The Optional Essay

The OPTIONAL Essay – Should I write the optional essay? Do I need to write the optional essay?


The MBA application will almost always provide MBA hopefuls with the “Optional Essay” and many applicants often struggle with whether this essay is truly optional.  While some programs clearly state that this essay should be used to address extenuating circumstances, others ask whether there is anything else about your candidacy you would like to share with the admissions committee.  Given this prompt, many applicants are tempted to write something.

As a general rule, the optional essay is the last essay that should be written and should be viewed in the context of the whole application. Once the application has been completed, ask yourself if there is something else that you want to convey to the admissions committee that could not be addressed in any other part of the application.

The topics that can be considered in the optional essay are academic weakness, gaps (employment and academic) and major career changes, choice of recommender and information that adds to your application.  It is this “information that adds to your application” that tempts applicants to write the optional essay.



The admissions committee may want to know reasons for a C grade or below in the transcript or a weak GMAT. Do not make excuses; instead emphasize improved performance in later university years or in subsequent classes. If you have a new GMAT score, it can be used to demonstrate that the low grade in college was an outlier and not an accurate indication of your abilities.



A several month gap between jobs should be addressed. Did you take the time off to care for an ailing parent? Did you attend school or training programs while you were not employed?  If you recently switched careers, you may want to show that it was a well thought through decision and how the MBA program will help you achieve the next career step.



Business schools typically will ask that a letter of recommendation be written by a current manager because this person is the person is best able to comment on your abilities and skills as they are today. However, not every applicant feels comfortable asking their current supervisor. Reasons vary but it can be due to personality conflict or perhaps they aren’t ready to let their managers know that they might be leaving. Whatever the reason, it should be addressed so that the admissions committee to eliminate doubts about the working relationship with your employer.


INFORMATION THAT ADDS TO YOUR APPLICATION does not mean you have to write something. The worst thing you can do is to re-write an essay for another programs that repackages your strengths. By writing this essay, you are asking the admissions committee to do even more work so make sure the content has not been addressed anywhere else in the application package.


Interview Preparation 3: The Admissions Perspective

We’re lucky at Agos to have staff with all sorts of experience. In particular, one of our Admissions Consultants, Mengdan Chu, used to work on the other side of the application, as a member of the Admissions Team at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. Whilst her views are entirely personal, it can be invaluable to get some insight into the interview from someone who conducted many of them!


  • Can you give us a brief perspective on what role the interview plays in the entire application evaluation?

The interview is an important piece of the puzzle. It may tip the weight toward your favor, or break the deal in some cases. Most would say that the interview is an additional perspective on you, or an independent evaluation of your candidacy when the interviewer only gets to see your resume, not your entire application. So, the interview is an additional voice about your application, and an up-close, personal view of you, more dynamic and revealing than just your essays and recommendations on paper.  The purpose is to get to know you as a person face-to-face, to get a sense of your fit with the school and the class. Of course, it is also an opportunity to assess your English communication skills, and certainly your overall qualifications such as your experiences and skills, you focus and your goals, your personality and your fit with the program.



  • Considering how many interviews you’ve conducted, which candidates were most memorable and why?

The candidates that I remember are the ones who shared with me a unique story, or the ones who convinced me with their focus and plans, who have done thorough research about the program and their fit. The latter is the kind that I can see him/her in class contributing and making the most out of his/her MBA experience. And someone with a unique story can add unique perspectives to the class and to the overall educational experiences of his/her peers.



  • Do you have any tips on how to stand out in the interview?

Most candidates or interviewees are reasonably accomplished possessing considerable skills, both hard and soft, to be successful in the program. In that sense, your professional accomplishments can be viewed more as an equalizer to other candidates. For example, the $100 million deal that you sealed is just a $100 million deal. It does not make you stand out by itself. You need to rise above it, or dig down deeper shall we say, to get across the meanings of that deal, the lessons you learned from the process and from the people that you got to know in that process. If you reflect on that and share with the interviewer, you are then effectively sharing a personal story, not some glamourous numbers. It demonstrates your maturity, awareness and thoughtfulness, indications of more potential or further capacity to grow and improve as a person and as a leader. So I would say let your personality shine through the interview, be reflective, thoughtful and passionate. If you leave the interviewer the impression of a vivid person, not just another fairly accomplished applicant, you would more likely stand out among the five or even ten people the interviewer has met for the day.



  • What kind of ‘red flags’ do you commonly see in interviews?

People who are not prepared, can not answer questions about why MBA why this program, or are just giving very generic and superficial answers. There’s really no excuse for not preparing well. The interviewer would think you might not be serious about the program and he/she would not be thrilled either.



  • How do you advise potential interviewees to prepare?

Take the time to reflect on your past and design your future, make sure the MBA program/experience connects in between.  You really need the time to lay out the basic blocks first, such as why MBA, why this school, why you, and a few (not just one or two) examples to draw from and illustrate your skills and perspectives on key parameters such as teamwork, leadership, conflict resolution, creativity, perseverance, etc. It might not be a bad idea to write down some key bullet points to help you frame/structure your answers and your stories. AGOS consultants can help coach you how to answer questions in a structured way, providing key details while staying concise and to the point. Overall, lots of practices will pay off, even if you’re a native English speaker. No one is born to be magic story tellers, we all practice and learn.





Interview Preparation 2: Contribution

One of the common, yet challenging, interview topics often focuses on how you would contribute to your chosen school, class, and community. Answering well requires strong knowledge of both your own strengths and unique points and the school’s resources, mission, and opportunities.

Consider your professional career. Could a particular first-hand experience  or challenge be useful to share in a case-study discussion?

How about your perspective? Maybe your group could use your legal expertise?

In extracurricular clubs, there are frequent opportunities to both exercise your leadership and benefit your classmates. What could you initiate or improve? Is there a club you’d like to establish yourself?

Could you open up your network for someone looking for a job in your industry or company?

Finally, why would you be a good addition to the community based on your personality? Are you especially innovative? Good at motivating others? Where would this be most useful?




Interview Preparation 1

With round 2 deadlines almost here, it’s time to start preparing for interviews! Throughout the application process, you’ve hopefully clarified your post-MBA goals and polished a few representative stories from your career. The next step is to prepare to share these in person, and convince your chosen school that you’re a great fit. It’s not enough to hope that the interviewer asks you the right questions-it’s important that you go in with a strong message about how and why you will add value to next year’s class, and at the same time demonstrate that you have the personality and communication skills to succeed in both the MBA and your future career.

Whilst you prepare for the common interview questions (hint: the Agos MBA Interview Manual and will be very useful here), it’s worth considering some other important questions:


What do I want the interviewer to know about me? What will make me memorable?

What new information can I provide to complement, rather than repeat, my application?

What makes me unique, and how can I leverage this at business school?


As you practice for upcoming interviews, record yourself, and see if you’re including these details or not. Get feedback from your consultant/friends/family/colleagues. How would they summarize your answers? What did they learn about your skills, strengths, and personality? Does this match your intention?

Building confidence in your message will help build your confidence for the interview itself, and hopefully enable you to make an even better impression on your interviewer.


Re-applying to MBA programs – the OPTIONAL ESSAY

If you were rejected by a business program, it is often very hard to put your doubts aside and reapply.  Before you begin the reapplication process, try to under what areas of your original application were weak.

Many re-applicants assume that a business school will reject them again since they rejected them the first time. Every applicant risks a rejection and a re-applicant is no different. However, it is important to understand why you were rejected the first time. There is a better chance of success if weaknesses in the first application are directly addressed. Most MBA programs view the re-application on its own and will generally refer to the previous application if there is a major discrepancy. A re-application may demonstrate commitment to the program; however, re-applying alone will not get you admitted unless the application is strengthened.

The re-applicant is often required to submit the optional essay.  The optional essay prompt usually asks for a statement outlining how you have improved your candidacy since your last application.  The Admissions Office is looking for substantive change in your qualifications.

If your GMAT scores changed substantially compared to your previous application, it will demonstrate your ability to succeed in the academic environment. If it was a lack of leadership experience, you want to look for ways to demonstrate that you took greater initiative or responsibility at work. Perhaps unexpected personal events have occurred – family death or illness- that have matured you and help clarify your goals.

The schools will be evaluating re-applicants in terms of the school’s hard admissions criteria such as GMAT scores, GPA and the new year’s applicant pool. If your application survives these first two criteria will the Committee begin to ask how your new application differs from the last one.

Therefore, the schools will be interested in developments that occurred in the intervening year – specifically the actions you took, the impact you had and equally important, the lessons you learned and HOW you are applying it today.


The Video Essay

Not too long ago, having one’s picture taken was not an everyday occurrence. Camera-phones were still new and photographs were grainy, low-resonance images, and digital cameras didn’t fit in jeans pockets. Facebook, Flickr, and Instagram had yet to be invented. Today, many of us have become more or less comfortable in front of a camera. As such, video essays have become a more common part of MBA applications, and are now considered as fairly straightforward.

The MBA video essay requirement is the current trend and brings together the aspects of live interviews and written essays with the added pressure of time constraints, technology concerns and the most challenging of all, a complete lack of facial cues and real-time feedback. In the video interview, you have no idea if your response resonates with the audience. There is no opportunity to see if your interviewer’s eyes are glazing over and you are on the wrong track or if his/her eyes are lighting up and you have found a point of connection.

However, as with any challenge comes opportunities; it can give the candidate another medium to express themselves. The key to successfully managing the video essay is to PRACTICE. Tape yourself responding to questions. MBA programs that use video essays have sample questions on their website. Other questions that you can use to practice are:

  • How would your teammates describe you?
  • Who has had the greatest impact on you and why?
  • What is your favorite book and why?
  • If you have a day to do whatever you want, what would it be and why?
  • What are you most passionate about?
  • Why are you a great fit for this school?

Practice responding to questions is critical. As you practice, make sure that no sound can be heard other than your responses. Try to sound as natural as possible, and your non-verbal expressions should be consistent with what you would expect of yourself in a live interview. Finally, make sure that your responses are consistent with the narrative in your MBA application, connecting them with the wider themes explored in the essays.

Show your recording to someone you can trust and who understands the application process. Ask them for honest feedback and try to fine-tune your responses with every iteration.






Standing Out at Admissions Events


How to ask good questions at school fairs and information sessions?

As someone who once stood by a school table/booth or a podium answering all sorts of questions from applicants, I can’t help asking myself:  So do I remember any of those questions, any of those names or faces?

The purpose of those fairs and info sessions is to help the school staff and prospective students to get to know each other face to face, at a personal level. While there’s plenty to say about how much a prospective student might get to know the school and its people, including staff, alumni and perhaps even a couple of current students, how much the school staff or school representative might get to know a certain prospective student, remains dubious in most circumstances.

The good news is that, the outcome of such an encounter depends mostly on you, the prospective student or applicant. Yes, you do go to those events to listen and to ask questions about the school. However, depending on the quality of your questions, there’s also a fantastic opportunity for you to help the school staff remember you, in a positive way, which could go a long way for your application when it comes to be assessed.

So why did I barely remember any of the questions, or faces or names that matched the faces at a fair or an info session? I typically came back to my office with a stack of business cards and another stack of resumes, most if not all of which were recycled. It was a one-way communication, me to you, but rarely both ways, you and me, you to me. My suggestions for avoiding such a lost opportunity are:

  1. Do not walk up to me with a straight face, with the look of a serious professional from an office meeting, even though you are legitimately tired after a long day of work. Remember I might have just arrived in Tokyo the night before and I’m really tired, too and jet lagged. Your relaxed, smiling face refreshes me in this pretty loud and busy hall.
  1. Do not simply hand me your business card and your resume right away. I actually do not collect those papers and I’m accepting the ones from those ahead of you mainly as a courtesy. Say hello to me, chat and genuinely ask how I’m doing today. Give me positive feedback if I just gave a presentation by the way. Appreciation goes both ways.
  1. Do not ask generic simple questions, questions that you can find the answer to on the school’s website, such as what the ratio of international students is, or whether the school has a Japan Club. Unfortunately, lots of prospective students do ask those “dumb” questions. You don’t want to be among one of them, which guarantees a one-way communication.
  1. Moreover, do not ask me super “intelligent” questions either, questions that I would struggle to answer as well, such as what the future strategy of the school is, or how the school plans on improving its leadership program. There are always one or two people who appear intent on outsmarting the school representative. Remember it’s supposed to be a two-way communication, not a competition. I wouldn’t remember you, and if I do, it’s less likely to be in the way you want.
  1. So, ask questions that are specific, that demonstrate your research and understanding of the school and its program, and that even better, tie in your interest with the specifics of the school and program. Share your interest, succinctly, with me, and help me see how it is interesting to me and my school. If you do that, chances are I will look at your business card and resume afterwards, and remember you as one of the few outstanding/interesting prospectives that I have met on the road.

Parting message: The key is to do research before you go to any event, ask any questions. Once you’ve done your research and come up with your specific interesting/relevant questions, approach the school representative in a very friendly manner. Go for it.


HINTS for successfully writing the MBA essays

The business school application process can be an intimidating process with competition particularly fierce at top business schools. In general, candidates are screened based on the following;

  1. GPA and GMAT scores
  2. Personal attributes. Prior to being invited to an interview, the applicant’s “fit” with a particular program is assessed based on his/her essays and recommendation letters.  Invariably, the essays and reference letters collectively must draw attention to the skills and characteristics that business programs seek including maturity, motivation, strong work ethic and solid communication skills. A great essay will provide color to your performance and potential.

To write a strong essay, you need to understand your audience. It is imperative that you understand what the Admissions Committee is looking for.  From your admission essays, the Committee hope to better understand the following relative to other candidates:

  1. Depth of your academic and professional experiences
  2. Unique traits and interests that are not covered in other parts of the application
  3. Your commitment to the MBA program

Writing Hints:

In your essay, be passionate and sincere. Show Admissions Committee who you are and what you will bring to the program. Some hints are:


  1. Answer the question being asked. Many candidates gets lost as they write their essays. Instead of focusing on the question being asked, he/she rambles on and on without focus. Always come back to the question.
  2. Convey positivity and optimism.  A typical essay question is “Write about an experience that has shaped your personality.” Very often, applicants write about an unfortunate event and writes from a perspective of being the victim. AVOID this perspective. Instead, focus on what you have learned from the experience.
  3. Use active voice. Be clear and use simple sentence structure. Often, essays have word limit and every word has to count.


  1. Resist the urge to describe. Applicants often spend the better part of the essay tediously describing an experience or event. The description is only a part of the essay. Demonstrate what you have learned including perseverance, stamina and knowledge.
  1. Don’t repeat information that can be found in other parts of your application. The essays are your opportunity to demonstrate who you are. Rehashing the same information/experience only makes you one dimensional; business programs seek candidates that have depth and are multi-dimensional.
  2. Don’t try to explain weakness on your record. It is almost impossible to explain poor grades and/or test scores without sounding defensive or worse, irresponsible.  If there is a reason for an academic weakness, write in a separate short essay and avoid in the body of the essay.

As much as possible, you should craft your narrative around your achievements and experiences that have enabled you cultivate your strengths.  Use the whole essay set to “speak” to the Admissions Committee about who you are and not just disparate traits that you think the school wants to see.


The Millennial Paradox

One thing MBA applicants (rightly) hear again and again is how important it is to really get to know your business school, but which ones do the best job of getting to know you as a prospective student? Every year, the Association of International Graduate Admissions Consultants (AIGAC) surveys MBA applicants on their experiences during the admissions process. Here are the most recent findings:

Its worth keeping this information in mind as you determine your fit with your prospective schools, and also as you consider what you want them to know about you. What are your unique skills and experiences? What value will you add to the class? What makes you stand out among the crowd?

As you narrow down your list of schools, this is a good time to get on the mailing lists to keep up to date with any webinars, coffee chats in your city, or admissions events. The next step would be to reach out to current students and alumni to hear their first-hand experience of the programmes. Finally, if time and finances allow, visiting the school will give you insight into its culture and opportunities.


MBA school selection

People typically pursue an MBA because they are looking to improve their career opportunities. MBA programs can be compared based on attributes such as rankings, starting salaries, recruitment/ job placement opportunities, and net costs. In addition, there are other factors that potential candidates focus on such as predominant teaching methods, size of classes and location. These are all important considerations; however, you are investing time and money when you complete an MBA program. Therefore, as you start the process, focus on your objectives for getting an MBA.

Where do you begin?

Research extensively the schools you are interested in. Look at the entire two–year experience and determine if the program will give you the skills you are looking to acquire, the resources you need, and the network you want to develop.  Take a look at such attributes as quality of student life, teaching methodology, faculty orientation (research versus teaching), and size of program. Location should also be a consideration because as can be expected, schools in the financial centers can easily attract guest lecturers in the financial services while other areas may offer expertise in areas such as healthcare or luxury brand management.

Understand your profile. Many facts are considered in the admission process, including academic background, professional experience and progression, achievements, leadership potential, awards, hobbies, and test scores.  Your performance in your prior academic program and test scores help shed light on how you will thrive in the program. Another key area that is considered will be your stated goals and how you expect the program to help you achieve them.  Understanding all these areas is the starting point for developing a personal branding strategy and help you stand out among other MBA prospects.

Finally, apply to a wide range of schools. Apply to schools that have higher GPA or GMAT results – “reaches” -as well as ones that have lower ones.  The process is highly subjective and you never know what combination of attributes gets you admitted.