You’ve been invited to a Halloween party. You know there’ll be plenty of interesting people there and the food and drink will be top notch. The invitation is appropriately spooky; it’s even been sent through the mail, with a fall-themed stamp and envelope – the McPhersons really know how to do things! It’ll be from 8 p.m. to 1 a.m. – a good time for a party, just after the young trick-or-treaters are finished and before the older kids really get down to TP-ing the high school principal’s house.
You’re all ready to RSVP when you see the words that send a chill through you, like a stake through a vampire’s heart: “Costumes optional.” Suddenly, you feel clammy and nervous. Maybe you have something to do that night after all. The upholstery needs shampooing. You need to have your wisdom teeth out. It’ll probably be hailing.
Your anxiety comes not so much from the idea of wearing a costume, which, truth be told, you’d rather not, but from the fact that it’s up to you whether or not to wear one. If you go all in and show up as Cap’n Jack Sparrow or Cruella DeVille, will you be laughing it up with Leatherface and the Bride of Frankenstein or will you be batting your heavily made-up eyes at Mr. and Mrs. Sullivan from down the street? If you decide adults dressing up in masks is too juvenile, will you end up being cold-shouldered by the Hunchback of Notre Dame and the Wicked Witch of the West?
Imagine, then, the fear inspired in every high school senior by the word “optional” on a college application. You don’t need an interview–it’s “optional.” You may submit your Subject Test scores, but they’re “optional.” There’s one more short essay, but it’s…”optional.”
Paranoia mixes with anxiety as you try to parse the meaning of the word. What’s behind it? What does the school mean by “optional”? It’s OK not to do it, but will I somehow be punished for not doing it? If I do it, will I look foolish, even though I’m being honest and doing my best to complete the application? If I don’t do it, will that count against me, even subliminally? Will the admission people think I’m not really going to be a good student because I only did the required pieces? Will they think I’m a brown-noser because I did the optional stuff?
And what about all my competitors? If I’m the only one who doesn’t do the “optional” piece, I’ll really look terrible. But maybe a lot of them won’t do it; then I should be OK. But what if no one does the “optional” piece and it’s just me? And anyway, how much effort do I need to put into an “optional” part of the application? The “prisoner’s dilemma” at work here can drive applicants, parents and college counselors mad.
The easy answer is to assume everything that’s “optional” is really “required.” If an interview is “optional,” then practice your handshake and eye contact. If an essay is “optional,” get cracking. There’s nothing wrong with doing the extra work and you don’t have too much to lose. For example, many if not most, “optional” interviews are non-evaluative and therefore don’t really count. They’re provided as much to keep alumni connected to the institution as they are to get a look at you. Even so, why not have the conversation? You don’t really have much to lose. Same for the test scores and essay(s), although I’d say keep the bad scores to yourself and report only the good ones if you can.
But as hosts of this party, colleges should consider taking “optional” out of the equation. It just causes a lot of unnecessary panic. Are admission officers going to pay attention or not? If so, then there’s an advantage to those who do the optional work. If not, then why ask for it? Right now, applicants just worry themselves into a lather trying to decide what to do. And if you declare an essay topic to be “optional,” perhaps it should be less substantial than this example:
Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better-perhaps related to a community you belong to or your family or cultural background-we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke.
If I don’t address this topic, am I less likely to be understood and appreciated? (To add insult to possible injury, applicants are limited to describing their perspective in 250 words or less.)
To be fair, Duke also has an optional topic that can rightly be treated as such:
Duke’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes gender identity and sexual orientation. If you would like to share with us more about either, and have not done so elsewhere in the application, we invite you to do so here. (Also 250 words.)
Admission officers say they truly don’t favor the doer over the avoider, but it’s only human nature to give an advantage to the doers, however subtle or even unconscious that may be. If my invitation says “costumes required,” at least I know I won’t be embarrassed if I show up in full gear and I can choose not to go at all if I don’t like to dress up. And the stakes aren’t that high. But for college applicants, the pressure is already high enough. Eliminating “optional” where possible from applications’ vocabulary would make them at least slightly less gloomy.