How to Handle Optional College Application Materials


Just when you think you're finished with your college applications, you may discover that some schools have "optional" or "supplemental" materials that you may submit in addition to the required application elements. And you may wonder whether "optional" is really optional -- or is it recommended? Some may even wonder if "optional" really means "required." So, what is the answer?

"Although some colleges really do mean it when they describe something as 'optional,' I advise all of my students to read 'optional' as 'required,'" says Carter Delloro, director of college counseling at the Academy of Penguin Hall in Wenham, Mass. If you end up getting denied from a university, you don't want to feel like there was something else you could have done to enhance your chances. By the same token, if a college explicitly says they don't want something (for example, no more than one teacher recommendation letter), then follow that to the letter.

For some institutions, especially highly selective schools that are the best in the country, it is probably best to submit optional materials that could make your application stand out. For very competitive schools, it is more likely that other applicants will submit optional materials, so "optional" may be more along the "strongly recommended" pendulum — and may even feel closer to being required.

Ensure You Put Effort Into Optional Materials

Keep in mind that optional application materials have to be submitted with care — they can't be "afterthought" application materials.

"In general, I usually tell students that "optional" is code for 'if you really want to stand out, do these things,' but, if the optional items are going to detract in any way from the application, I suggest giving it a pass," says Michelle Silbernagel, independent educational consultant at Touchstone Advising in Washington. "I spoke with an admissions officer earlier this year who bemoaned the thought of reading yet another lackluster, unmotivated optional 'diversity' essay and suggested that students might be better off without the essay in their application."

Beth Taubman, a college advisor and school counselor at American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla., sees the optional admission materials as a gift for students to really shine in their applications.

"If the college is giving you a chance to send optional information -- and you have it -- it is to the student's benefit to send it in, recommended or not," explains Taubman. "It is another piece of the puzzle to see if the student is a good fit for the school, and I think it can humanize the applicant to the school as well. Seeing a student perform or reviewing a piece of their artwork can help in the process of forming connections and creating allies. I like to think of the extra material as something your representative could bring into committee if they needed to, to make your case for admission; it gives the student another opportunity to share their unique vision and beautiful voice."

So if you are questioning whether to submit an optional application component, figure out how much you would like to attend that institution to see if you want to do the extra work. But make sure you put as much effort into it as your regular application materials so the admissions office can really see your best work in optional materials.