The optional statement is NOT optional
Too many students fail to complete optional parts of an application, and severely hinder their admissions prospects in the process. Optional statements demonstrate interest and provide an additional opportunity to showcase attributes that cannot be captured via a grade or test score. On the other hand, not completing the optional essays can sink your application to an elite school faster than the infamous Ninja Rap sunk Vanilla Ice’s rapping career.
What not to do
Many students hatch what they believe to be a plan for the perfect crime—write a generic enough “why this college?” statement that it can be recycled for every school to which they apply. Trust us, admissions officers can spot attempts at application Mad Libs in their sleep.
“It has always been a dream of mine to attend _______ University/College. The level of academic rigor at your institution is unparalleled and I would be proud to call myself a mascot name here for life.”
Going this route, you might as well just fill in the blanks with “snot” and “butt” like you did in 5th grade. It might at least elicit a smile from an admissions officer.
What to do
Reference specific academic programs at each prospective school, talk about a tour you took around, mention a restaurant where you dined, a student you spoke to about life on campus, etc. Check out the school’s webpage, social media, and any recent news stories about exciting developments around campus. Anything you can do to demonstrate knowledge of each prospective school and genuine interest will help your admissions cause.
Not always “Why this college?”
“The Why this college?” prompt is just one of a multitude of optional essay variations inhabiting the oft-overlooked bowels (another good 5th grade Mad Libs word) of the college application.
As an alternative, Duke offers students a chance to address the following:
“Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better-perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background-we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.”
If you are gay/bi-sexual, have a non-Caucasian ethnic background, or grew up on a hippie commune you’ll likely be able to address this question in a compelling manner without too much consternation. Yet if you resemble one the first 43 Presidents of the United States (white, male, and financially comfortable), you’ll have to get a bit more creative. Unless, of course, you look like Martin Van Buren in which case you’ll need all 250 words just to explain those mangy sideburns.
The University Of Pittsburgh offers a full-blown smorgasbord of optional essay topics, nine in total, from describing an influential person in your life to sharing a talent that was otherwise not noted on your application. There is literally a topic for every conceivable applicant and while not explicitly stated, it is fully expected that students will avail themselves of the opportunity.
College Transitions’ Quick Take
For serious applicants, completing optional essays are about as optional as brushing your teeth. The ramifications of not doing the latter are demonstrated quite aptly by another former Commander-in-chief, Woodrow Wilson. Likewise, leaving optional fields blank on college applications, especially at competitive institutions, will undoubtedly decay your prospects of winning the admissions game.
As T.S. Eliot once said,
“Kickin’ it up, hour after hour,
Cause in this life there’s only one winner,
You better aim straight so you can hit the center.”
Actually that was Vanilla Ice along with a bunch of mutant amphibians, but you get the point.
Dave has over a decade of professional experience that includes work as a teacher, high school administrator, college professor, and independent educational consultant. He is a co-author of the books The Enlightened College Applicant (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016) and Colleges Worth Your Money (Rowman & Littlefield, 2020).