If this were an Agatha Christie novel, we’d title it: “The Case of the Missing Facet”
We’ll get to why in a sec…
First, a brief recent history of b-schools’ relationship with the optional essay, and how our recommendations have evolved over the years:
2007ish – Generally, b-schools would say “Use this space… if you have anything else to add. Cool?” So, our recommendation was essentially “Always do it, no matter what. You’re given a choice to fire another bullet, why on Earth would you not take it!?” Simple enough.
Early 2010s – But then, an interesting trend emerges. Several top b-schools start to make a point of saying “Please, for the love all that is holy, don’t use this space to slide in an extra essay. ONLY use this space to explain away major red flags. Like, seriously dude, don’t test me on this.” It’s as if these people were saying, “If you don’t heed our warning, we’ll count it against you.” Naturally, our recommendation was (a) to read each school’s wording carefully, and (b) generally to avoid the optional essay UNLESS you had a red flag you needed to explain away, in which case, absolutely use this space to address possible negatives, efficiently and confidently. This was also happening at a time when schools were generally starting to shrink word counts from 3000 or so to 2000 and in several cases 1000 or fewer. Clearly, they were getting more words than they wanted, so the game was more about who can say everything they need to… concisely?
2016, 2017, 2018ish – Nowadays, we’re starting to see a return to open-endedness in the way the Optional Essay is worded. And we’re taking it as a signal, since their wording is usually pretty deliberate, year to year. It’s as if they’re now saying, “Aight, we’ve asked what we wanted to ask. You got somethin’ else to say? Do it, if you want.” This shift in tone (and wording) that we’re seeing almost across the board is significant. It seems to be opening a door that was once almost noisily closed SHUT. You’ll find that the wording is usually more restrictive on longer applications: if the optional is one of two essays, they’ll let you write almost anything; if it’s the ninth essay on the application, they’ll discourage material that’s not 100% critical to understanding your profile. What are they signaling, exactly?
Well, our take at the moment is this: unless the wording is clearly aggressive in the direction of “don’t use this space EXCEPT for explaining away problem spots in your profile,” then… we recommend USING it to round out your profile in whatever way adds the most value.
This won’t always mean walking the admissions committee through your best leadership moment or talking about some obvious resume bullet point you weren’t given the opportunity to talk about in the rest of your essays. It’s much more complicated than that. The trick at this point is to add up everything you’ve got: GMAT/GRE, the story your resume tells, the stuff your LORs will likely contain, your transcripts, your other application essays, all of it, the totality of your entire app. Look at it from a distance, and reduce it down to an essence. One way to do this is to coldly, robotically, without emotion, describe that person (you) – this redux version – using single-word-descriptions, pick maybe five. What words do you end up with?
Cool, now ask yourself… is anything vital MISSING from that redux list? What is a key part of what makes you an amazing candidate that hasn’t been adequately captured yet? It’s possible that adcoms will GET your leadership abilities at a glance from your resume, and possibly from one of your recommenders. But perhaps your resume doesn’t tell us that you have an INSANELY international perspective based on the consistency of geography and work experience. Imagine someone coming to the WRONG conclusion and assuming that to be a major weakness, when in fact, it’s the opposite! Now would be the time to use this Optional Essay space to make a point of that in whatever the most compelling way would be for YOU. Maybe it’s an anecdote, maybe it’s simply matter-of-factly explaining it away.
This part is important: it is possible to paint the perfect picture through the rest of the application. Such that, if you’re given this opening, and the BEST possible thing you can come up with here is REDUNDANT (captured BETTER elsewhere/already), or, a second-rate item on your resume, then you may actually risk WEAKENING your profile by overstaying your welcome. Use this space only if NOT using it might result in the admissions committee missing something vital about your candidacy.
Don’t just lob in a great story, because you can. Lob in a missing FACET to your profile. A facet that – when added to the rest of the facets captured by the rest of your app – now sums to something that may be MORE compelling than a competitor within your demographic, or (even better) simply lift you a head and shoulder ABOVE the entire playing field.
Find your missing facet.
And then use this space to bake it in. Think of the Optional Essay as an opportunity to COMPLETE your application, not “BOOST” it.
To make a culinary analogy, the “boosters” end up with a dish that they then say, “Damnit, it was perfect before I added that extra pinch of salt.” Or, “Damnit, I shouldn’t have added that lemon zest, now it’s too lemony.” Instead, it’s all about the chef who tastes the almost-finished product, and is BOTHERED by the absence of something, “It’s almost there, it’s just missing… some kind of acid/sweetness/spicy kick/etc.” And THEN they add whatever is missing to bring it home. Those people… usually pick wisely.