The optional arts supplement is a component of the application for which we have some strong (and perhaps controversial) advice for at least 75% of you.
Here it is in a nutshell: Just don’t!
Because unless you are in the top 10% -25% or so with regard to your talent in the arts, an optional arts supplement will hurt you more than it helps you. If you think you might be in the top 10%-25% and want tips for preparing your submission or you would like to know more about why this is our advice, read on. Otherwise, just take optional arts supplement off your list of things to do and go enjoy your summer day.
In order to understand whether you should submit an optional arts supplement, you need to understand how these supplements are handled by admissions officers, and you need to have a realistic assessment of your own talent.
Admissions officers know their limits and generally they are not qualified to evaluate the talent and quality of your optional arts supplements. Instead, your arts supplement will be sent to the college’s arts faculty. These faculty have deep expertise in your particular arts discipline, and they will be asked to evaluate your demonstrable talent as well as your potential to be a meaningful contributor to the campus arts community.
If you get a stellar evaluation from the faculty, then there is no doubt that it will boost your chances for admission. But if you get a mediocre or negative evaluation from the faculty, then likewise there is no doubt that it will diminish your chances for admission.
The thing is that arts faculty are tough graders. Only the best of the best are going to get stellar evaluations. That’s why you need to have a realistic assessment of your own talent. Don’t confuse your talent with your passion or effort. Just because you love it or do it all the time doesn’t mean you have extraordinary talent.
Instead, consider whether you have independent validation of your arts talent such as all-state honors, prestigious audition-based arts programs, work presented at important festivals, etc. If you don’t, seek it out. Ask for a brutally honest review by your teacher or someone recommended by your teacher. If they tell you that you are a great hobbyist, but not in the top 10%-25% of arts students, then feature your arts on your activity list, your resume, and in your essays, but don’t submit an optional arts supplement.
Let’s say you are among the best of the best. YAY! Only one more hurdle before you get to work on your arts supplement: you have to find out if the college will accept it. The vast majority do, but there are notable exceptions.
For example, neither Northwestern nor Claremont McKenna accept optional arts supplements. Before you commit the time to preparing one, find out the policy at the colleges on your list. The easiest way to do that is to simply google “[name of college] arts supplement” and find out what they say on their website about optional arts supplements.
While you are checking to see if they accept an optional arts supplement, also check out what the college’s definition of “arts” is – it varies widely. The vast majority define arts in a traditional way and include dance, drama and theatre arts, film, music, and visual arts. But others reach more broadly and include architecture (e.g. Columbia) or creative writing (e.g. Princeton). Those that are the most inclusive and contemporary also include maker projects (e.g. MIT).
There is no “standard” arts supplement; each college has its own requirements separated by arts discipline. You’ll find specific instructions on what to submit on each college’s website, and you must follow the directions of each college precisely. That being said, here are five tips that will stand you in good stead when preparing your materials for submission.