Columbia SIPA gives the prompt: “Please share any additional information about yourself that you believe would be of interest to the Admissions Committee. Please focus on information that is not already reflected in the other parts of your application or might not be clear in the information submitted.”
Should you submit an optional essay?
The answer is in the prompt. Do you have information not otherwise reflected in your application or that might not be clear from what you submitted? Would that information shed positive light on you as a candidate? If yes, then yes submit one! Examples could be a poor grade from your transcript that could use some explanation. This doesn’t mean the C+ you got in physics six years prior in undergrad when you’re now applying for the Human Rights program. But it could mean explaining why you received poor marks one semester in economics when you’re applying for the International Finance track. Maybe you were having family problems that semester and had to travel home often to deal with an ailing parents or you were 19 and still adjusting to college. You might even use this essay to explain that you were struggling with what you wanted to do with your life and that’s why your final year of college showed a dip in grades after you weren’t sure you wanted to be pre-med after all. You might then explain that you chose to join the Peace Corps in the years following and discovered your passion for working on rural education. Of course all of these stories have to be true. But if you have a compelling reason for why one part of your application may seem lacking, the optional essay is a great place to start.
Use this essay to further distinguish yourself.
After reading through the rest of your materials, including your main essays, are there key parts to you that still don’t show up? Anything else that can distinguish you from the rest of the pack? Something special about you? Perhaps you have an experience that shaped you that didn’t make it into the other essays. If you spent a summer traveling around West Africa as a clown, performing in orphanages, and this doesn’t show up anywhere else, talk about it here! You might explain further why you’re so passionate about international affairs, or about your particular track. Maybe you survived a childhood disease that left you motivated to do something important with yourself and this didn’t make it into your personal statement. Use this extra space to paint a picture of someone the admissions committee wants to get to know. Remember SIPA is looking for why you are specifically a good fit to their program, and in particular to the track you’re applying for, so any extra steps you can take to show why it’s a match made in heaven bring you a step towards that acceptance letter. This essay doesn’t have strict guidelines (other than length) or a designated format, so you can take it in your own direction. Be creative!