Tips for Writing the Optional Essay for Harvard Kennedy School

One of the most underused tools for standing out in the application process is using the optional essay. It’s hard to write a great optional essay and very easy to write an ineffective one that annoys the admissions committee.

Who should write the optional essay?

Although it’s called the “optional essay,” about 70% of my clients end up writing the optional essay if their schools include an optional essay.

Anyone who has any kind of blemish or red flag in their application should write the optional essay.

Here are some occasions when you should consider writing the optional essay:

  • you have a GPA below 3.6
  • you have a GMAT / GRE score below the 75th percentile
  • you took time off of work or school
  • you are noticeably older or younger than most applicants to your target schools
  • you don’t have a letter of recommendation from your direct supervisor and you think it will look suspect
  • you don’t have much quantitative work experience and you’re applying to a top MBA or MPA / MPP program
  • you were put on probation or received some other kind of disciplinary sanction in college

Why should I write the optional essay?

While business schools have interviews, most policy schools do not include an interview in the selection process. Therefore, your written application is all they have to go off of in deciding whether or not to give you a spot in the incoming class.

I think of the optional essay as your seat at the table when your application gets put in the “maybe” pile and comes up for further discussion by the committee.

A skeptic on the committee says, “Look at how low her college GPA is,” but your optional essay pipes up and says, “True, I have a low GPA in college, but I was an award-winning athlete, an officer of my student government, and I was working to support myself through college. I’ve financially planned well for graduate school, so now I’ll be able to fully focus on my studies rather than juggling too many commitments.”

Without the optional essay, AdCom members are left to draw their own conclusions about why certain red flags in your application popped up—and whether or not those red flags are bad enough to sink your application.

How long should the optional essay be?

This is stating the obvious, but the optional essay should definitely be within the word limit. Additionally, you should try to get your key message across in as few words as possible. Since this is an additional essay, you don’t want to create more work for the AdCom than necessary.

When should I write the optional essay?

I recommend that my clients write the optional essay first. It allows them to get every worry, doubt, and fear out and on paper so that they can move forward with their other essays with a renewed confidence and clarity about why they do have a shot at getting into their dream school.

What should I write in the optional essay?

Since Harvard Kennedy School is the #1 school my clients apply to, let’s use the 2014-2015 Harvard Kennedy School Optional Essay as a case study of how to write an optional essay.

You can apply this same essay structure for any graduate school optional essay—whether it’s MBA, MPH, MSW, M. Ed, or something else.

The Prompt: (applicable to all HKS degree programs)

(Optional) If you have any concerns about your prior academic background, or if you believe the Admissions Committee may have concerns, please give a brief explanation of your performance in college, or your standardized test scores (750 word limit).

  • Directly state the areas of your application you believe may be of concern to the admissions committee.

Then, for each trouble area of your candidacy, follow this structure:

  • Restate the trouble area. e.g. My undergraduate GPA is 3.1.
  • Tell them why this problem occurred. Don’t point fingers or try to put blame on others. Dispassionately explain what happened and take personal responsibility. Be sure to be diplomatic and tactful in your response. For example, don’t write “I was partying too much my freshman year of college,” because that’s troubling to AdComs and no one wants to hear that. Instead, you can get the same point across by saying something like, “I was still maturing and adjusting to the multiple demands of college.”
  • Tell them what you learned from this experience. What did you learn about yourself as a leader, student, and/or member of a community?
  • Tell them what you have done since then to remedy this problem. This is where you show that you are a proactive problem-solver.
  • Tell them what you will do if this problem seems to be a threat during your time at Harvard. What resources on- and off-campus will you use to make sure you continue to excel academically, personally, and professionally during your time at Harvard?

Lastly, end your optional essay with an optimistic and confident statement of your enthusiasm for the program and your gratitude for their consideration.

Voila! You have an optional essay worth reading. Now you can move on to writing the essays that are required for you to get into your dream school.

We’d love to edit your optional essay for your dream grad school. Visit our Essay & Resume Editing page to learn more about our editing services.


8 Comments Tips for Writing the Optional Essay for Harvard Kennedy School

  1. Ann

    Hi Kaneisha,

    Thanks for all this information!

    I’m a bit confused about whether to write the optional essay or not: my GPA (3.8) and GRE scores (160+) are both fine. However, I will only be 22 years old at the time of application.

    Since the AdCom has explicitly told applicants to address *academic* background concerns, I’m not sure if I should write the essay, since my concern is non-academic, and there isn’t much I can do to remedy it (aside from growing older!) What do you think?

    1. Kaneisha Grayson

      Hi Ann, you are welcome and thanks for commenting! If you are concerned that the Adcom will think you are “too young,” I would still advise you to write the optional essay. The way to think of it is as an academic concern is that they may be concerned that, due to your young age, you will be less prepared to participate in classroom discussion. You can use your optional essay to assure the committee of your maturity, your preparedness for a rigorous Masters program, as well as your enthusiasm to learn from people of all ages and backgrounds. Voila! Best of luck with your application, and I so appreciate you reaching out via the comment thread with this great question, so that others can learn from your question as well!

  2. Catherine

    MPP program this year requires all the subsections in IELTS to be above 7. However, my writing section is 6.5. MY overall IELTS score is 7.5. However, my writing part in GMAT has been 5 out of 6 in my twice exams. How should I explain this in the optional essay?

    My major is English and do not attend any maths courses, but I have economic background as my second major. Also, I got 170 in GRE maths section. How should I make up this section?

    Thanks for your reply.

  3. Jamie

    Hi, my concern is that I’m 22 years old and my GPA is mediocre – 3.52. I was wondering if I should explain these because age is something I cannot change and GPA is not spectacular, but also not horrible. I’m concerned that if I do decide to write about this (and I did have some financial problem in my family during my college years, which led me to work), AdCom will take the essay as an excuse, not an explanation.

    1. Kaneisha Grayson

      Hi Jamie, I don’t think you need to address your age in your optional essay. Your GPA is good. If you have C’s in a few classes, I would use the optional essay to explain those, but I don’t think your actual GPA is something you need to explain. Best of luck!

  4. Ainura

    Hi Kaneisha,
    I am a foreign student. My GPA is 3.9, IELTS 7.5. I have 3-years of work experience. However, I underestimated the complexity of GRE or maybe underestimated my abilities and prepared only about 1.5 month. So my total score is only 302 (math and verbal), writing is 3.5. I do not have time to retake it because deadline is very soon. However, when I wrote to my dream school they said that I can be accepted even with low GRE scores, if other parts of application are strong.
    Does it worth to write an optional essay about my regret related to insufficient preparing for GRE or what I can write as alternative?

  5. Hayden

    Thank you for such an informative article. Everyone knows that academic writing is a little bit difficult and time-consuming deal. But it is important to gain some abilities and knowledge about every type of that. For real, writing the optional essay could be a great way to gain one more additional chance, it is so beneficial. Is there something that must be also concerned while writing this type of essay? The fact is, there are so many points in the list “what should I write in the optional essay” and the capacity needed isn’t so big. So, articles like yours are always really necessary for students.

    1. The Art of Applying

      Hi Hayden! Thanks for commenting. We’re glad you found it informative and wish you the best of luck on your applications!


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