Picture this: college app deadlines are looming and you’re hard at work on your applications. You’ve compiled and narrowed down a college list, made a strategy for presenting your extracurriculars, and started brainstorming and drafting your essays. Good for you! On top of all this work, you notice that a few of your applications allow for that perplexing, dark horse component: the optional essay.
Naturally, you have a lot of questions. Do you need to write one? What if you don’t have anything to say? What if the readers think it is unprofessional? Would a school immediately count it against you if you don’t submit it? If you write a response and they don’t like it, would that be worse? What are the guidelines?
These are all valid concerns. Let’s take a deep dive into the optional essay and how it impacts your college application from start to finish.
The intent of optional essays is to give you (the applicant) the benefit of the doubt, rather than leaving questions entirely up to an admissions officer’s interpretation. Remember: colleges do not expect everyone to submit an optional essay. That’s why it’s optional! However, you’re right to not just dismiss them outright. There are plenty of good reasons to submit an optional essay, and in some situations, it can be very helpful.
How to handle it
The most common optional essay will ask,
“Is there’s anything else we should know about you?”
- If you choose to explain any negative circumstances with this response, make sure to address the big picture and how you overcame and succeeded, and why it won’t happen again. Prove to them that you are stronger, or that you learned. If you are discussing low test scores—provide context/evidence. Excuses and complaints aren’t enough.
- Another good check: if you do have a specific, important personal topic in mind for “anything else,” give your draft to someone else who doesn’t know you very well to read. When explaining a personal crisis, it can be difficult to know where the line of between just enough and too much information falls. If you notice discomfort on either side of this exchange (for you, feeling too uncomfortable sharing the included information, or for them, expressing discomfort when they read it), the admissions committee will likely feel the same, and you should probably reconsider your approach.
Other prompts and situations may arise. Here’s a rundown of scenarios when you should, could, and definitely should not submit an optional essay response.
Should you submit that optional essay?
- It’s a “why us” or “good fit” question. Use the essay to demonstrate your interest in the school (but do NOT recycle content without customizing it thoroughly).
- It says “recommended,” “highly recommended,” or “encouraged” anywhere in the prompt.
- You need more glue to hold your application story together.
- You have an additional piece of information about you that a college should know that you haven’t had a chance to demonstrate fully yet. For example, self-guided projects or unconventional extracurricular activities that the application doesn’t allow you to really explain.
- There are more than a few optional prompts (e.g. Harvard, University of Pittsburgh)—they’re giving you lots of opportunities to show your character and personality!
- It states that it’s truly an optional field and you shouldn’t waste reviewers’ time.
- You have the start of an idea, and it’s your dream school (or one you’re super passionate about attending). If this is you, it may be worth spending the time and effort to draft and polish another writing supplement—take some time to consider.
- You feel like you’re a borderline or “splitter” candidate.
- You don’t have a good topic in mind right away—or the question just doesn’t apply to you (e.g. the Duke diversity prompt). Don’t try and force it.
- You don’t have time to make that essay as good as all your other pieces.
- You’ll only restate information already covered in other parts of your application.
- You’re just doing it because you think you should. It will sound fake and the readers won’t appreciate it.
- You’d have to divulge personal details you’re not comfortable sharing with people you don’t know well.
- It would only consist of excuses/complaints.
On the other hand, some applications will allow you to submit a resume or sample of your work. For example, Harvard allows for supplemental materials. These are a great chance to help your application stand out from the crowd and be really memorable! If this is true for you, be sure that you take the time to get all your materials up to par. Only submit if you have something that you’re proud of—which you should, especially if it’s in the area you want to study! Just because a section is optional doesn’t mean that if you do submit, the reviewer won’t assess that material at face value.
Of course, beyond reasons you may want to write an optional essay to boost your application even higher, there are situations when you might really need to include one, in order to explain a gap or issue. A few examples of reasons you may need to write an optional supplement would be:
- Unusually low or failing grades.
- Taking time out of school for personal reasons (medical, family issues, money, etc.).
- Disciplinary actions on your record. Be very careful with your language and tone, but don’t expect any permanent records to hide away from admissions reviewers completely; sometimes honesty is the best policy.
None of these things need to make or break your application, but it’s a good idea to explain your side of the story. So there you have it! Optional essays are a way to make the admissions review process a little more forgiving and human—view them as a tool to help you. There’s no need to be afraid of them… but it definitely is worth taking time to honestly assess your individual situation, and whether it’s necessary for you.
Tips and Tricks
Before you go, here are a few final quick tips and tricks to always keep in mind if you do write an optional essay:
- DO stick to the word limit (if none, it shouldn’t be longer than your personal statement). About 250 words will usually suffice.
- DO write an actual essay, not just a word bank. If you are going to ask the admissions committee to take the extra time to read it, you should put the effort in to submit something that is complete.
- For writing style, generally, these essays should be direct and concise, not creative writing (unless it’s a writing sample). Get to the point.
And remember: you can always check with a counselor to see if there is a gap in your holistic application (transcript, grades, etc) that needs an explanation to form a coherent story about yourself. If you’re looking for help or feedback from a qualified professional on your particular draft, talk to us today!