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Optional and Open-Ended Essay Questions: What’s the Best Strategy? 0
Optional and Open-Ended Essay Questions: What’s the Best Strategy?

Many business schools ask open-ended questions, many of which are variations of, “I wish the admissions committee had asked me…” or, “What is a question that you wish we had asked?” The most common among these open-ended questions is the optional essay, where you really have free rein to discuss anything you feel is important and that you have not had an opportunity to address anywhere else in your application. 

Clients are often uncertain about how best to use these spaces, which are excellent opportunities to round out your profile. In this post we will offer advice on dealing with different types of open-ended questions.

How many open-ended essay questions do you have? 

To figure out how to maximize these spaces, see if the application offers both an optional essay space as well as another open-ended question? Or do you only have one?

Let’s say you only have the optional essay to write about a topic of your choice. And let’s say that the school has not asked you to explain any weakness or inconsistency in any other area of the application. If you do have a noticeable weakness, such as that your grades plummeted during your sophomore year in college, your GMAT is low for the average accepted applicant at this school, or you had an employment gap of six months or longer, there are ways to deal with them effectively using this space. Explain the circumstances simply and directly: perhaps you underwent surgery, had a death in the family, or had taken on too many extracurricular activities or work responsibilities. 

You don’t want to leave the admissions committee guessing or assuming the worst, but you also need to keep perspective. There is no need to explain away a single C+ grade from your freshman year. You don’t have to justify the fact that you hadn’t started your own nonprofit organization by the age of 19. You don’t have to apologize for the fact that you didn’t spend your undergrad years at an Ivy League school.

When using this essay to address a weakness, keep it short. Present the relevant background surrounding the facts, and what you learned or did subsequently to improve or change the outcome to the extent possible. Whether there were circumstances beyond your control, or you hadn’t used the best judgment, your goal is to provide context for events that may not reflect well on you. Do not make excuses. Show that the circumstances that had impeded your performance no longer exist, or that you have learned how to handle those circumstances should a similar situation arise in the future. Remember, this question almost always comes right at the end of the essay portion of the application — it will probably be the last thing the adcom reads, so if at all possible, use it to give them something positive to remember you by.

How the optional essay helps you highlight your well-rounded personality

Since MBA application essays often focus exclusively on work examples, your career goals, and/or why you are interested in attending a particular school, the optional is a great place to add dimensionality and present yourself as a whole, well-rounded individual. You may drift out of the adcom’s minds pretty quickly if you simply come across as “the project manager with the 740 GMAT,” and since the adcom has already gained a sense of your leadership chops, don’t use the optional to write about a secondary leadership role–even if you’re very proud of it. Instead, use the optional essay to really stand out as “the project manager who used skydiving as a team-building exercise,” “the investment banker who teaches salsa dancing to senior citizens,” or “the marketing manager who taught herself five languages in her spare time.” Now that is an application to remember! 

What about the question, “I wish the admissions committee had asked me…”

Let’s start with how not to answer this question. Do not use it to discuss bland “catch-all” topics such as, “I wish the admissions committee had asked me how I achieve excellence in everything I do.” Believe it or not, some applicants will want to use this approach, but it’s a big mistake. Not only will those types of answers usually end up being way too generic, but they will make you sound self-absorbed and even arrogant. 

Assuming that you’ve presented your professional/leadership experiences compellingly in your other essays, you can definitely take a more lighthearted (though not frivolous) approach here. Choose to write about an aspect of yourself that is uniquely, distinctively, memorably, YOU. This picture will round out the adcom’s perception of you. It will promote your “human interest” factor, your potential to contribute something to the incoming class and the teams you will work with, beyond your work experience and academic abilities.

Harvard Business School has a single, entirely open-ended question. They ask, “As we review your application, what more would you like us to know as we consider your candidacy for the Harvard Business School MBA program?” We work with clients all the time who are very intimidated by this question, but by the end of the process we have convinced them that this question is really a gift, though it is one you must use wisely. By providing 900 words (a/o the 2022-23 application cycle) to answer this question, Harvard is hoping to learn a few things about their successful admits:

  • A complete picture of the applicant through a carefully planned use of space.

  • An essay that does NOT present what the candidate thinks the committee wants to hear (whatever you think it is, it’s not).

  • An applicant’s ability to deal with ambiguity and show clarity of thought and succinctness.

Some other schools may also word this question in an open-ended way as Harvard does, but if the question pointedly asks you what you wish they had asked, you need to answer honestly: What do you wish they had asked you?

”Keeping in mind your goal to add a fuller, more personal dimension to you as an applicant, it could be any of the following: “What do I do for fun?” “How did I come to develop the goals that I have?” “What have I learned about life from playing the flute?” “Why was Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, Wild, life-changing for me?” The open-ended questions in your MBA application are wonderfully valuable opportunities for you to round out your application. You can directly explain any deficiencies in your candidacy while showing how you have addressed them, as well as introduce the adcom to a more personally interesting aspect of yourself that will make you stand out for all the right reasons!

Do you need help answering these questions or any other MBA application questions? Check out Accepted’s MBA Admissions Consulting & Editing Services and work one-on-one with an admissions pro who will answer your questions and help you get ACCEPTED.

By Judy Gruen, former Accepted admissions consultant. Judy holds a Master’s in Journalism from Northwestern University. She is the co-author of Accepted’s first full-length book, MBA Admission for Smarties: The No-Nonsense Guide to Acceptance at Top Business SchoolsWant an admissions expert help you get accepted? Click here to get in touch!

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