Optional, Recommended and Required
December 18, 2019
Grades, test scores, recommendation letters, essays, supplements — colleges ask for many components in their applications. Read on to understand what you actually need to send in.
College admissions departments ask for a lot from you: test scores, gpa, letters of recommendation, essays, extracurriculars-- you name it. In today's post Dan Edmonds offers advice on when you must, should and could include certain information.
When it comes to college applications, one of the things that most frequently confounds (and stresses out) applicants is how to distinguish between what they must send in, and what they ought to send in, and what they should only send in if it helps their application.
Let's start with the easy part: Anything listed as required in your application (and if they don't call it optional or recommended, assume it's required!) is something that you must send in. Meaning your application will not be considered complete (and therefore will not be evaluated) unless that part of the application is submitted. While I'm sure that you can find exceptions to this rule if you look long and hard enough, you shouldn't assume that you will be an exception. If it's required, include it!
Recommended becomes a little trickier. This means that this is something the college wants to see from its candidates and that you will put yourself at a disadvantage if you don't submit it. If a school recommends that you take two SAT Subject Tests, then you will hurt your chances of admission if you don't. If a school only requires three years of high school science, but recommends four, the students with four years of science will be in a better position to gain acceptance than will the students with only three. Seems pretty straightforward, right? So why is there even a distinction?
You can still get into college without doing everything on the recommended list. You just need to make sure you have some outstanding characteristics that make up for the shortcomings. In general, you should try to do everything that's recommended, but there are times when it makes sense not to. If you're terrible at science, and you know that a fourth year would produce bad grades, it might make sense not to take four years; for that matter, if there's something really interesting you could do related to your future major if you don't take that fourth year of science, you might even have a compelling reason to have taken a different route in your course selection. That said, for the most part, you'd be wise to treat everything recommended as if it were also required.
Optional is probably the trickiest of the categories. For any optional part of the application, you need to ask: will including this make my application stronger or weaker? Consider, for example, two of the most common optional essay topics:
Some variation on: "We value diversity. How would you make our campus more diverse?"
A broad question along the lines of "Is there anything else we should consider in your application?"
If these questions are listed as optional--and I don't think I've ever seen them as anything but--then treat them as such, and only answer them if you have a good answer that will enhance your application.
For the first, only write an essay if there is something about your background that would make you unusual for the school you're applying to. Jewish kids applying to Brandeis, for example, probably don't have much to offer a diversity essay. Nor do Asian men applying to Caltech. Or middle class white kids from Indiana applying to Indiana University. Or African American students from Atlanta applying to Morehead. And so on. Attempting to answer these essays when you aren't bringing an unusual (for the school in question) perspective to the table will actually hurt you more than it will help you.
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 scores if they will make you look better. Don't include scores that are markedly weaker than the rest of your application.
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.
Learn more about how to write your college application essay here!
Previously: Is eLearning the New Solution for Higher Ed?