Image description
Brittany Maschal
Noodle Expert Member

October 04, 2021

UPDATED VERSION OF OLD ARTICLE: College admissions departments ask for a lot from you: test scores, GPA, letters of recommendation, essays, a list of your extracurriculars—you name it. In today's post XXXXX offers advice on when you must, should and could include certain information.

Required Materials. Your application will not be considered complete (and therefore will not be evaluated) unless all required materials are submitted. Required materials include everything that is not marked as optional. Most often: personal information (address, phone, email, family information); high school information (address, counselor contact info, GPA scale); academic information (GPA, test scores, course schedule and transcript). When in doubt, fill it out!

Recommended Materials. Materials that are recommended are those that the school wants to see from its candidates and that, in many cases, will positively support your application. If a school recommends that you take two SAT Subject Tests, they are suggesting that you send two SAT Subject tests. Most schools will not outwardly say that not submitting recommended materials will hurt your chances of admission, but that does not mean it’s true. If a school only requires three years of high school math, science and language (which is common), but recommends taking each all four, the student with four years of science will be in a better position to gain acceptance than the student with only three years. They will have demonstrated taking the most rigorous course load (as taking cores over taking electives is presumably more rigorous). There are of course exceptions, but in almost all cases taking the recommended or max academic course load will be preferred over the minimum or required.

There are plenty of students who get admitted to great colleges and universities without doing everything on the recommended list, but from my experience, colleges look kindly to students who do. More so than to see if a student will take the time to do what appears to be extra work or not, schools cannot require some of the materials that are “recommended" because not all applicants have access to the same course offerings or can afford to take SAT Subject tests, for example. You also need to take into consideration your strengths and weaknesses and whether or not taking a fourth year of a subject that you struggle in with help or hurt your overall academic record. There is something to be said for GPA preservation, so if you know taking physics your senior year will hurt your senior fall GPA (which will go to colleges during mid-term grade reporting) then it may be best to skip it or opt for a lower level related elective. For the most part though, you'd be wise to treat everything recommended as if it were also required, as the most competitive applicants will have completed all recommended components of the application.

Optional Materials. You decide whether or not you submit optional materials, but I suggest you do. If you have the time and want to be admitted to the school, at least when it comes to essays, why would you NOT submit them? To me, optional materials are required, only unless they pose a financial burden (like SAT Subject tests for some applicants). When you come across an optional part of an application you need to ask yourself: will including this make my application stronger or weaker? Consider, for example, two of the most common optional essay topics:

  1. Some variation on: "We value diversity. How would you make our campus more diverse?"
  2. A broad question along the lines of "Is there anything else we should consider in your application?"

If these questions are listed as optional you should try your best to complete them. Everyone has some way in which they are unique, and essays about diversity should not be limited to racial, ethnic, physical or socioeconomic diversity. Diversity of experience counts; so do geography and a wide variety of other things.

Similarly, the second question is usually an opportunity to explain an unusual weakness in your application. Did you have a really bad semester because of an illness or death in the family? A divorce? This essay is an opportunity to address that issue (though always in a very minimal, "just the facts" fashion). On the other hand, trying to explain away a bad semester because of something a great many high school students go through—a bad break up, for example—would again make a bad impression on anyone evaluating your application.

When it comes to optional tests—some schools make the SAT Subject Tests or even the SAT or ACT optional—only include your scores if they will enhance your candidacy. Don't include scores that are markedly weaker than the rest of your application. If a school is test optional, only send your scores if they fall above, within, or very close to the 25-75% range for that schools admitted students. So, if the ACT range for a school on your list that is test optional is 25-29 and you have a 25+, go ahead and submit it. If your score falls lower than this range, but you have grades that are more indicative of your true academic performance, then you may want to consider not submitting test scores.

The bottom line, then, is that if something is required, you must submit it to have your application considered. If it's recommended, you ought to include it if it's at all reasonable, and failure to do so will weaken your application. If something is optional, you should only include it if it will strengthen your application, or confirm an already positive impression made by other parts of your application