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Common Application: Does “Optional” Truly Mean Optional?

You’ve finished the core components of your Common Application – your main essay, your activities, and any required supplements for the schools on your list – and are ready to submit. Then you pause.

Should I self-report my scores? Do I need to respond to the COVID question? Will colleges read the four extra letters from my other recommenders?

Need some last-minute advice? Read on!

COMMON APPLICATION: TESTING

Standardized testing these last few months has been an exercise in frustration for seniors. You’ve registered and prepared, only to see test centers shuttered and exams canceled – sometimes with no warning. Maybe you were able to sit for the SAT or ACT once but ended up with a lower score than you had hoped.

For students applying to colleges that are newly test optional, including the majority of the most selective colleges in the country, a good rule of thumb is that if your SAT or ACT scores are well within the middle 50th percentile range, then go ahead and submit these scores. Remember that for many top colleges, the switch to test-optional this year leaves admissions officers without some of the customary guideposts they used to help decisions. If everything else about your application is strong— your GPA, rigor of course load, and rank (if your school calculates one)—then including scores confirms to admissions officers that you are the kind of student they seek to admit.

What if your SAT or ACT scores are below the school’s typical admit ranges? If you are from a high school that typically sends lots of high-scoring applicants their way, admissions officers will likely assume that you are unhappy with your scores and chose not to send them. Remember that they have data from prior years’ applicant pools so they have some sense of what to expect from your school. Students from low-income schools and communities, those in historically underrepresented groups, will likely be given more benefit of the doubt than students from well-resourced families and schools.

We also anticipate that newly test-optional colleges this year will be flooded with applicants from around the country and around the world who, in previous years, may have been discouraged from applying because of lower scores. If applicant pools balloon, guess how admissions officers will sort through applications? They’ll use data – scores and GPA – especially in the first read, to figure out who seem to be the strongest students in their pool. A word about AP scores. If you’ve got a bunch of AP courses on your transcript from junior year, admissions officers will check to see if you self-reported your results. If not, they’ll assume the results were poor. So, if you have scores of 3 or higher, report them! In the absence of an SAT or ACT or subject tests, strong AP scores will also help show your strength.

Common Application COVID Question

COMMON APPLICATION: COVID QUESTION

The Common App’s new, optional question opens the door for students to share more about the impact of COVID on their “health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable and quiet study spaces.” Should you respond?

First, ask yourself a question. We’ve all had our lives turned upside down these last 9-10 months. Virtual schooling, zoom fatigue, quarantine blues, canceled testing, disrupted activities – these are common to all high school students. If the story you tell pretty much recounts what every high school student has had to contend with, then you are better off not responding to this optional prompt. You risk coming off as tone-deaf or privileged, two things that will form a bad impression in the minds of your application readers. 

Do answer this question if you and your family experienced significant hardship because of COVID – serious illness or death of a loved one, parent’s loss of employment, additional home responsibilities caring and teaching for your siblings, lack of access to technology and other online resources. In addition to sharing your struggles, be sure to show admissions officers how you overcame these unexpected challenges.

COMMON APPLICATION: SUPPLEMENTAL RECOMMENDATIONS

Back in the day when students applied to college using pen and paper (seniors, ask your parents about those days), admissions officers had a saying: “the thicker the file, the thicker the kid.” Essentially, students who loaded up their application with tons of extra letters of recommendation were essentially compensating for weaker credentials and basically throwing the kitchen sink at the admissions office.

So, once you’ve assigned the one or two required teachers, be judicious in using any of the optional or “other” recommenders. If you truly believe that a potential recommender can offer a perspective on your candidacy that no other recommender can, then go ahead and tap that person to be your “other” recommender. But, loading up on extra recommendations – even if the college allows – can overload your application with extraneous materials, making admissions officers a little grumpy as they wade through these extra letters. Good luck with your applications and we are here to help if you want last minute essay help or an entire application review before hitting SEND.

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