When does "Optional" mean "Preferred"?
Earlier this spring, I wrote a post explaining that Test Optional is not Test Blind. As a result of continuous test center closures, capacity issues and overall difficulty accessing standardized tests in light of COVID, many schools have transitioned to test optional admissions for Fall 2021. While the test is indeed optional, that doesn't mean it is not preferred.
Similarly, when a school presents an optional writing supplement for admissions consideration, it is not a requirement to complete it. Yet, if you are seeking admission to a highly selective, competitive institution, wouldn't you want to make every attempt to communicate your interest? Don't you want to show the admissions office that you are willing to take the extra step to show them you are a desirable student for their school? Any opportunity that is given to you to further demonstrate your potential value to a campus community is one you should take.
Same thing goes for an interview. Many schools give students the opportunity to sign up for an interview with an admissions representative or member of the alumni association even prior to application submission. This is a terrific way to engage with the school - not only will you will be communicating your strong interest in them, which may help if they track demonstrated interest, but you can learn a lot more about them, which can help as you finalize your essays and consider whether the school truly is a good fit for you. While I strongly recommend that most students take advantage of these optional interviews, they aren't right for everyone. If you are extremely shy or struggle with oral communication skills, an interview may not be the best move. If you aren't comfortable over zoom, even more reason to skip it, as these days the interviews are primarily conducted virtually. You wouldn't want to put yourself in a position where the interview could do more harm than good.
As for the COVID-19 optional essay in the Common Application this year? Truly optional. Everyone is going through this pandemic and has been affected in some way. I have heard many admissions officers say that they want students to use this if they have experienced undue hardship or if something happened during COVID that has significantly impacted their life and an explanation can provide additional context around their academic record, emotional or mental health, financial well-being, family circumstance, etc. It is not meant for students to explain that their extra-curricular activities were cancelled or they did not get to take their summer vacation as planned. The COVID optional essay gives students a place to communicate anything important that they want the college to know without needing to use the personal statement to do so. Don't write it to fill up empty space - if you don't have anything that really needs to be said, leave it blank.