I am curious, how much do the optional essays impact admission? I am specifically talking about Notre Dame's two optional essays, but in general really. Is the "Why X" type essay critical and should I add one to schools that don't specifically ask for it?
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In general, the purpose of optional essays is twofold: 1) To round out your application if there's something you want to emphasize that you couldn't address in other parts of your application -- as would be the case in a diversity statement or an addendum; and 2) to show the admissions committee that you're interested in their school in particular -- which applies to the prompted optional essays as well as the "Why X" format.
I think there's value in the latter type of optional essay because, all else equal, a school is more likely to accept an applicant who expresses particular interest in their school over one who does not. However, I wouldn't submit an unsolicited "Why X" essay unless you feel that you have substantive reasons for attending that school over others, and you can articulate those reasons in a way that doesn't involve restating features from the school's website. An example of a good unsolicited "Why X" statement would be one that demonstrates personal ties to the region/state where a school is located and interest in practicing in that region/state. Something along those lines would be useful information for an admissions officer.
I hope this helps, and best of luck with your applications!
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To add to Ben's insightful comment, my take on Optional essays is that they rarely get you in, and more frequently they keep people out. the theory is that having a greater sample of your writing gives them a more complete picture of who you are, but too many students write an essay just to check the box that says they wrote the essay. don't submit optional essays unless you have something unique and valuable to say
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Okay, great! Thank you both!
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