Should I Complete Optional College Essays?
Many battle-worn applicants, weary from the slog of completing a dozen or so applications, encounter optional essays and requests for other non-compulsory application components such as a resume, interview, or writing sample(s) and simply wave the white flag. On one level, this response is understandable. You’ve spent years grinding out strong grades in honors and AP courses and retaking the SAT or ACT to hit your target score. You poured your heart into the Common App essay and then refined the heck out of it to squeeze under the 650-word limit. Why can’t these colleges just be satisfied with all of this and leave you the heck alone!?
Again, we get it. Yet, unfortunately, electing not to complete these non-mandatory tasks can severely hinder your prospects for admission—especially at highly-selective colleges and universities where the line between acceptance and rejection is razor thin. To put it in terms of obscure 1990s pop-culture references, not completing optional portions of the application can sink your chances at getting into an elite school faster than the infamous Ninja Rap sunk Vanilla Ice’s rapping career.
The optional “Why this college?” essay
When colleges offer optional essays, one prompt usually involves explaining why you are applying to their school. Some students mistakenly think this is unimportant and skip the task entirely. Others 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.
Reference specific academic programs at each prospective school, talk about a tour you took around campus, 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.
Other types of optional essays
“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 of 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.
Do I need to submit a resume?
Some schools allow the submission of a resume, others—mostly larger state schools receiving up to 100,000 applications, do not. If your prospective colleges do not outright prohibit the submission of a resume, then we recommend submitting one. For some, the information contained in the resume may seem redundant. After all, you already included all of your honors, awards, work and volunteer experience, and extracurricular activities within the application itself.
On the other hand, the format in which this material is presented within the application is often less-than-perfect. Due to strict character limits it is very difficult to convey certain key elements of your bonafides. For example, the Common App makes it very challenging to demonstrate one’s rising responsibility in a position, say the debate team, over a four-year high school career. You may have room to state that you were the captain in your senior year, but not have room to lay out how you gradually climbed the ranks beginning in freshman year. Additionally, for certain off-the-beaten-path activities, it can be very challenging to fully convey why the credential is impressive. For example, the political commentary magazine you started with your faculty sponsor gained traction online and one particular story ended up being reposted by The Washington Post; another received a handwritten letter from a congresswomen stating that she would share the opinions expressed with her colleagues. Good luck trying to capture that entire story in a measly 150 characters or less on the Common App.
Can I skip an optional interview?
We only recommend this if you have a miserable personality and zero interpersonal skills. Just kidding…sort of. Whether with a member of the admissions committee or an alumni interviewer, this one-on-one conversation is a chance to show the college of your dreams that you are a flesh-and-blood human being with innumerable intangible qualities. Making this intimate connection can go a long way, especially if your chances of admission are teetering right in between the accept and reject piles.
For tips on how to best shine in front of an admission rep, check out our piece entitled Acing the College Interview. To view a list of interview policies at 360+ of the top schools in the United States visit our Dataverse page.
Should I include writing samples
Ideally, your Common App and/or school-specific application essays will sufficiently convey your aptitude as a writer and communicator. However, if you have an artifact of which you are particularly proud that you feel showcases your talents as a creative writer or budding researcher, then it may be worth including as part of your application. The caveat here is that not every school is seeking more material from their applicants. Some schools have strict policies against including unsolicited supplementary materials; others welcome them. Check your prospective institutions policies in this area prior to submitting but as a general rule of thumb, small liberal arts colleges are far more likely than large state universities to a) accept a writing sample; and b) actually consider it in their admissions decision.
Those using the Coalition Application will actually be encouraged to submit organic writing samples as part of your “digital locker.” There are presently 139 schools, including many of most prestigious colleges in the country, who accept the Coalition Application.
College Transitions’ final thoughts
For serious applicants, completing optional components of your applications 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 accompanied by four 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).