Colleges should rebrand confusing optional assignments

January 31, 2019 — by Alex Wang

During college application season, seniors already stress enough about essays, deadlines and decisions. On top of that, many colleges have additional supplemental essays or interviews that they advertise as being purely optional.

However, for seniors, these “optional” components can result in further stress that they did not anticipate. Despite colleges saying that those who do not complete the optional components of the application will not be disadvantaged whatsoever, students still feel the compulsion to complete them, fearing that they’re needed to get ahead in the ever-competitive college application process.

As a result, these “optional” components are not really “optional” at all, but rather, they are implicit necessities that additionally burden already-stressed applicants. If this is the case for these colleges, they should rebrand these additional components as “required,” or get rid of them altogether.

For example, Duke University asks applicants questions about their backgrounds and how they have been shaped by their culture or community in a way that makes them unique. However, on the Common App, this essay is completely optional.

Students applying to Duke may be confused by this labeling. Duke desires to have “a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience” and their belief that “the diversity of our students makes [their] community stronger,” but on paper, they seem to not care whether prospective students show their uniqueness or not when they call their essay “optional.”

Furthermore, the essay prompt says, “Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.” Therefore, those who do not write this essay may appear impersonal or ingenuine, decreasing their chances for admission.

College interviews are another aspect of the application process that also add unnecessary stress for students. Unfortunately for students, part of the interviewing process comes down to luck. Because a lot of schools’ interviewers are alumni without much formal, standardized training, each interview can yield drastically different results. Some interviewers may try to help all students get in to the school, writing glowing recommendations for all interviewees, while other interviewers may selectively write positive recommendations for applicants they feel are standouts.

Many colleges recognize this problem and therefore do not weigh interviews as strongly as other components of a student’s application. Still, in extreme cases, some students may run into interviewers who are exceptionally unfriendly and egotistical. This may lead to a highly critical report of the student, essentially destroying all chances they had at being accepted to that particular college.

So, this begs the question: Are interviews, especially optional ones,really worth doing?

Although students who do not complete optional components of the application will most likely not be penalized just as the colleges promise, they will lose out on a valuable opportunity to showcase another dimension of themselves in their applications. And when every other applicant writes another essay about their experiences in diversity and passes an interview with flying colors, that likely leaves those who don’t disadvantaged.

Similarly, a quick internet search reveals that almost all counselors and professionals believe that students should always complete the optional components of their application; some speculate that opting to forgo the optional interview may lead colleges to guess at what led a student to do so, whether it be a low effort or lack of confidence in personal skills. If this is the case, then why do colleges make these components optional in the first place when it appears as if not completing them essentially guarantees a rejection?

One reason could be that colleges use these optional components to single out applicants who are lazy or unqualified. However, much of this process can already be done by comparing test scores and GPA. In addition, most serious applicants do complete the optional components, so it is difficult to tell which are actually lazy or unqualified. On the other hand, other serious applicants may simply have not enough time to write an extra essay or do another interview.

Instead of promising students that essays, interviews and other components of their application are “optional” when it appears to many that they really aren’t, perhaps colleges should say that they are “strongly recommended” or at the very least, “suggested.” By changing this wording, the colleges would also benefit too, as they would easily be able to filter out applicants who aren’t interested in the school at all, but just applied for the sake of doing so.

Thus, the “optional” components of college applications serve no direct purpose other than causing additional confusion and stress. Colleges need to consider making them required which will make the application process more transparent, or remove them altogether.

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