If A College Essay Is Optional Should I Do It

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For many top achieving high school students around the world, gaining admittance into Harvard University represents the realization of a dream. However, with applications soaring and acceptance rates down to just 5.3% for the class of 2019, achieving that dream has become harder and harder.

A key component in your application to any college is the essay, giving admissions committees a window into your life beyond your resume. A well written essay can revive the chances of a student with a weak extracurricular profile and poor SAT scores, while a poorly written essay full of cliché can derail even the valedictorian with a 2400 SAT and perfect extracurricular activities. Harvard in particular heavily emphasizes the essay portion of a student’s application due to the exceptional quality of the applicant pool each year.

For most schools, the essay on the Common Application provides one opportunity for students to introduce themselves. But most elite schools also have a supplement to the Common App, in which they ask for additional required essays to gain more insight into you as an applicant.

Harvard’s supplement doesn’t work in exactly the same manner.

On the Harvard Supplement, the Additional Essays section reads as follows:

“Occasionally, students feel that college application forms do not provide sufficient opportunity to convey important information about themselves or their accomplishments. If you wish to include an additional essay, you may do so.

Possible Topics:

Unusual circumstances in your life

Travel or living experiences in other countries

A letter to your future college roommate

An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper or research

topic) that has meant the most to you

How you hope to use your college education

A list of books you have read during the past twelve months”

The optional and open-ended nature of the supplement has resulted in frustration for hundreds of thousands of students over the years. Opinions vary regarding whether you should or shouldn’t send in the Harvard Optional Essay. Debate is always heated when this question is asked on the popular College Confidential forums, with about half of the posts saying “go for it!” and the others saying that you don’t need it. A quick scan of the Internet literature shows mixed opinions as well. When you keep in mind that most of the opinions expressed on the web are by students looking to reassure themselves of their own uncertainty, the issue quickly becomes a wild goose chase.

Luckily, we have an answer that ends the debate and will help you rest easy. We polled a random sample of over 200 students in Harvard’s Class of 2017 and found that of those accepted students, over 85% wrote the optional essay. So you probably should as well.

This finding shouldn’t surprise you. For a few students it truly doesn’t matter – kids have been accepted into Harvard before without sending in the optional essay. On the flip side, if you know that your test scores, GPA, or ECs are average or worse (in the context of Harvard, that describes 99% of applicants) – then the optional essay provides an invaluable opportunity to enhance your application and increase your chance of catching the eye of that admissions counselor.

And when you do write that optional essay, be sure to go big; write an essay on a totally unique passion, a compelling narrative of a key moment in your life, or an insightful academic essay that highlights your intellectual talents. Statistically, your chances of getting into Harvard are so slim that it can’t hurt.

For help on how to write the Harvard Supplement, feel free to check out this year’s post on How to Write the Harvard Optional Supplement Essay or reach out to work 1-on-1 with one of Admissions Hero’s trained Harvard essay specialists.

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As you're gearing up to write a mountain of essays, it's easy to toss out those optional essay questions. After all, they are optional, and what else could you possibly have to say after writing 30 other essays? Okay, we definitely get that, but let's slow down and rethink this. Colleges want to know you as more than just a constellation of numbers, and they want to know that to you their college is the most important. What better opportunity than to take the time out to write an optional essay that shares even more about yourself with the college of your dreams? Even if you are simply submitting your resume in order to give a more complete summary of your experiences, or as the below essay does, giving more background on the Common App main essay and sharing further information about a passion, the extra effort won't be overlooked. 

When I was five years old, my grandparents took me to the Museum of Modern Art, and as we entered Chuck Close’s exhibit, I approached with curiosity the portrait entitled “Emma.” I suddenly realized that the striking and colorful pixilated image I had seen from afar was actually composed of hundreds of individually painted squares. I was totally blown away. At the time I was drawn to the purely aesthetic value of the painting, but as I grew older it was Close’s unique process of creating art that inspired me.

Process would become everything to me in the years ahead. In fact, the process of trying to find the right college allowed me to develop a much better understanding of who I am and what I’m looking for in the next four years, and I now see that Bucknell encapsulates everything I’m seeking academically, socially, and personally. I believe Bucknell’s Affinity housing option embodies my belief that many individual voices coming together can create something powerful and surprising that goes far beyond what any one person can achieve alone.

In my early teens I started exploring subjects like psychology, politics, history, and business, and can see now that what I appreciated was how, like in Close’s abstract impressionism, every story or idea was composed of smaller stories and ideas, each building on the other. This concept was made real when I was developing the trip to India for Kaiizen (see my Common App essay). I had a grand vision and needed to break that big goal down into many small goals, each with its own set of responsibilities and staff members. Throughout the process of designing this service trip, I continually expressed the importance of small contributions coming together (whether in fundraising or staff support) to reach a loftier goal. I led the group, keeping in mind that inter-relationships were key, and was able to motivate the members of the group to contribute small pieces of what, in the end, turned out to be a massively successful and inspirational trip.

Bucknell offers students the opportunity to get involved in things like The Global Friendship Club and B.A.C.E.S. These on-campus organizations make it clear to me that Bucknell values the idea that individuals working together for the greater good can achieve great things. I believe any challenge in life can be broken down into small, manageable parts, and that understanding those parts is crucial for arriving at a successful outcome. The notion that Bucknell supports this way of thinking makes me very excited about the prospect of calling it my home for the next four years.


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