Should I Do the Optional College Essays?

Student writing a college essay while in front of a laptop.
April 26, 2024
6 min read
Expert Reviewed


Reviewed by:

Mary Banks

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 4/26/24

Do you find yourself asking: should I do the optional college essays? How do I write the optional essay? To help you answer these questions, we’ve put together this article to help you make your decision and guide your writing process. 

Applying for college is a tasking job that takes a lot of preparation. Between writing a required personal statement, securing your letters of recommendation, transcripts, and other documents, the last thing you want to worry about is an optional college essay. 

When it comes to supplemental writing, you may be thinking, ‘oh, well, it’s optional; I don’t have to do it, and it will save me time to work on my application better.’ However, you need to sit down and ask yourself: Should I do the optional essay? Would it help my application? Or am I just wasting my time?

While it won’t count against you if you decide not to write it, writing a good optional essay will be read and taken at face value by the admissions officers. 

Are Optional College Essays Really Optional?

The answer, in short, is yes. You will not be penalized for not writing these college essays. However, if you have something meaningful or worthwhile to talk about, you should absolutely write the optional essay. Doing so will add more dimension to your application and further demonstrate your strong writing abilities.

Types of Optional College Essays

two male students writing essays

Not every college essay prompt is the same. Colleges may have different prompts for you to answer in your supplemental statement. Here are the top 7 common types of questions to give you more insight into how to write the optional essay. 

‘Why This College?’ Essay

This prompt allows you to explain why you are applying to their college. A common mistake students make is that they think this prompt does not need much thought and will therefore write a generic response.

Providing a banal explanation for wanting to get into college will not work in your favor. College admissions know how to spot pitiful attempts at this type of essay. Instead of giving a plain “It has always been my dream to attend this college” response, try to reference the specific academic programs at the college you wish to be accepted into. 

Take this time to talk about what you like about campus life and show interest in the school’s culture and environment. Demonstrating your knowledge of your prospective school is an excellent way to garner interest from the admissions committee.

Academic Interest Essay

This type of essay allows you to write about your desired area of study. This requires an insightful approach, seeing as one-third of first-year college students change their majors at least once

If you aren’t exactly sure what you intend to study, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Just be sure to explain your current academic interests and link them to your potential career goals. This essay allows colleges to see how passionate and dedicated you are to your studies and interests. 

Community Service Essay

The overall idea of this prompt is to allow students to talk about their involvement in their community, whether it is with family, extracurricular activities, employment, school, or volunteering. 

You should talk about how you made an impact through your involvement or any accomplishments you have achieved. Be sure to discuss how these experiences have shaped your outlook on life and, if possible, link them to your academic aspirations. 

Interest or Activity Essay

Believe it or not, colleges are interested in learning about what you do in your free time. This doesn’t just include volunteering or extracurricular activities, but anything you do that is productive and fulfilling for you. 

Suppose your interests have challenged you in a way that has allowed you to grow and learn from that experience. In that case, admissions officers are more than willing to read about them. Showing depth and longevity in your free time is crucial to making a good impression.

Challenge Essay

Every student has faced some challenges in their lifetime, be it academic or personal. This essay permits you to discuss a challenge you have faced and how you have overcome it. 

It allows colleges to see how your life experiences have shaped you as a person. Not only that, but this question also shows how you face and approach problems to find the best possible solution. 

A great way to begin these essays is with a strong hook, possibly the climax of the anecdote you’ll be sharing in your essay.

‘Social Consciousness’ Essay

This is a more specific essay, which prompts you to talk about how you have taken social action to fight for diversity and inclusion. Whether it is a place you volunteered, a fundraiser you started or participated in at school, or any news event that inspired you to take action, this essay wants to know what you think 'social justice’ means to you. 

Colleges thrive on the diversity of their students and ensuring a safe learning environment, so they look for prospective students whose morals adhere to theirs.

Interpersonal Essay Questions

How would you describe yourself to someone who does not know you? Or if you were to meet yourself, would you like you? This type of essay begs the question of how you would present yourself through someone else’s eyes. 

Imagine how you would be as a roommate or how you would fit into campus life. It is a chance for you to look deep into yourself and offer an honest insight into who you are as an individual and how others may view you. 

Unique Essays

These essays are distinctive and require you to use your creativity when answering them. These questions are not the usual prompts given by many colleges.They pave the way for you to offer an interesting perspective or idea on the question given. 

For example, they might ask you when you didn’t accomplish a particular thing and what you learned from it. Or they might ask you a situational question, such as ‘what would you do if you caught your co-worker stealing?’ These questions are out-of-the-box and designed to reflect your way of thinking.

Should I Write the Optional Essays? How to Make Your Choice

Female student writing essay

Supplemental writing is just that—supplemental. It’s not a requirement; your application will not mean any less than an applicant who did the writing. You should do the optional college essays if you feel you have the right means to create an impressive essay. 

Before you decide, here are a set of questions you must analyze before you decide whether or not to write the optional essay. 

Do they want to hear what I have to say?

Of course. Schools give an optional essay because they want to hear what you say about the prompt. You have to make sure that it is impactful. 

Would it count against me if I don’t do it?

No. An optional essay is not expected to be completed by every applicant.It is just something colleges offer to students dedicated to giving more insight to themselves. It is a way to show their characteristics to admissions officers in a unique way. 

Would it be too much to write?

If you choose to write the optional essay, you usually do not have to worry about whether your statement is too personal. However, to be safe, you can try to have someone edit and read through it and give their opinion. 

This could be a teacher, guidance counselor, or even a classmate. If you feel uncomfortable about anyone reading it, you should perhaps write about something else. 

What if I don’t know how to approach it?

It is always important to brainstorm your ideas upon reading the prompt. However, if you struggle to find the perfect pitch and then try to make it sound sincere, then the optional essay is not for you.

What should I write about?

After receiving the topic, it is entirely up to you what to write about. If you have an idea in mind, then perfect! You can write an essay. If you find yourself overwhelmed on how to approach the topic, then do not write it. There is a good chance the essay will not turn out well and greatly hinder your chances of getting accepted.

Once you have gone through each of these questions and taken a look at the college topic, you can decide whether to go ahead with the essay or not. 

How to Write the Optional College Essays

It is important to understand not only the structure of the essay question but also the points you should highlight when writing your response and how you approach the question. Below are methods on how to approach each type of optional college essay.

Why This College Essay

Stanford University

The question being asked is in the essay type: write about why you are interested in this college. To write a strong response, you have to have specificity. Mention any unique aspects of the college or opportunities they offer that inspire you to explore your academic interests and help you achieve your career goals. 

What you should not do is make a generic list of reasons why you want to join this college, such as ‘I like this campus’ or ‘It’s close to my home so that commute won’t be a concern.’ 

Discuss the programs they offer, the campus life, and even any partnerships they have with organizations that align with your passion. You can check out the college’s official website and social media pages to better understand your dream school. 

Academic Interest Essay

beakers in science lab

This essay essentially asks you: “What are your academic interests? Academic goals?” You should do background research on the program you wish to get into to respond properly to this prompt. 

Then, you can talk about your interests and goals to help the admissions officers understand where you are coming from in terms of applying for the specific program. 

If you are applying to a liberal arts college, talk about your love of liberal arts and how you wish to get into a career in the humanities. If it is a college known for engineering, talk about your dreams of becoming an engineer and how you are an avid science student. Be specific and personal. 

Even if you do not have a set interest yet, you can identify some programs that have caught your eye or even talk about events or college alumni that inspired you to attend this school.

Community Service Essay

male student volunteers cleaning up trash

This essay will ask you about your community service activities and how you have given back to your community. It will require you to discuss a time you volunteered somewhere that shaped your interests or an accomplishment you made that positively impacted your community. 

You can talk about your volunteer experiences, use anecdotes, and give descriptions of your position and your duties. You can talk about why you chose to volunteer, how it aligns with your interests, and even link it to your long-term career goals. 

Interest or Activity Essay

people playing video games

This essay will ask about a hobby or interest you invest your time in. This can be anything from being interested in video games or sports to a hobby like dancing or writing. You should list your top interests and make sure they align with your career goals. 

Hobbies give admissions officers a preview of how you invest your time and productivity. It is also important to research your career interests and goals and talk about any links they have to your hobbies. This research should discuss how your hobbies and interests have impacted your career choice. 

You can talk about life experiences, anecdotes, or accomplishments that gave you the confidence to work towards your dream career. For example, you can talk about how winning a science competition about the HIV/AIDS epidemic from the 80s inspired you to become a scientist or disease expert and work with the WHO. 

Or how being part of a social justice club and participating in anti-racist rallies inspired you to become a lawyer and help those in need. 

Challenge Essay

man sitting on bench

This essay will have you recall a time you faced a challenge of any kind and explore how that impacted you and any lessons learned. Unless specified in the question, this could be a challenge you faced in your personal, professional, or academic life. 

You should avoid doing a common topic that every other student will probably write about. Try to find a unique topic and experience from your life that is burned in your memory. Once you have that done, you can discuss why it was so significant to you. 

Be sure to highlight any qualities you used when facing that challenge, such as brainstorming and logical thinking. 

This essay is designed to help you display your strengths and skills to the admissions officers. Be sure to focus on the impact it had on you rather than the details of the challenge. Talk about what you felt in that moment, how you came to overcome it, and how that has changed you.

Social Consciousness Essay

Woman holding pride flag

This is one of the more philosophical essay approaches. This prompt begs the question of what, in essence, your idea of ‘justice’ or ‘freedom’ is. This essay deals with the social sciences, humanities, and literature. 

You essentially have to talk about social issues you are concerned about and what you have done or wish to do to ensure a healthier environment for all. This essay can ask questions such as ‘what is your idea of justice?’ or ‘should race matter?’ You can also refer to personal experiences and current events if they have impacted you in any way.

For example, if you have experienced some form of discrimination and how that has impacted you, have strong opinions on police brutality, or how you felt about the O.J. Simpson trial and the relationship between race and the law, be sure to mention it in your response. 

Interpersonal Essay

man looking in mirror

This essay is more of an activity; it asks you to describe yourself from another point of view. Talk about yourself in the third person; who is this person? What are their strengths? Weaknesses? Would you be friends with this person? 

A good way to write this would be to ask friends, teachers, and classmates about who you are to give you a better idea of how others see you.

It can be hard to make an objective description of yourself, so when you have other people describe you, you can utilize those details to analyze yourself as a person and conclude that you are a positive individual.

Unique Essay


This essay can offer various prompts for you to answer. It can ask you unorthodox questions that can catch you off-guard. Do not panic about this. This type of question gives you the most leeway to use your creativity to answer it. It allows you to talk about your opinion on the prompt. 

If they ask a situational question, it allows you to be honest about which solution you would choose and why. This is a way for colleges to understand your creative ways of thinking, personality, and sense of humor if you use anecdotes. 

Still unsure about writing your own essay? Take a look at sample essays to get inspired!

FAQs: Should I Do the Optional College Essays?

Still have questions about doing the optional essays? Here are some general FAQs to offer more information regarding supplemental writing.

1. How Long Should My Optional Essay Be?

Colleges will give you a word or page limit for your response. A typical essay can be 400-650 words, and a personal statement can be 150–300 words. 

2. Can I Use the Same Essay for Different Colleges?

If the prompts are the same, then you absolutely can. Just make sure to edit it to tailor it specifically to the college you are applying to. Do not always rely on reusing an essay, though- some colleges have different prompts, so you will have to write a whole new one for them. 

3. What if I Do Not Know What to Write About?

It would help if you tried to brainstorm ideas about the prompt you are given and then pick which one would be the best to write about. You should not stress yourself out, though; if you feel overwhelmed, simply do not do the essay. It is optional, and it is better not to write an optional essay than a bad one. 

4. How Much Time Should I Give Myself to Write the Essay?

It depends on the length of the essay, the deadline, and how much time you are willing to work on it. Aim for two weeks to a month to write the essay, or more if you feel you need more time. This way, you can structure it appropriately, edit and rewrite it, and seek help for writing if you need it. 

5. What Are College Admissions Looking for in My Essay?

Colleges are looking for a multitude of things, including: 

  • They want to know who you are
  • They want to know if and how you will contribute value to their campus
  • They want to know if you know how to write

These factors help paint an image of you for the college admissions officers to see if you are a good student to accept and if you can handle their coursework.

6. Would a Good Essay Get Me Into My College?

A good essay will help you look good to admissions officers. However, a good response to an option question doesn’t mean guaranteed acceptance. If you have a competitive academic profile, well-written essays can make or break your acceptance into college. 

7. Whom Can I Ask For Help on Writing My Essay?

Your school offers writing workshops for those seeking them, and you can even ask your guidance counselor for help on writing a college essay. There are also online resources you can check out for tips and methods for writing an excellent essay.

Final Thoughts

Ultimately, not writing an optional essay won’t hinder your chances of getting into college. Remember that choosing to write an optional essay is entirely your call - you don’t have to predict what the colleges want to know; it’s your choice what to write about. 

The optional essays show whether you are willing to do the extra work to be considered, and you have nothing to lose. Take advantage of optional essays; they can only work in your favor. 

Good luck!

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