplinary issue in college, you should spend most of the essay conveying what you learned from the experience. Show that you’ve been an ideal citizen ever since. If extenuating circumstances affected your academic performance, definitely explain what those were.

But if it was a simple immaturity, you must also own up to that. Though embarrassing to admit, if you don’t provide those details, the admissions committee will make assumptions that may not be in your favor.

Employment Gaps or Major Career Changes

You don’t have to explain a short gap between school and a secured job. But you should address any months-long gap between the two positions. Otherwise, the admissions team may assume you spent that time binge-watching Better Call Saul

Did you use that time off to volunteer in Guatemala or care for an ailing parent? Perhaps you used the time away to focus on an entrepreneurial dream, unencumbered by the 9-to-5 grind. Ideally, you can point to additional education, training, volunteering, or traveling that you engaged in while unemployed.

If you recently switched careers, you may feel concerned that the admissions committee won’t see why an MBA would help further your new professional aspirations. In that case, use the optional business school application essay space to make an airtight argument for why you want to go into this new field. Show that the decision was not capricious but rather reasoned and well-thought-out.

Choice of Recommender

Business schools almost always ask for a letter of recommendation from a current supervisor. The reason? Typically, this is the best person to comment on your abilities and leadership skills as they stand today. However, not every applicant feels comfortable asking their employer for a recommendation letter.

Perhaps they aren’t ready to let their boss know of their MBA plans. Or, a personality conflict might not lead to the most glowing recommendation. Sometimes, the issue is that the applicant hasn’t worked with the supervisor long enough for them to comment meaningfully on the candidate’s performance.

Whatever the reason, you should briefly address your decision not to seek a recommendation from your current supervisor in the optional essay space. The admissions committee understands the various circumstances which may prevent it. But you still need to explain why to eliminate any doubts or wrong assumptions about the quality of your working relationship with your employer.

Listen to B-Schooled Podcast #78: Unique Recommender Situations

Information That Adds to Your Candidacy

This is where you can introduce information about yourself that you couldn’t find a way to incorporate elsewhere. If you are a reapplicant, the optional essay is the ideal place to explain what you have done to strengthen your case for admission since your last application. Think of things such as receiving a promotion, which would signal career development and leadership. Even if you don’t have a clear-cut story to describe, you can use this space to explain how you have improved your thinking, career goals, or fit.

Finally, if you don’t have a weakness to address and the school has an open-ended optional essay question, this is an opportunity to provide information you couldn’t work into the other required essays. For example, this is a chance to showcase your unique profile if you have an unusual background, hobby, or extracurricular experience to share.

Yes, the optional business school application essay truly is optional. So take advantage of it if necessary, but exercise good judgment and restraint.


Stacy Blackman Consulting offers multiple services to meet your MBA application needs, from our All-In Partnership to hourly help reviewing your MBA resume. Contact us today for a free 15-minute advising session to talk strategy with a Principal SBC consultant. 

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