What Optional Means in Highly Selective College Admissions

Many universities offer optional essay prompts. But they should not be interpreted as optional.

Are you wondering what the term optional means in the context of highly selective college admissions? To put it simply, in most instances, optional means do it. If a school asks applicants to write an optional 250-word essay, write it. If a school asks applicants to submit SAT Subject Test scores if they so wish, submit them. If a school says they’re test-optional for the year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, submit test scores nonetheless. Now, does that mean one can’t earn admission to a highly selective college if you don’t write the optional essay? Does that mean one can’t earn admission to a highly selective college if you don’t submit SAT or ACT scores to a test-optional school? No, it doesn’t. But if your goal is to give yourself the best shot possible of admission, then you should interpret the word optional as mandatory.

Interpreting Optional as Expected is Not a Sign of Paranoia

In a piece published today for Inside Higher Ed by Jim Jump entitled “Testing’s Existential Crisis, or Blanche Du Bois, Confederate Statues and Admission Tests,” Jump writes, “Students tend to interpret the word ‘optional’ in a college admission context, whether ‘test optional’ or ‘optional essay,’ the way NFL players interpret ‘optional practice.’ Optional means ‘expected’ at the very least, and students, parents and counselors who lean toward paranoia or conspiracy theories may see ‘optional’ as a trick question or even a backhanded test of demonstrated interest (if you are truly serious, of course you will do all of the ‘optional’ questions).”

College Applicants Should Write the Optional Essay and Submit the Optional Test Scores

But on this particular point in his otherwise well argued editorial, Jump is dead wrong. These parents are right to presume that optional means expected. These parents are not being paranoid nor are they promoting conspiracy theories. Optional essay prompts are absolutely a test of a college applicant’s demonstrated interest. And yes, if you are truly serious, you will write the optional essay. You will submit the optional test scores. You will attend the optional alumni interview. Doing that which is optional in highly selective college admissions is not a sign of paranoia. It’s a sign of good reasoning skills.

 
 

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