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I get this question a lot, particularly when students are dealing with an application that says something like, “If there’s anything else you think the admissions committee should know…” or, “If there’s any part of your application that requires further explanation…” and then gives you the option to write. What to do when given this option?

Many graduate programs offer the opportunity to submit a Supplemental Essay of some sort. At the graduate level, programs understand the normal joys and challenges that come with life as an adult. You might have had times during your education or employment when you needed to prioritize aspects of life other than school or work. Programs are not looking for ‘perfect’ applicants. In fact, applicants where it seems like every part of their life has gone exactly as planned can raise red flags. Graduate programs are looking for ‘ideal’ applicants who can manage the obstacles of a rigorous academic program.

Therefore, the Supplemental Essay should always come from a place of strength, even when writing about very difficult circumstances in your life. A semester of bad grades, a year where you needed to care for an ailing parent or became ill yourself, or even a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for travel or work can all create gaps in your transcript or CV that need explanation. If extenuating circumstances in your life interfered with your academic progress, the Supplemental Essay can be your chance to help the admissions officers understand what happened.

Regardless of what you write about in the Supplemental Essay, keep the essay brief and positive. The focus of the essay should be where you are now and how the experience has better prepared you for graduate studies. If you had a difficult time adjusting to college life, don’t spend most of the essay writing about your struggles. Instead, write about how you improved your study skills and reached out for help. You might also want to include a Supplemental Essay if there was a significant positive experience in your life that isn’t directly related to your goals as a graduate student. This type of essay can help the admissions officers better understand your character and the circumstances of your life outside the classroom.

When should you not submit a Supplemental Essay? You should not submit a Supplemental Essay for the sake of submitting one. The essay should have a clear focus. Don’t feel like you need to write one if you covered everything you needed to cover in the main essays. Including a Supplemental Essay where the admissions officers can’t figure out why you included the essay will actually hurt your application. The admissions officers will view the essay as wasting their time and as a reflection of immaturity. Simply put, if you’re not sure about whether or not to include a Supplemental Essay, don’t.