An “Optional” College Application Requirement—Is It Really Optional?
One of the qualities of undergraduate education in the United States I appreciate is that our system of higher education is a marketplace of different college options.
The beauty of this system is that there are many opportunities to find colleges that fit an individual student’s needs and interests. For the most part, students do not need to fit into a mold to find great colleges for them.
Of course, this quality has its pros and cons. While having more choices increases the likelihood that students can tailor their higher education to their goals, it also creates confusion.
One area of confusion is the variety of different application requirements. Even more confusing are requirements that are labeled as “optional” by a college. A question I frequently hear from students and families I work with is, “Is it really optional?”
As is my answer to many questions about the college application process, I often reply, “It depends.” Context is everything.
Below, I share my recommendations for some optional college application requirements.
Very few colleges conduct admission interviews. Some specialized programs or scholarships may have required interviews, but standard undergraduate admission interviews are typically optional.
My recommendation is: if you can arrange an interview, then you should. Taking the time to participate in a voluntary interview can show demonstrated interest. It may also help you learn more about the college itself and come to a better decision about where you would like to attend.
Writing Section of the ACT or SAT
A tiny number of colleges in the United States require the optional writing section of the ACT or SAT. I am not quick to encourage students to spend more time taking standardized tests if it is not necessary. However, my recommendation is: take the optional writing section of the ACT or the SAT.
Because some colleges do still require this test. Plus, often students cannot predict which colleges will or will not stay on their initial list of colleges to which they’re applying. Therefore, taking the writing section will act as a “safety net” should a school that requires the test turn out to be a top choice.
Occasionally, students may notice that some essay questions on an application for a college may be labeled as optional. Sometimes, these essays indeed are optional, and sometimes, they are not. For example, they are optional when the prompt simply does not merit a response from the student, such as explaining disciplinary history or special circumstances.
However, sometimes, colleges offer optional essay questions that all students should complete. As with voluntary interviews, choosing to take some additional time to respond to optional essays shows colleges a student’s interest. Ultimately, that may increase their chances of admission.
SAT Subject Tests
This is one of the application requirements that seems to cause the most confusion.
The vast majority simply do not care about the SAT Subject Tests at all. However, when looking at the SAT Subject Test requirements for some colleges, students will notice many different―often perplexing—directions. It may say that SAT Subject Tests are “required, recommended, strongly recommended, or considered” by the individual college. And to make it even more confusing, sometimes, only certain majors within a university may require them.
My recommendation for the SAT Subject Tests is slightly different than for the previous optional requirements. Most optional requirements are not genuinely optional.
In this case, I recommend that students only take SAT Subject Tests if these tests are “required, strongly recommended, or recommended.” The exception to this rule is: if a student is not applying to colleges that “require, strongly recommend, or recommend” these tests, but they might score very well, I recommend taking at least two SAT Subject Exams.
If a student is only an “average” test-taker, then I recommend they choose not to take the SAT Subject Tests. Instead, they should devote their energy to high school classes, extracurricular activities, getting enough sleep, and living a healthy, balanced life.
My many years of experience as an Independent Education Consultant have taught me how to navigate complex aspects of the college application process with success. If you would like to benefit from my knowledge, please contact me for more information.