Applying to college is a lot of work. Between crafting a college list, testing and sending your scores, writing your essays, and getting your recommendations together, it’s enough to overwhelm a student. With that in mind, hearing that the school you’re applying to has an optional secondary essay can feel like a relief. If it’s optional, it’s one fewer thing you have to do. But optional admissions essays shouldn’t be dismissed. Should you write an optional admissions essay? Let’s take a look and find out:

What is an optional admissions essay?

While all colleges require applicants to write a large or “main” essay—often through the Common App application system—many schools also offer shorter, optional essays as part of their applications. Often, for schools that use the Common App, these essays will be more specific to the particular school, while the admissions officers are aware that your large essay will be a more general one that you’ll be sending to every school on your list.

Optional essays are generally on the short side—around 200 to 250 words is typical, and these word counts are likely to be hard limits, not recommendations or guidelines. However, the exact policy will vary from school to school.

Unlike your larger essay, with which students have many options to pick their topic, the optional essay will usually ask a very specific question. Two of the most common are, “Why this school?” and, “Is there anything else we should know about you?” These are great opportunities to make your application feel more personal and show the school you’re a serious applicant.

Other schools will use the optional essay as a means of asking to hear from particular types of applicants—for instance, students of color or LBGT students—to ask to hear more about their experiences. If that’s the case, and you do fit into the demographics in question, this is an excellent opportunity to share your perspective in more detail. If you don’t fit into the demographics mentioned, don’t worry about writing an essay. The question doesn’t apply to you, and the admissions officers won’t be surprised you didn’t answer it.

sitting criss-cross and working on a computer

How much time should I spend on an optional essay?

This is a difficult question, since essays can be pored over and rewritten nearly infinitely if you have the time. You should spend at least a few hours on it, between writing, editing, and then coming back to review what you’ve written after some time to sleep on it. While you shouldn’t be spending more time on your optional essay than on your long essay, it’s important to set some time aside for it and give it the attention it deserves.

So… Should I write the optional essay?

Generally, yes! The more you show the school you’re applying to, the better a picture they have of you, and the more opportunities you have to demonstrate what a great candidate you are. While there are some circumstances where writing the optional essay would be inappropriate (such as when it’s asking about an experience you haven’t had), or impossible (if you made a last-minute decision to add this school to your college list and are up against the application deadline), as a rule, the optional essay is an opportunity worth taking!

In particular, if the optional essay is a chance to tell a specific school why you want to attend, any smart student will seize that opportunity. But in general, when it comes to college applications, the more you can show of yourself, the better. So take the time to look over that optional essay, on your own, or with a friend or tutor like our team at A-List, and get brainstorming!