Use the optional essay to your advantage

Application deadlines are here, and the Office of Admissions and Financial Aid has been getting a lot of calls and emails lately. We’re glad you’re reaching out to us with your questions.

I’m choosing to tell y’all about something that has NOT been asked about, which is the optional essay.

[Before you get too far:  You are not required to write this! If you’ve said all you need to say about yourself as a candidate and you don’t have it in you to write more, that’s totally understandable! The optional essay is truly, Optional. And don’t feel guilty about being relieved that you don’t have to read the rest of this post.]

So why answer a question that hasn’t been asked? Because I think it’ll give some of you an advantage in your application. This is what the optional essay is in the application for: An opportunity to discuss something you weren’t able to address elsewhere; OR, an opportunity for you to explain a situation that needs more detail.

SIPA does not have an ideal model of an applicant. Our candidates come from more than 100 countries around the world, with a variety of undergraduate and graduate studies, career backgrounds, expertises, and aspirations. We value this diversity immensely because these differences enrich the class experience for everybody.

Instead, what the Admissions Committee looks for falls into the broad categories of: relevant professional experience; proven academic ability; quantitative coursework; and a passion for public policy and International Affairs.

Because there is no One Ideal Applicant, the admissions process is holistic – meaning, the Admissions Committee takes the whole of your application into account. We are looking at the gestalt of your application, if you will.

This is where the optional essay – and knowing what the Admissions Committee is looking for – comes in. Use the optional essay to explain any discrepancies or unique situations that you weren’t able to address anywhere else in the application. Is there something that you want to tell the Admissions Committee because it will add to you as a whole?

Tell us why you’d be a stellar policy candidate despite your previous studies being in something unrelated. Tell us why you’d come out on top of the core economics courses at SIPA despite the quantitative grades on your transcript not reflecting that. Tell us what unique perspective you can add to the classroom, even though you have an employment gap due to family reasons.

Life happens. The Admissions Committee are people too. They’re understanding and respectful. But sometimes there is nothing for them to take into account as a whole, if you are the only one who can provide the information and don’t do it.

Because each applicant is so different, we can’t possibly tell you what specific topic we’re looking for. I will just say: The optional essay is NOT another personal statement, or a place to rehash something already explained in your application. Perhaps it’s just a few paragraphs that can’t all “flow” together, and that is fine. Maybe your optional essay is just one sentence – we appreciate brevity.

Remember, the optional essay is not meant to trip you up, nor is it a ~secret admissions test~. It is simply an opportunity for you to address your situation(s) to the Admissions Committee that you weren’t able to in other parts of the application.

For another perspective, here is an overview of the Optional Essay from a student who went through the application process.

Wishing you all the best of luck!