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Articles / Applying to College / Are “Optional” Application Essays and Videos Really Optional?

Dec. 18, 2018

Are “Optional” Application Essays and Videos Really Optional?

Are “Optional” Application Essays and Videos Really Optional?
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I am applying to the University of Chicago, which accepts an "optional" video introduction. Another school where I'm applying has a "recommended" supplemental essay available. My dad thinks I need to do these even though they aren't required. I don't really have the time. When they say "optional/recommended" do they really mean these items are basically required? Or are they really optional?

“The Dean" votes “Yes" on the essay and “No, but ..." on the video (more on that in a minute).


Personally, I deplore the ridiculous number of essays that many high school students must write as they slog through the admissions maze. But until major changes are made (not in my lifetime, I fear, although I've certainly proposed them), I agree with your dad. An “optional" essay is never really optional UNLESS the topic is not relevant to you. For example, if the prompt asks, “If there have been interruptions to your education, please describe what they were and their effect on you," then you only should write this essay if indeed you have an interruption to report. Otherwise, skip it without a backward glance.

An optional essay may ask you to discuss why the college in question is a good fit for you. While the submissions that result from this prompt are rarely interesting or compelling, and they frequently sound as if they were culled right from the website (“I am eager to join my fellow Panthers in Quackenbush Quad on Fall Spirit Day ..."), by not responding at all, you could be sending a subliminal message that suggests, “There's nothing about this place that particularly matters to me."

Yet often an optional essay is open-ended ... with a topic along the lines of, “Tell us something that the rest of your application doesn't." And even though you may feel as if your life is already an open book in admission offices nationwide, this is a valuable opportunity to consider what's important to you ... or about you ... and that isn't conveyed elsewhere. Admission folks — especially at the hyper-selective institutions — are desperate to find ways to distinguish one accomplished candidate from the next, so ultimately it may be your failed efforts as stand-up comic or your successes with homemade sushi that help you stand out in the crowd.

An optional video submission, however, really isn't mandatory, especially if you're daunted by the tech prowess it requires. In recent years, some colleges have provided this choice as a way to engage students who feel that they don't present their best selves on paper but are facile with other media. So usually “The Dean" assures anyone who wants to forego a voluntary video to do so without qualms.

Now here's the aforementioned “but" ...

The University of Chicago's optional video is about as low-key as an application assignment can get. The time limit is just two minutes, and the instructions insist that edited, polished productions are not welcome; selfie-style phone recordings are. So, as with the open-ended optional essay mentioned above, this mini movie will give you the chance to show a side of yourself that may not be apparent in the other components of your application. It also says to U. Chicago, “I care enough about you to make this extra effort."

If I ruled the world, there would be a single truly common application that every senior filled out in a proctored session at school on one October morning. It would include an essay or two and some short answer questions, but then that would be it. No supplemental essays. No supplements, period. But for now, I urge you to write the optional essay for sure and to give the Chicago video at least a try. You can always hit “Delete" instead of “Send" when it's a wrap.

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Written by

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone

Sally Rubenstone knows the competitive and often convoluted college admission process inside out: From the first time the topic of college comes up at the dinner table until the last duffel bag is unloaded on a dorm room floor. She is the co-author of Panicked Parents' Guide to College Admissions; The Transfer Student's Guide to Changing Colleges and The International Student's Guide to Going to College in America. Sally has appeared on NBC's Today program and has been quoted in countless publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, USA Weekend, USA Today, U.S. News & World Report, Newsweek, People and Seventeen. Sally has viewed the admissions world from many angles: As a Smith College admission counselor for 15 years, an independent college counselor serving students from a wide range of backgrounds and the author of College Confidential's "Ask the Dean" column. She also taught language arts, social studies, study skills and test preparation in 10 schools, including American international schools in London, Paris, Geneva, Athens and Tel Aviv. As senior advisor to College Confidential since 2002, Sally has helped hundreds of students and parents navigate the college admissions maze. In 2008, she co-founded College Karma, a private college consulting firm, with her College Confidential colleague Dave Berry, and she continues to serve as a College Confidential advisor. Sally and her husband, Chris Petrides, became first-time parents in 1997 at the ripe-old age of 45. So Sally was nearly an official senior citizen when her son Jack began the college selection process, and when she was finally able to practice what she had preached for more than three decades.

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