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What is an Optional Essay?

Master AdmissionsUncategorized What is an Optional Essay?

What is an Optional Essay?

One of my favorite blogs is the Harvard Kennedy School Admissions Blog. The head of admissions consistently offers great advice for candidates of not just his program, but for all professional programs.  I’m speaking directly to business schools. The great part is that he says the quiet part out loud — in a non-controversial way.  Some great guidance here, bolded by me for emphasis.

On Optional Essays

Posted: 17 Oct 2019 05:44 AM PDT

The optional statement on the application always generates a fair number of questions from applicants and this entry in the series is not specific to a single application from the past, but rather will focus on appropriate content for this portion of the application. The prompt from the application is:

* * * * * *

Optional Statement

Please note this statement is optional.

If you have any concerns about your prior academic, professional, or personal background you would like to share with the Admissions Committee, please provide an explanation. (250 word limit)

* * * * * *

I will first note that as is clearly stated, this statement is optional. We do not penalize applicants for not providing a response. Second, the best way to think about possible content for the statement is to ask yourself if someone reading your application might be confused or have questions or concerns about something in, or perhaps not in, your application. Phrased another way, would providing content for this statement assist a reader in better understanding possible nuances in your background?

When reading an application, the fewer assumptions a committee member has to make, the better. I do not have scientific data at hand to back this up, but when assuming things I think people generally assume the worst or something negative, as opposed to assuming the best or something positive. I have never assumed that a flight is going to leave ahead of schedule. 

Thus, if you feel like there is something about you the readers of your file and Admissions Committee should be aware of that is not reflected or clear in another part of the application, this information might make good content for the optional statement. Here are a few examples from past applicants I hope demonstrate effective responses to this prompt.

  • An applicant effectively used the statement to elaborate on a possibly difficult to understand grading scale used by his university.
  • An applicant elaborated on an extended break in her work history that was evident in her resume, but not explained in the resume.
  • An applicant noted that it took him longer to graduate than expected because he had to drop to part-time status in school in order to take a job to support his family financially. (Dropping to part-time status and taking longer to graduate is certainly something that would catch my eye and cause me to wonder so this information provided valuable insight regarding this candidate’s academic history.)
  • An applicant provided the reasoning behind dropping out of several classes during a portion of the undergraduate program.
  • An applicant explained the reasoning for not providing a letter of recommendation from the current employer.
  • An applicant explained what appeared to be a radical job shift, caused by personal circumstances.

Do not be tempted to include information in the statement “just because” and applicants should absolutely not use this optional statement to insert another essay or attempt to insert a personal statement. This space is not meant for a supplemental essay of any sort. The Admissions Committee frowns upon statements obviously not related to the content we are seeking in this prompt (clarity on something pertaining to your background).

In sum, if you feel the Admissions Committee might have questions about a particular aspect of your history or may be confused by some information in your application, it would be appropriate to address such information in this optional statement. The statement also does not need to be limited to a single topic. There is nothing wrong with providing insight into more than one aspect of your background.

Series Links

Post #1 – Introduction
Post #2 – MPP Applicant With No Full-Time Work Experience
Post #3 – MC/MPA Applicant With No Full-Time Policy Background
Post #4 – Two-Year MPA Applicant With No Intangibles
Post #5 – MPP Applicant, No Momentum
Post #6 – MPP Great All Around Application