Most MBA programs have clear requirements about length for all their admissions essays, and the optional essay is no different — usually. But even when the school is explicit that the optional essay must be XXX words maximum, there are still practical considerations, and strategic ones, that should be taken into account.
The first is the reader’s attention. You never want to outstay your welcome. That’s one of the main reasons behind the recommendation to stick to a reasonable length on essays with a technically unlimited allowance, specifically HBS and Chicago Booth.
The other perhaps less-obvious angle is, with an optional essay, you’re often trying to neutralize a weakness — say, offering more context surrounding a bad grade on a transcript. In these situations, you don’t want to spend any more time on the issue than is absolutely necessary. If you go on and on and on about the stuff that happened during college, all you’re doing is forcing your reader to dwell on this aspect of your background. (What’s even worse is when an applicant goes on and on in the optional — and they don’t even include the relevant facts like how bad were the grades or which class or what semester are we talking about. Don’t force the reader to go dig out the transcripts all over again and study through to find out how REALLY bad things were! Include the necessary details in the essay itself.)
If you know you have to write the optional essay, then we strongly suggest reviewing all the posts here on the EssaySnark blahg about, um, writing the optional essay. There’s a category dedicated specific to that! And, if it’s an optional to explain low GPA, then read that category, too.
Figuring out your strategy based on some suggestions and reality-check info on what others often do, which rarely ever works well, as captured in the many posts we’ve published on these topics is a bare-minimum first step, to help make sure you’re not stepping into the same problems yourself.
And, when figuring out how long to make an optional, the rule of thumb is, AS SHORT AS POSSIBLE!! State the issue you’re explaining, state the facts surrounding that issue and/or what other information you want the adcom to understand when they consider it, and end it. Don’t go on and on — and definitely don’t cram in other unrelated topics or info! Keep it tightly focused. Explain — without making excuses. It should be totally fact-based and specific, and then wrap it up and go home. Don’t waste your adcom’s time in meandering around.
And please watch out for the very common stuff that everyone says (which doesn’t work).
Again, the ‘Snarkchives are your friend. Use ’em, BSer! It’s to your benefit, especially in the high-stakes issues around application weaknesses.