Should I Complete Optional College Essays?

Many applicants, tired from completing numerous college applications, encounter optional essays and other non-compulsory components like resumes, interviews, or writing samples. Understandably, some may be tempted to skip these tasks after pouring their energy into grades, standardized tests, and the Common App essay. However, overlooking these components can significantly impact admission prospects, particularly at highly-selective institutions.

The “Why This College?” Essay

One common optional essay prompt asks applicants to explain why they are applying to a specific school. Some students dismiss this essay as unimportant and skip it entirely, while others attempt a generic approach hoping to reuse the same essay for multiple applications. However, admissions officers can easily spot such attempts at application Mad Libs.

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Crafting a Compelling Essay

A generic statement like, “It has always been a dream of mine to attend _______ University/College. The level of academic rigor at your institution is unparalleled, and I would be proud to call myself a mascot name here for life,” won’t suffice. To make a compelling case for each school, reference specific academic programs, campus tours, conversations with current students, or recent campus developments.

Research and Personalization

Conduct thorough research on each prospective school’s website, social media channels, and recent news stories to demonstrate genuine interest and knowledge. Avoid generic statements and instead, showcase your understanding of each institution’s unique offerings and culture. Taking these extra steps can significantly enhance your admissions prospects.

Exploring Other Types of Optional Essays

While the “Why this college?” essay is common, it’s just one of many optional essay variations lurking in the depths of the college application process.

Duke University’s Unique Prompt

For example, Duke University invites applicants to share perspectives or experiences that would help the admissions team understand them better. This prompt emphasizes the importance of diversity and encourages applicants to reveal aspects of their identity, community, family background, or cultural experiences.

Addressing Identity and Background

If you identify with a marginalized group or have unique life experiences, such as growing up on a hippie commune, addressing this question may come naturally. However, applicants from more traditional backgrounds may need to be creative in revealing meaningful aspects of their identity.

The Role of a Resume

Some colleges allow the submission of a resume, while others do not. Even if not explicitly required, submitting a resume can provide additional insights into your achievements, experiences, and extracurricular activities.

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Enhancing Your Application

While the application itself may contain information about honors, awards, and activities, the resume offers a different format to highlight your accomplishments. It allows you to provide more detail and context, especially for long-term commitments or unique achievements that may not fit neatly into the application’s character limits.

Considering Optional Interviews

Skipping an optional interview might not be the best idea unless you’re extremely confident in your application or dread interpersonal interactions. However, this one-on-one conversation can humanize your application and make a significant impact, especially if you’re on the cusp of acceptance.

Adapting to Virtual Interviews

With the current pandemic, many interviews are conducted virtually via platforms like Zoom or Skype. Even though it’s not face-to-face, virtual interviews still offer a chance to shine. Check out our tips for Virtual College Admission Interview to make the most of this opportunity.

Including Writing Samples

While your application essays should showcase your writing abilities, submitting additional writing samples can further demonstrate your skills. However, not all schools accept supplementary materials, so be sure to check each institution’s policies. Generally, smaller liberal arts colleges are more open to additional materials and may consider them in the admissions process.


While optional components of college applications may seem like additional burdens, they can actually be valuable opportunities to strengthen your candidacy. Whether it’s writing optional essays, participating in interviews, or submitting additional materials like writing samples, these optional elements allow you to showcase different facets of your personality and abilities. By taking advantage of these opportunities, you can provide admissions committees with a more comprehensive picture of who you are as a student and individual, potentially increasing your chances of admission to your dream school.