When meeting many of you during our events, one of the questions I hear often is how to best use (if at all!) the Optional Information section of your application. We use the term Optional Information deliberately. This part of your application is intended only to clarify and provide context around parts of the application you think might raise questions if left unaddressed.
As the word optional suggests, it is to be used if needed. Below, I provide additional guidance on how the Optional Information section is best used, contexts where extra information may be needed, and when to refrain from using it altogether.
Do use it to clarify.
The purpose of this section is to address areas of your application you feel you were unable to explain elsewhere. While not an exhaustive list, these are some topics we most commonly see addressed in the Optional Information section.
Your choice of recommenders; not asking your direct supervisor
Our application asks that at least one of your Letters of Reference (LORs) comes from your current direct supervisor, however, we understand that, for a variety of reasons, not all of you are comfortable asking your current supervisor (or employer) for a LOR.
If this is the case for you, we have a place in the Other Employment Information section of the application to indicate the reason why you are not. It is not necessary to repeat that reason here; however, if you feel your situation needs additional explanation, you may provide it in Optional Information. Or if your connection to the person you have selected is not clear, you may use this space to provide context.
Circumstances that affected your academic performance
If your academic performance was not strong, for all or a portion of your studies, help us understand why. Although individual reasons vary, we tend to see two sets of explanations rise above the rest. The first is extenuating circumstances: factors that significantly impacted your academic performance and were outside of your control (personal emergency, family issues, illness, etc.). The second is factors that impacted your performance but were at least partially within your control (overextended yourself with extracurriculars, ineffective time-management and prioritization of commitments, work obligations to support yourself financially, etc.). In addition to explaining the situation, we encourage you to then point to other evidence of your academic aptitude and/or improved time management skills since.
This is the place to address something that significantly impacted your performance while taking your test, or if you think that part of your score comes up significantly short and is not representative of your academic aptitude. Tell us more about this, but then be sure to point to other evidence that you believe does demonstrate your abilities. You can also use this space to inform us of any upcoming GMAT/GRE test date(s), if applicable, and when our team can expect to hear from you with an update.
Work trajectory or jumps in employment history
The employment history section of your application is the place to address any employment gaps of three months or more. It is not necessary to repeat that information here. If, however, there are other aspects of your work progression like your organization having a flat structure with promotions being rare, your move from one employer/industry/role to the next might look like a departure from your previous trajectory, or you just started with a new employer and you worry how the admissions committee might perceive your decision to now apply to business school, speak to it in this section.
Avoid using it as an additional essay.
We ask you to provide evidence that you are smart, accomplished, aware, and encouraging elsewhere in your application. We are deliberate about the questions we ask and evaluate the information provided in all parts of your application. We appreciate that there is more to you than what you can fit into three essays and other supporting materials, yet we ask that you exercise good judgment and restraint. Ask yourself if the information you are considering providing here fits elsewhere in your application. Using the Optional Information section to highlight additional examples of accomplishments at work, community involvement, why you are applying for an MBA now, etc. might not be an effective use of this space or your time. Likewise, this is not the place to throw in an essay you wrote for another school. While that sounds like obvious advice, we’ve seen it before, and it isn’t helpful to our evaluation.
Final thoughts on tone and structure.
If you want to provide optional information, be concise and to the point. We give you 300 words here, but you do not need to use them all. If you need to address several topics, bullet points are ok. Remain objective, avoid excuses, and if applicable, tell us what you have done, or are planning to do to address the situation going forward.
As you can see, this part of your application is truly optional, should be used sparingly, and only if needed. Rest assured, this is not a test. We will not think less of you if you do not submit an extra essay here. Most of you will likely not need to use this section at all, and for those of you who do—own your past. It has brought you to where you are today, and we are looking forward to getting to know you even better in the future.