Is the optional essay truly optional?

Clients often ask us how to use "additional" or "optional" information to their advantage. Please watch these videos are read the below tips to find some answers.

Type 1: Tell us more ONLY IF you have something negative to explain

Extenuating circumstances only

HBS, Stanford, Columbia

Type 2: Please tell us more

Fun fact, potential contribution, selling point


Type 1:

Columbia Optional Essay

Is there any further information that you wish to provide the Admissions Committee? If so, use this space to provide an explanation of any areas of concern in your academic record or your personal history.

(500 words or less)


Columbia E3 asks for a “pleasant surprise.” Use E3 to share a positive story about yourself. Therefore, use this Optional Essay ONLY IF you have a NEGATIVE ("UNPLEASANT") surprise that needs explaining.

What, if anything, might be seen as a risk to your candidacy?

What might make you seem like an undesirable applicant?

What academic low-point or personal setback might make it seem like admitted you would be a risk for Columbia?

How can you minimize that risk?

Was your GPA significantly below 3.0 for part or all college?

Do you have any C, D or F grades that need explaining?

How about in your professional career?

Did you lose a full-time job?

Wharton asks one of each

Type 1

First-time applicants can use this essay if you feel there are extenuating circumstances of which the Committee should be aware (250 words)

Type 2

Please use the space below to highlight any additional information that you would like the Admissions Committee to know about your candidacy. (400 words)


First, I am including some instructions and tips from schools like HBS and MIT

HBS says,

“Additional Information”: What do we mean by this?

As you complete the application, you will come upon this question:

Instructions: Use this section to include any additional information that you believe is important for the MBA Admissions Board to have in evaluating your application, but that you were unable to include because of the constraints of the online application.

Please limit your additional information to the space in this section. Do not send HBS any additional materials (e.g., additional recommendations, work portfolios, etc.) as they will not be considered and will delay processing of your application.

What are we looking for?

Should you say anything here?

Here’s when you should use this space

  • To explain any extenuating life circumstances that may have impacted your record at school or work.

  • When you are unable to submit a recommendation from a current employer. This happens all the time – just use this space to explain the situation and how you selected the alternative recommender.

Some advice - don’t use this space for:

  • Another essay!

  • Even worse: another school’s essay cut and pasted here!

(found at; accessed 2013/09)

Meanwhile, MIT says,

The Admissions Committee invites you to share anything else you would like us to know about you, in any format. (up to 7,000 characters allowed)

(found at; accessed 2013/09)

So, what does it all mean?

Here are my tips and guidelines

You MUST write an optional essay if

1. You have significant employment gaps.

  • Admissions committee (AdCom) members understand that people get laid off, especially in this economy

  • They also understand that people take breaks between jobs to travel or pursue other interests

  • Still, they want to hear how you explain employment gaps because the want to see how you can manage your message for recruiters

    • AdCom needs to worry about job placement rates because they affect rankings

  • Write a few sentences telling AdCom readers how you spent your time between jobs, and what you learned about yourself in the process

  • Do not make excuses or blame others. Keep it positive

  • If you are currently unemployed, share an exciting story about how your are building your skills or volunteering in your community

  • Use this essay as an opportunity to demonstrate your ability to recognize opportunity and make the most of a bad situation

  • Finally, as with any optional essay, keep your answer concise

2. Your current direct supervisor is not submitting a letter of recommendation on your behalf.

A certain MBA program says, "You must obtain at least one recommendation from your current direct supervisor. If you are unable to provide a letter from your current direct supervisor, include a brief note of explanation in the Additional Information section of the online application."

Stanford says, "If you are unable to provide a letter from your current direct supervisor, include a brief note of explanation in the Additional Information section of the online application. It is up to you to choose an appropriate replacement."


Letter from previous supervisor; cannot tell current supervisor

"I wish to explain why I have not submitted a letter of recommendation from my current direct supervisor, Ms. First Last. While I have a good relationship with her, I have concluded that it would be unwise to share my intentions to pursue an MBA with her at this time because it would negatively affect my ability to contribute to my current team projects.

Instead, I have asked two former supervisors. Mr. First Last and Ms. First Last. Both know me well and have had multiple opportunities to observe and evaluate my performance. They are well suited to recommend because they are familiar with my personality, accomplishments, and growth potential. Therefore, I felt that they would be the best people to comments on my strengths and weakness for graduate study in management."


Current supervisor has not supervised me long enough to know well; previous supervisor knows me better

"I wish to explain why I have not submitted a letter of recommendation from my current direct supervisor, Mr. First Last.

While he and I enjoy a good relationship, he has only known me for two months.

Therefore, I asked two former supervisors to submit letters on my behalf, because I feel that they are in a better position to comment on my strengths and weakness for graduate study in management."


Letter from previous employer, not current employer; cannot tell current employer

"I have submitted letters of recommendation from a former supervisor and a former client, both from when I was with COMPANY #1 two years ago. I did not letters from current supervisors because I prefer not telling them my MBA plans at this moment.

My current employer, COMPANY NAME #2, consists of only four members. My responsibilities are therefore significant enough that telling them I plan to leave the company might adversely affect my working environment.

Instead, I chose two recommenders, Ms. First Last and Mr. First Last, who are both well suited to recommend me because they are familiar with my personality, accomplishments, and growth potential."

3. Your GPA was significantly below 3.0

If your GPA does not show your academic potential, you might want to write something like this, “Here’s why my GPA was sub-par, and here’s what I’ve done to confirm my time management skills and academic competence. ”

Do not make excuses or blame others. Hopefully, your GMAT and work experience compensate for low grades.

Also, remember that AdCom members dig into your transcript to check if you took honors or advanced-level courses.

Ask your mentor or admissions consultant, but the following template might help you get started. Just remember, keep it brief.

My 2.5 GPA at X University does not adequately reflect my academic potential. During school, I had to balance my time with

[list of options]

  • Working multiple part-time jobs to support myself

  • Varsity sports

  • Leadership roles in extracurricular activities (students clubs, special events, conferences)

  • Health issues (had to take care of yourself or a family member)

  • Personal tragedy (death of a friend or family member)

Since then, I have improved my time management skills


proven my academic ability by

[add concrete examples]

  • Ideally, you took some advanced courses since graduation and earned high grades

  • If not, can you show recent examples of how you have successfully managed multiple tasks?

At [MBA PROGRAM], I will be able to manage my time more effectively.

Here is a useful exchange from Wharton's Student2Student discussion board:

  • Q: I have a bad Undergrad GPA (2.5) but I bounced back and later got a good Masters GPA (3.6). In both cases, my major was electrical engineering. My GMAT score is 680 (Q 46, V38). Do you think it's enough to negate my prior performance? If not, should I enroll in accounting and finance type courses to build my alternative transcript? Also, should I use the optional essay to mention my improvements?

  • A: No one part of the application negates the other. The Admissions Committee (AdCom) will look at the coursework and trends in both of your programs to judge your academic abilities. Building an alternative transcript is a good idea for some but it really depends on what your weak areas were in UG. For example, if the low marks were in calculus, the master's degree in EE may clear up some concerns. However, if the low marks were in English, accounting and finance may not help much. The point is that you have to look at your UG transcript and assess your performance from all angles. I wouldn't use the optional essay to mention improvements. If you decide to take additional courses, this will be very clear to the AdCom.

You MUST NOT write an optional essay if

... you are repeating yourself.

... you are telling the AdCom something they do not want to hear.

Please resist the urge to include an essay you already wrote for some other school.

If AdCom members wanted to read another story about your achievements, leadership or teamwork experiences, they would ask.

Moreover, if they did not ask you to share a mistake or failure story, why would you want to tell them?

"Should I use the optional essay to write more reasons why I want to attend this MBA program?"

  • If you want to spend two years at their school, shouldn't you use this opportunity to tell them so?

  • No, you should not. They asked that question. If your answer was not good enough, go back and make it better. Do not waste their time by writing more reasons here.

  • The operative phrase in the following question is "about you": Optional question: Is there anything else you think the Admissions Committee should know about you to evaluate your candidacy?

  • Bottom line: Show them that you can follow instructions. Make this essay about you, or write nothing at all.

"Should I use the optional essay to explain how I plan to contribute to this MBA program?"

  • I would say, no.

  • Some programs like Tuck, Kellogg, Duke and NYU ask applicants to write an essay about how they plan to add value to their student culture and programs.

  • Other schools, like HBS and MIT, do not ask applicants to list their contributions. If your essays (and MIT cover letter) include rich details and demonstrate impact, AdCom can probably imagine how you could contribute to their programs and alumni networks.

"Should I explain why I have a low GMAT score?"

  • AdComs like to see a 700+ score, with 40+ on both quant and verbal. Still, they regularly admit applicants that do not have those numbers.

  • If your GMAT is below par, I do not think you need to write an essay explaining why. Some people are simply not good at standardized tests. AdComs know this fact. Do not make excuses.

  • If the AdCom has a strong reason to admit you, they can overlook a low score as long as they can see some other evidence of your ability to complete coursework and contribute in class.

Here is another useful interchange taken from Wharton's Student2Student discussion board:

  • Q: I have an engineering background, and scored a 660 on the GMAT. Worse on Quant if you'd believe it! My GPA is decent, so I'm wondering if I should take the GMAT again, or explain it in the optional essays.

  • A: I am generally of the view that 'explanations' of low GMAT scores (as against low GPA's) often don't get beyond the 'making excuses' stage. AdCom are going to look at your transcript in detail whether you tell them to or not.

  • As to evaluation of GMAT scores in general, AdCom are more interested in the component scores, than the overall score. A 76Q 76V 660 is probably better than a 62Q 99V 660 (I'm not sure if the GMAT scoring algorithm gives you exactly this, but I'm sure you get the idea). In any event with good grades in the quant classes that an engineering degree normally implies, AdCom are probably not going to be too concerned about your quant skills.

The Supplemental Essay

Some MBA programs, like MIT Sloan and INSEAD, give applicants the chance to write a supplemental (not optional) essay

I advise all of my clients to use this opportunity to share another side of themselves

Please watch this video to understand how I help clients write supplemental essays that catch and hold adcom readers' attention


Information is subject to change. Please verify all data with the schools.