The MBA Optional Essay
Let me get the first question out of the way.
No, you do not need to submit an optional essay. By definition, “optional” means you have a choice, and assuming that the rest of your application is solid, an adcom would rather read fewer essays than more.
Having said that, optional essays can be used strategically to explain a weakness (real or perceived) or include positive information that wasn’t included elsewhere. You can also use an optional essay to provide balance. Introducing something personal, for example, can even out a work-heavy essay portfolio.
Please feel free to provide a statement concerning any information you would like to add to your application that you haven’t addressed elsewhere. (500 word maximum)
(UC Berkeley Haas, 2009-10 application)
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.
(Chicago Booth, 2009-10 application)
Note that some schools only want you to cover your weaknesses. Ignore their instructions at your own peril.
(Optional) – (250 words)
If you feel there are extenuating circumstances of which the Committee should be aware, please explain them here (e.g., unexplained gaps in work experience, choice of recommenders, inconsistent or questionable academic performance, significant weaknesses in your application).
(Wharton, 2009-10 application)
When explaining weaknesses, don’t whine or make excuses. If you have a low GMAT score, don’t blame the test or your workload. The test is difficult for everyone and everyone is busy. Be objective and highlight your compensating strengths. Also, be proactive in covering your weaknesses. On more than one occasion I’ve recommended clients take a university extension course in calculus, for example, to compensate for a low GMAT quantitative score or GPA. Impress an MBA adcom with your self-awareness and your commitment to self-improvement.