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Are Optional College Essays Really Optional?

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Lisa Albro

Written by Lisa Albroon November 17th, 2023

I came to College Coach after having worked on “both sides of the desk” — admissions and college counseling. At Goucher College, I managed recruitment and travel for over 30 states and oversaw the student, parent, and alumni volunteer programs. As much as I loved representing my alma mater and meeting so many bright, talented students year after year, I discovered that I longed for the opportunity to develop the kind of relationships with my students that could only come from working with them day after day. On the high school side, I worked with every student in the grade, from the valedictorian to the bottom of the class. This taught me how to meet the needs of a variety of different kinds of students — how to identify appropriate programs for each one, and how to help each student make his applications shine. In the span of a day I could be helping ten students with applications to Ivy League schools and ten others with applications to service academies, public universities, and regional colleges.
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by Lisa Albro, former admissions officer at Goucher College One might argue that the word “optional” is not open to interpretation, and that it simply means one has a choice. When it comes to the optional essays on college applications, this is sometimes true. But on occasion, it can be better to go the extra mile and take the time to craft a meaningful response for an essay that is not required. I state this cautiously, though, as I know that many applicants worry that they must respond to any and all questions, and will take every opportunity to share as much information about themselves as possible. Let’s take a look at a few common essay prompts that are sometimes listed as optional. A popular one asks applicants to indicate why they’re interested in that particular school and what has led them to apply. Now, for many colleges, this essay question is not listed as optional and must be answered. Note that I’m talking only about the schools that explicitly call this “optional.” This question allows applicants to share details about the offerings at a college that connect with their interests and goals, and can help to assure readers of applicants’ clear and specific reasons for applying. Because this helps give readers a deeper sense of how applicants might fit on their campus, this is a good prompt to answer if you see it as an option. Northwestern University has several prompts that are listed as optional, but also highly recommended. It presents applicants with five questions and invites them to answer at least one, but no more than two, that seem to read a lot like “why this school”prompts. Applicants may write about campus culture, interdisciplinary interests, community, location, or diversity of perspectives. Another essay prompt that appears on some applications as a required question, but is often seen as optional for other schools, asks applicants to elaborate on an activity or work experience that is meaningful to them. I like this option for students who sometimes feel limited by the activity section of an application and who might not have any other place on the app to go into depth about one activity that is particularly important to them. This presents applicants with a good opportunity to show readers what motivates them to participate in an activity, and to showcase some of the key accomplishments and personal growth they’ve experienced in that area. Some optional prompts ask applicants to recount a circumstance that affected them, or a way in which they exhibit a talent or skill; others are “slice of life” questions that give applicants opportunities to share something about themselves or their mindset that is unique and interesting, apart from what they’ve already shared in their personal statement. Several optional essay prompts may seem quirky or strange. Sometimes, those may give applicants a glimpse into the vibe of the school itself. If these questions resonate with you, it may be good to answer them: your reader might see a connection between your personality and the culture of the school. When should you not answer an optional essay prompt? If you do not have anything substantial to say about the topic, or if the question does not apply to you at all, these are good reasons to skip an optional prompt. No reader wants to spend time on an essay that essentially tells them nothing. Most optional prompts are simply additional opportunities for applicants to express themselves, and to add further texture to their applications. Take the opportunity to respond to the ones that allow you to highlight any other important connections, accomplishments, beliefs, or views for your readers.

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