I have been blogging about how to embark on the MBA application process as a research project. But a recent conversation I had with a colleague (thanks, James) inspired me to jump right to an aspect of the application that many of you may not be ready for: the optional essay.

Like a lot of other business schools, Babson offers you the opportunity to submit an optional essay, that is, an essay in addition to the three required. Like other schools, we let you decide your topic. What is constantly surprising to me, though, is how few applicants really use this essay to their full advantage.  Here are five ways in which you can successfully use this option, plus: a stylistic tip and a few examples of how misusing the optional essay can diminish your prospects as well as potentially alienate a very busy Admissions Committee.

1.       Explain your undergraduate performance.

Don’t use this essay just to explain your low GPA, or why you did poorly in your major, or why in one semester you earned 3 D’s, an F, and a Withdrawal. Use it to explain what happened, how you overcame your performance. You can – and should – take time to address the bigger picture. The Committee would really like to read your answers, because they had these very questions after reviewing your transcript.

2.       Explain your scores.

Being a bad test taker may be your reason for low scores, but if you chose to use your optional essay to explain a GMAT or GRE score, I recommend you set some context for your poor test taking skills/ability and provide some hard evidence. For TOEFL/IELTS takers, this essay is a great place for giving examples of why your English skills are far better than your scores (case in point—the essay itself is an example of your English skills).

3.       Explaining your work history.

Serial temp? Travelled the world a little too long? Or, conversely, have some stupendous successes on the job? All these points can be masterfully addressed in a pithy, example-laden essay.

4.       Special circumstances

College, test taking, work settings—your performance in all of these settings can easily be affected by a major life crisis or personal challenge. If you experienced a crisis, use this essay to explain, in a succinct and sensitive way, what we should know about it and its effects on you.

5.       Successes, awards, special recognition

Although Babson, like many schools, has a section in the application in which you can enter awards and honors, you may like to describe in detail the honors and accolades you have received or the successes you have achieved. Please do.

STYLISTIC TIPS for the Optional Essay

  • Stick to the word limit, if given one.  If not, 250 words suffice.
  • Write an essay (lots of on-line and old school reference material on the structure of an essay are available). Three short sentences do not make an optional essay.

And finally, how NOT to use the Optional Essay:

  • For excuses
  • For complaints
  • For repeating the contents of our website in an effort to convince the Admissions Committee that you really, really love us.

Good luck.  Think big.

Best,

Barbara