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How to Determine What Is Really Optional in Your College Application

Deciphering what is "optional" versus "required" for a college application is like trying to read someone's mind. There are no uniform instructions. Every college has their own way of doing things. It is a lot to expect from students who have never applied to college.

If you find yourself wondering if it is necessary to submit an optional piece of the application, here are some guiding principles:

1. Test-Optional

Many students wonder if not reporting test scores will disadvantage them in the admissions process at a test-optional college. Looking at the data I have collected for my Application Nation students, I can see why students worry. Especially among highly selective colleges with test-optional policies there seems to be an advantage if you apply with scores, as long as they are high scores. If you don't have high scores, but your transcript and everything else in the application meets the very high standards of the college, applying without test scores is still my recommendation, though. In the end, colleges with a test-optional policy know that if they disadvantage students without scores, they will have more lawsuits coming their way.

2. Resumes

Besides a handful of colleges like the University of Texas at Austin and Florida State University, resumes very rarely get read in a student's application. Admissions officers prefer to read a student's activities and honors right from the application. The straightforward and consistent template allows them to go through the application faster than having to rely on a resume, which varies in style, length, and approach. So skip the resume for the most part and spend time making your activities list and honors list really special.

3. Main Essay

All of my students in Application Nation write a main essay for a reason! While there are some colleges that don't even permit an essay, most selective colleges require or make the main essay optional, at the very least. No admissions officer will ever get upset seeing that a student submitted the main essay when it is technically optional to do so. I have found that when an admissions committee is on the fence about a student, having a strong main essay can be the reason the student is admitted.

4. Supplemental Essays

If a college says that one or more of their supplemental essays are optional, follow the Nike slogan and "just do it." Rarely will I come across a supplemental essay prompt that I won't recommend a student do. 

5. Letters of Recommendation

I would try to stick to only the letters of recommendation that are required. Like the resume, admissions officers are known not to read extra letters of recommendation. Especially at a large public university, the likelihood that an optional letter of recommendation will get read is very low. 

READ MORE: Are Early Action Programs As Good As They Appear?

The admissions process could not be more confusing. I feel for students and their families trying to navigate this process without clear instructions. Colleges often will say that certain pieces of the application are optional, but the reality is that they are not always clear about what exactly that means. Transparency needs to be the core of this admissions process. Until that happens, count on me to make sense of colleges' ambiguous actions and policies.