Applying to college is difficult enough without the added challenge of interpreting what to make of admission criteria labeled as “optional” or “recommended”. From personal statements to test scores, this article will demystify optional admission requirements and ultimately help students choose which optional tasks to complete in order to better secure acceptance to their preferred schools.
While completing a college application, it can seem appealing to not do anything labeled optional, especially if it’s a writing prompt that would require extra time and thought, when you just want to be done with an application. Resist that urge, admissions experts say. As Jeff Schiffman, Director of Admission at Tulane University, noted in a recent Test and the Rest podcast entitled “Why Optional Statements Aren’t Optional,” a college may not require you to complete a response, but it would be in your best interest to do so. Responses to some form of the question “Why College X?” not only give admissions counselors a sense of your genuine interest in their college, they also help students better understand “if that school is right for [them].” Show that you care enough, and you will stand out.
That said, there are some optional writing prompts you may want to skip. “Which Optional College Application Essays Are Actually Must-Do's” author Anna Ivey recommends that “if the optional essay question is not a ‘Why Us’ essay prompt, submit something only if it's a strong piece of writing AND it says something about you that isn't already demonstrated somewhere else in the application.” In other words, don't use the Additional Information section of the Common Application to boast about an award or list activities already cited in your application. Don't answer questions about diversity (e.g. race, sexual orientation, gender) either, advises Cheree Liebowitz, author of “Test Optional and Optional Essay: What Optional Really Means,” if it's not integral to your identity or you're uncomfortable sharing such information.
According to the College Board, most colleges offer prospective students the opportunity to complete either an informational interview (a one-on-one or group meeting with college representatives to answer your questions) or an evaluative interview (a one-on-one meeting with an admission officer who will assess you as a candidate). Few colleges require an interview, however, which can make it tempting to skip. Although an optional interview may not be as important to complete as some optional writing supplements, the benefits can be worth it.
Interviews are helpful tools for both colleges and for students. Colleges can “get to know the personality behind the grades and test scores,” explains the College Board. Students, on the other hand, can make a case for themselves by describing how they might contribute to the college or by explaining any circumstances that affected their academic performance in high school. Students can also ask their own questions to gather information that will help facilitate their college choices.
Those who may want to pass on an interview are students for whom anxiety or lackluster interviewing skills would do more harm than good or students for whom traveling to a college for an interview would present a financial hardship. Nonetheless, as College Basics reassures, some colleges offer alternatives, such as meeting with local alumni or remote interviews (e.g. phone, virtual), which can help mitigate those issues and help you take advantage of the interview.
Tulane admissions director Jeff Schiffman sums up the bottom line on interviews: "You aren't penalized for not doing it, but if you do it that's a bump."
Standardized test scores—ACT, SAT, and SAT subject tests—are commonly viewed as more objective measures of college readiness, and they are also sometimes used to assess eligibility for scholarships, so it's important to carefully weigh the decision to submit or not submit test scores. In 2019, The National Association for College Admission Counseling (NACAC) reported in its “State of College Admissions” that grades and test scores “constitute the most important factors in the admission decision” followed by “the essay, a student’s demonstrated interest, counselor and teacher recommendations, class rank, and extracurricular activities.”
So even if a particular test score is designated as optional, it might be in your best interest to take the test and submit a score. Otherwise, colleges will place more weight on other factors. That’s great for students whose grades, essays, recommendations, and activities make them appealing candidates for admission. However, for students with mixed or less than impressive resumes, investing in test prep and earning a good score could make a better impression.
When All is Said and Done
When it comes to optional college application components, the advice is clear: do them if you can and if it will reflect a strength or attribute not apparent in the rest of an application. Ultimately, Tulane University’s Director of Admission, Jeff Schiffman emphasizes that “if the school is an important choice for you, and if you really want to attend the school, the best path to take is to take advantage of every opportunity to show your interest.”
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