As you sit staring at your computer screen, you glance at the clock, it’s almost 2:30 AM. You have just enough time to finish up your SIPA application, and get some sleep before your 9AM staff meeting. Is it really necessary to complete the optional essay? It has the word OPTIONAL in it after all. Is the option of doing it really worth an extra couple hours of sleep?
Something along the lines of the hypothetical above has played out in many a SIPA Applicant’s mind. What is the utility of completing the Optional Essay?
The answer is that the Optional Essay gives you the most optionality in furthering your SIPA application. The primary purpose is to address an aspect of your application that you feel may require a more in depth explanation. By all means, if your application is perfect, don’t waste the time of the admissions committee or yourself. Yet with the range of unique and varied applicants that SIPA attracts, there is rarely a “cookie cutter” story, or at least a narrative that doesn’t require a bit more depth than the standardized application essays provide.
Was there a rough semester during your undergrad? Did you have a gap in your resume while you were training to climb Kilimanjaro? Was there a run-in with the authorities during that summer trip through Europe? Use the optional essay to address unique circumstances that you don’t think reflect accurately on your ability to succeed at SIPA. Nobody is perfect. SIPA students have varied life experiences, and are shaped by them all, good and bad.
However, just maybe, you are perfect, or you appear to be on paper. In that case, you may use the optional essay to expand upon a unique strength that can’t be captured in other parts of the application. This could include such things as a volunteer experience, a specific honor or award, or relevant professional project. Whatever it is, it should be something that you feel especially captures the perspective you bring as a potential SIPA student, and it can’t be conveyed properly through the other parts of the application.
In terms of format, we don’t want to read “War and Peace.” Please keep it to the 400 word limit. Additionally, applicants do not have to stick to one aspect or point, feel free to utilize a more free flowing narrative than you would for your other application essays.
Style wise, certainly be straightforward and to the point, but it may be appropriate to explain what you learned from a negative experience. Perhaps there was a particular difficult or negative experience that in fact made you a stronger, resilient, and wiser SIPA applicant. We want to get to know who you are as a person, and the optional essay may be an important tool to explain aspects of your background.