Overview.
Academic Issues.
GMAT Issues.
No recommendation from Current Supervisor.
Gaps in Resume.


Overview.

Virtually all top business schools offer applicants the opportunity to address anything unusual or problematic within their profiles. MBA candidates can use either the additional information section of a school’s application or the optional essay to proactively explain any such irregularities/inconsistencies so that the Admissions Committee understands the circumstances behind these issues and is not left trying to solve a mystery.

Common reasons to write the optional essay include, but are certainly not limited to, explaining or revealing the following:

  • Poor academic performance in a specific class, semester or overall; differences in universities’ grading systems
  • Low verbal, quantitative or overall GMAT score, or any combination thereof
  • Lack of a professional reference due to the candidate’s desire not to disclose a potential departure
  • Absences from work or college, or gaps in resume
  • Academic probation/suspensions, firings, or criminal records

By writing an optional essay (remember, the key word here is ‘optional’; doing so may not be necessary in your case), you will be able to address a problem area in your application and potentially – in the case of poor grades or even a firing – reveal maturity by owning up to mistakes and offering evidence of subsequent growth. We cannot be more deliberate in writing this: the optional essay is not the place to make excuses or avoid taking responsibility for a mistake. By attempting to avoid responsibility, you will only compound your problems, revealing that you lack the maturity necessary to contribute to your target MBA program and to be a self-reflective manager capable of continuous professional growth.

If you choose to write an optional essay to address a specific problem, do not take a minimalist approach and present only the problem itself. For example, you should not simply note that you have a low quantitative GMAT score and write that you feel it does not represent your abilities – the Admissions Committee already knows your results from your score report, and merely expressing your dissatisfaction with the score does not give the school any more information with which to evaluate you. Instead, you will ideally be able to declare that you truly do have the quantitative skills necessary to succeed in business school, show evidence of these skills and then demonstrate that you can indeed contribute via your quantitative abilities (see Sample Essay A in the GMAT Scores section for an example).

Tuck Optional Essay: Please provide any additional insight or information that you have not addressed elsewhere that may be helpful in reviewing your application (e.g., unusual choice of evaluators, weaknesses in academic performance, unexplained job gaps or changes, etc.). Complete this question only if you feel your candidacy is not fully represented by this application.

Chicago Optional Essay: If there is any important information that is relevant for your candidacy that you were unable to address elsewhere in the application, please share that information here.

Yale School of Management Optional Essay: If any aspect of your candidacy needs further explanation, please provide any additional information that you would like the Admissions Committee to consider. (250 words maximum)

By the time the admissions officer who reads your application gets to your optional essay, he/she will have already gone through much, if not all, of the rest of your application. Also, keep in mind that he/she will likely have read dozens, if not hundreds, of other applications and essays as well. So, try to put yourself in the admissions officer’s position – applications are piling up and you are doing your best to ensure that each applicant gets your full attention, but you have a lot of work ahead of you and somewhat repetitious work at that. Our point is that by submitting an optional essay, you are essentially asking the admissions officer to read another essay – basically, to do even more work. So, the key to writing an effective optional essay is to respect this individual’s time and be as brief as possible, while still conveying all the necessary information.

In a personal essay, it is generally unwise to write less than the word limit – you want to be as thorough as possible in answering the school’s question. In an optional essay, however, you may not have a word limit, but it is crucial to be concise. We recommend limiting yourself to four to eight sentences per topic that you feel needs to be addressed. Writing just 150 words is perfectly acceptable, and in fact is preferred, even if your target MBA program gives you a 250 or 500-word limit.

In light of our earlier statement about staying on point and respecting admissions officers’ time, the optional essay is absolutely not the place to include an essay that you think really portrays you positively, but that you were not otherwise able to use for this particular school. By pasting in an essay you originally wrote for another school, you will reveal only that you have not followed instructions. You will not gain any additional “points” for telling one more story than anyone else, and an overworked admissions officer will only be frustrated by having to read and evaluate another essay that is not relevant to his/her decision.  The officer will either ignore the essay altogether or read it entirely, waiting for some bit of crucial information that never actually comes – neither scenario is positive.

Also, it is important to repeat that you do not need to write an optional essay; you are certainly not disadvantaged if you have no information to share via this space. If your grades are solid and your GPA is based on a typical scale and your GMAT scores are balanced and you have naturally progressed in your career and you have… (you get the point), then writing an optional essay is not essential for you. If you have had no such “blips” in your academic and professional history and no mysteries are lurking in your file, you should consider yourself fortunate, leave the optional essay space blank and move on.


Academic Issues.

For an MBA candidate to have a spotless academic transcript is surprisingly rare. In this section we offer instances in which you might consider writing an optional essay, though this list is not meant to be comprehensive or cover all academic scenarios. There is always room for judgment, of course, and candidates are urged to use discretion when writing optional statements.

  • If your undergraduate GPA is weak (generally understood to be anything less than a 3.0 [or converted equivalent]), you should submit an optional essay that explains your performance and, more importantly, offers evidence that you are now prepared to excel academically.
  • If you had a particularly poor semester or year(s) but still earned a GPA of 3.0 or higher, you should consider writing an optional essay to explain the temporary downshift in your academic performance. However, do not confuse one or two low grades with a poor semester or term. If you had one C in your second semester one year but otherwise earned a 3.75 GPA, you probably should not write the optional essay.
  • If you had any failing grades at all (i.e., you earned an F [or equivalent] as your final grade in a class), you will need to use the optional essay to explain why and how this happened. We have seen candidates recover from an F or two—doing so is not unheard of.
  • If you performed poorly in quantitative classes (statistics, calculus) or management classes (finance, accounting), you should explain your current aptitude in these areas. Ideally, you will have since bolstered your qualifications in these areas via additional classes or professional experiences that prove your competencies, and these should be clearly presented in the optional essay.
  • If you were put on academic probation or suspended at any time, you should explain the circumstances surrounding the situation in your optional essay and, more importantly, present what you learned from the experience.
  • If you repeatedly switched majors throughout college, and as a result, the story your transcript tells is muddled, you should consider using the optional essay to explain your path.
  • If your GPA in absolute terms is relatively low but in relative terms puts you in the top of your class, the optional essay is a great way to clarify this and help the Admissions Committee view your academic record in a more positive light. For example, the chemical engineer from India who has a 68% overall yet finished at the top of his/her class would want to explain that his/her GPA should be considered in context. Similarly, if your GPA conversion requires explanation because it is based on a different scale, you can use the optional essay to convey the differences.

If you didn’t get the GMAT or GPA you had hoped for, the best thing to do is accept it and put your best foot forward in every other way (with an alternative transcript, great essays, recommendations and short answers). If there was an extenuating circumstance that impacted your undergrad GPA or if you simply want to point out that there was an upward trend in GPA from your Freshman to Senior year – you can do that. Example: ‘I’d like to draw your attention to the fact that my GPA consistently increased over the course of my undergraduate years: from a 3.2 my Freshman year to a 3.9 my Senior year’. What constitutes an extenuating circumstance would be something out of the ordinary and serious (like being hospitalized or suffering a prolonged illness) – Grandpa or Grandma passing away, while sad, does not qualify.

Example 1. Low GPA.

When I arrived at New York University, I made a significant error in judgment by committing myself to my fraternity rather than to my academics. At the end of my first year, I was shocked by my 1.9 GPA and was fortunately ‘scared straight.’ During my sophomore year, I carefully selected my major, economics, and was conscientious in choosing my courses, identifying those that were interesting and challenging to me. Simply put, I then spent my weeknights in the library, ensuring that my abysmal first year would not have an encore. At the end of my second year, even though I had started volunteering as a Big Brother in addition to fulfilling my fraternity responsibilities, I earned a 3.6 GPA. Thereafter, my GPA continued to improve as I earned a 3.7 in my junior year and a 3.9 in my senior year, while also serving as president of my fraternity, maintaining my volunteer commitments and serving as student representative on the hiring panel for the economics department. In the end, my overall GPA was a 3.3, but I feel that my final three years are a true indication of my abilities and of the individual I am today—one who thrives with multiple responsibilities and performs when challenged. (See Sample Essay A in the What Not to Write section at the end of this document for an example of how not to address the identical circumstances.)

Why is this essay effective? The writer is honest and direct, quickly taking responsibility for his actions by stating that he made a “significant error in judgment.” The individual then tells the story of his improvement and also shows that he was capable of maintaining his external interests at the same time—proving that he did not need to forsake his commitments to achieve balance in his life. Further, the individual convincingly states that he should be judged on his final years by revealing the obvious disparity between his first year at college and his final three years.


Example 2. Low GPA.

You may have read this and said to yourself, ‘Ok, but what if there was no recovery? What if my improvement was minimal at best?’ Well, many of the same principles—being contrite and offering evidence of subsequent maturity—still apply.

It has been four years since I graduated with a 2.7 GPA and a degree in biology. In hindsight, it is clear even to me that I lacked the maturity at the time to grasp the opportunities before me. Two years ago, I enrolled in New York University’s extension program, where I have taken ‘Accounting I’ and ‘Corporate Finance I,’ earning As in both classes. More recently, I have spread my wings and taken ‘French Film and Literature’ and ‘The Novels of Dickens,’ earning an A in the first and a B+ in the second. I realize now that during my undergraduate days, I squandered an intellectual opportunity; now I am focused and am pursuing education for its own sake—making up for lost time. Today, as a twice-promoted brand manager at ABC Corp., I know that I have grown and identified professional and intellectual passions. I am looking forward to two years at XYZ Business School, where I intend to not only perform, but also to seize every opportunity to expand my intellectual horizons.

Why is this essay effective? Again, the writer takes responsibility and then reveals evidence of change. Further, he offers proof of maturity via professional advancement, reinforcing the claim of having changed, and states that he looks forward to attending business school because of the both academic and intellectual opportunity it offers – adding a dose of balance and sincerity. He is studying not just for the sake of his GPA but for himself.

In some cases, an individual will actually have a legitimate rationale for poor academic performance, such as a serious illness or significant work demands. In such cases, the candidate should simply tell the story of how his/her studies were disrupted by the issue, as in the example that follows.

Example 3. Low GPA.

In some cases, an individual will actually have a legitimate rationale for poor academic performance, such as a serious illness or significant work demands. In such cases, the candidate should simply tell the story of how his/her studies were disrupted by the issue, as in the example that follows.

My parents, neither of whom graduated from high school, never encouraged me to go to college and saved nothing for my education. I attended New York University because it offered me a partial scholarship, but I still needed to work 40 hours per week to cover my remaining tuition and living expenses. I take great pride in the fact that I worked two ten-hour shifts at Gimli Furniture on the weekends as an hourly salesperson and then worked four hours each weekday as well. During my summers, I worked overtime, often 60 hours per week, so that I could take some of the pressure off during my academic year. I am certain that my 2.9 GPA would have been higher had I worked less and studied more, but that was not an option for me, and ultimately, I became the first in my family to earn a college degree. I graduated debt free and still keep my Gimli name tag on my desk as a humble reminder of how far I have come.

Why is this essay effective? The writer offers a powerful personal story that clearly explains why his performance should be viewed through a different lens than most candidates’ records. He does not ask for sympathy or tell a drawn-out sob story but instead presents his academic performance with dignity and pride. The Admissions Committee is not asked to pity this individual but is implicitly told that this person is driven and can be expected to succeed going forward.


Example 4. Contextualizing GPA.

Sometimes, when a candidate is dealing with technical issues, he/she can take a straightforward approach to an optional essay, as in the following example.

I have converted my GPA using Harvard Business School’s suggested scale. Thus, my 80% overall translates to a B average. Given that the records office’s Web site states that grades of 80% are given to the top 10% of the class and 90% to the top 1%, I feel that my 80% (or B average) may understate my performance. I cannot provide guidance for what an appropriate conversion of my percentage might be, but I do ask that the Admissions Committee consider my academic performance with this context in mind.

Why is this essay effective? This is a very technical issue, and the writer quickly breaks down the components and explains why his grades need special interpretation. He does not belabor the point; nor does he express anxiety or concern for what the alternative conversion might bring. He simply presents the issue for the Admissions Committee’s consideration and moves on.

GMAT Issues.

Generally, the benchmark for a worry-free GMAT score is a balanced 80th percentile on both the quantitative and verbal sections of the test and a 700 overall. If you have a 79th percentile on one section or a 690 overall, however, you should not panic, especially if you have evidence in your transcript and/or work experience that shows that you can handle the rigors of a heavily analytical and quantitative curriculum. When deciding whether writing an optional essay would be worthwhile with regard to your GMAT score, consider your GPA and work experiences as well. That written, we generally advise candidates to address their GMAT results if they have scored below the 75th percentile or less than 660 overall, though there are always exceptions.

Example 1. Low GMAT.

After accepting my score on my first GMAT, I was pleased by my 700 overall but surprised to see a low quantitative score of 66th percentile. (My verbal score was 95th percentile.) I have long considered my quantitative and analytical abilities strengths, evidenced by my having completed all three levels of the Chartered Financial Analyst exam on the first try, my As in statistics and calculus as an undergrad and my two years as an investment banker, where I am immersed in analysis each day. I hope that, for now, the Admissions Committee will recognize that my low quantitative score is an anomaly. I will be retaking the test on December 9th and will apprise you of my progress. Regardless of the outcome of this future test, I am confident that given my educational and professional experiences, I will be able to effectively manage New York University’s challenging MBA curriculum and contribute to my learning team and to classroom conversations.

Example 2. Low GMAT.

I have taken the GMAT four times, and to my dismay, and clearly not because of a lack of determination, I seem unable to score higher than a 630 overall. Unfortunately, my best scores on each section of the test – a 77% on the quantitative section and a 71% on the verbal section – did not occur on the same day, and my scores have fluctuated with each try. I am disappointed to be applying with an overall score that is well under New York University’s average. I earned As in accounting, economics and finance as an undergraduate and know that I have the aptitude and intellectual abilities to perform in your MBA program.

Why are these essays effective? Unlike discussing problems with your GPA, you really cannot offer a lengthy backstory with regard to a low GMAT score. Your GMAT score is reflective of a moment in time, not a process that began when you were 18 or 19 and lasted several years. So, you can show effort in taking the GMAT and in trying to improve your score, and then do your best to show other, related areas where you have shined at other times.

You will notice that in Example A here in particular, the writer is able to show a prolonged track record of academic and professional success in quantitative areas, enabling him to potentially mitigate the effects of the low quantitative score. In the second example, the evidence is not as profound, but the attempt is still equally important. The second individual’s target school will need to know that he can succeed in the program and then will have to consider the quality of his experiences as it makes its decision. Remember, an optional essay is not a cure-all, but rather an opportunity to proactively address certain problems or weaknesses so that the Admissions Committee has complete information as it makes its decision.


No recommendation from Current Supervisor.

It is not uncommon for candidates to lack a recommendation from a direct supervisor. You should explain why you do not have a recommendation from your direct supervisor and make sure the Admissions Committee knows the reasons behind your alternative selections.

Example 1. No Recommendation from Current Supervisor.

I have elected not to inform my firm of my desire to pursue my MBA, because I believe doing so may adversely affect my year-end bonus and possibly even my employment with the company.

Rather than asking my current manager to write on my behalf, I have asked my former manager, David Stephenson, with whom I worked closely for two years as Assistant Brand Manager (ABM) to his Brand Manager at Pepsi Corp., to write a recommendation for me. During my time at Pepsi, I progressed from intern to ABM and thus developed from a researcher to a decision maker, all on Mr. Stephenson’s watch. Mr. Stephenson supervised me during a very formative part of my career and ceased to be my manager eight months ago, when I transitioned to my current firm. I am confident that his opinion is still quite relevant and indeed profound.

I have also asked Steve Jones, my relationship manager at QRS Ltd.—my firm’s most significant client—to share his insights on my performance as well. I have worked with Mr. Jones on an almost daily basis for eight months, speaking with him about purchasing decisions, and I am the only person outside his company who attends his monthly planning meetings, where I help manage his purchases. I feel that Mr. Jones knows my professional abilities well and will offer a sincere appraisal of my skills.

Why is this essay effective? In short, it is a very straightforward essay wherein the writer clearly conveys all the necessary information. The essay is simple in that it explains first why a letter is not being sought from the writer’s current supervisor and then addresses his alternative choices, offering clear reasons as to why these individuals are qualified to provide a recommendation.


Gaps in Resume.

The Admissions Committee does not expect each and every applicant to have progressed along a clear track to business school from day one of their professional careers to today. If you have taken time off from work or have a gap in your resume due to personal reasons, use the optional essay as an opportunity to simply address this absence head on. Again, make no excuses and leave no mysteries!

Example 1. Gaps in Resume.

As a 22-year-old college graduate, I took a chance and declined a job offer from a consulting firm, choosing instead to travel the world. For the next 14 months—essentially until I exhausted myself—I ran a hostel in Peru to finance my travels in South America, served as an English-speaking tour guide in Prague to extend my travels into Eastern Europe and performed manual labor on a farm in New Zealand to be able to explore the Asia-Pacific region.

During this time, I learned enough Spanish to hike four days to Machu Picchu and spend eight days sailing through the Galapagos, all with Spanish tour guides; I milked cows and goats two hours north of Auckland and learned to surf on Australia’s Bell’s Beach. I also met people from practically every country in the world while I led tours of ‘Baroque Prague’ and later travelled with four of my tour attendees to Red Square and the Hermitage. Needless to write, perhaps, taking those 14 months to see the world was one of the best decisions of my life.

I returned home with remarkable memories, experiences and friends around the world, but also with a resolve. I was fortunate to return during a boom time, and my firm unexpectedly extended me a job offer, which I accepted. I appreciated the firm’s loyalty and have attempted to pay it back through hard work. Since joining Bain Consulting in the fall of 2008, I have been promoted ahead of schedule and continue to take on more responsibilities. I have satiated my wanderlust for now—though I know travel will always be a part of my life—and am a better employee, co-worker and person for having pursued these adventures.

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