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.