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All About College Supplemental Essays #1: Overview

Scripps College of Communication, Ohio University (National Register of Historic Places). Image by Dan Keck. CC0 1.0.

It’s college application season, and essay-writing time is upon us. Welcome to Capstone’s new two-part blog featuring time-tested advice for high school seniors. Here we’ll be discussing the supplemental essay, a component of the college application that’s deceptively simple but one of the hardest parts to get exactly right.

What are supplemental essays?

In a previous blog post, I spoke to some new college students about their experiences writing their own college essays. Much of their advice was concerned with the personal statement, or the 650-word “main essay,” which is a crucial component of the Common and Coalition Applications. Because this essay gets sent to all colleges, it’s not specific to a given school.

Supplemental essays, on the other hand, are college-specific. They’re specialized, often shorter, pieces of writing that ask students to go into depth on any number of topics that a college wants to hear about, from extracurriculars to life challenges and the quirky questions that some schools require. In contrast to the parts of the application that every college sees, you’ll find the supplemental essay prompts on the Common App’s individual section for each of the schools to which you apply. This makes them a useful outlet to demonstrate an applicant’s interest in a particular college and express unique connections or experiences with the school. Supplemental essays can also be a good place to include any important information that doesn’t usually have a place in the standard Common App essay.

Some colleges say that they’re required for all applicants and others say they're optional—but like everything with the college admissions process, if something says optional, plan on doing it anyway. And because most competitive colleges have more than one supplemental essay, these can add up quickly if you’re applying to several schools.

What are some common types?

"Why this college?"

The most frequently asked question is some variant of “Why are you applying to this college?”

According to the Tufts undergraduate admissions website,

"This question is one of the most important questions we ask in our process. We want to admit students who are excited to join the Tufts community, so when we ask them “Why Tufts?”, we really care about their responses. This question helps us envision them here as Jumbos!"

Because many students wait to start their supplements until after they’ve finished most of the application, it’s easy to fall into the trap of writing generic responses when they have less time to work on them. However, for the “Why this college?” essay, the worst thing you can do is be vague and say something like “I want to go to University X because of the diversity, the opportunities for research, and the large size…” and so on.

To set yourself apart from the crowd, you need a lot of specificity in your response—whether that means writing about a certain class or professor, an exclusive-to-the-college opportunity, or a meaningful visit to campus—and then use those experiences to explain what you value most about the school and how you want to participate once you’re there. For example, a student interested in business could write about her interest in a college’s business- and finance-related clubs and then share her plans for joining a few of them once she gets there.

The “Why us?” essay, more than any other, gives you the chance to show that you’ve done your research on a college. By citing the specific reasons that made you want to apply to that college, you’re already setting yourself apart from the other applicants by demonstrating that you truly want to go there.

Personal questions

Although the Common App’s personal statement allows for a lot of introspection and self-explanation, many colleges want to know even more about the interests, experiences, and beliefs that have shaped you as an applicant and as a person.

There are many kinds of personal questions that a school may ask through its supplemental essays. Some may want you to reflect more deeply on some of the information you’ve already provided in your application, such as an extracurricular activity or a personal challenge you have experienced. Others may ask for something slightly more open-ended, like an explanation of what a person in your life or a meaningful book or experience has meant to you.

For the handful of schools with their own applications, these questions are even more important because they provide the only chance for your authentic voice to come through. A college can’t get to know the real “you” through the transcripts, test scores and activity lists that make up the rest of the application.

Reed College supplemental essay question (2020)
Reed College supplemental essay question (2020)

Above all, for these questions, make sure that you come across as the main focus of the essay rather than the experience that you’re describing. Discuss how your experiences have impacted you and made you want to apply to college or study your specific area(s) of interest. The Reed College question shown above is a great example: while it explicitly asks you to describe what you would teach during Paideia week, it's also implicitly asking you to describe your personality, interests, and the ways in which you want to engage with the campus community—the things that make you you.

Make sure that you review all the other essays that will be a part of your application, including the Common App essay, so you don’t repeat anything that you’ve already mentioned in a previous essay for the same college.

Quirky questions

Not too many schools ask for these, but I included them because they’re fun! The University of Chicago famously, or perhaps infamously, asks a few questions from left field. In the most recent admissions cycle, they included such oddballs as “If there’s a limited amount of matter in the universe, how can Olive Garden... offer truly unlimited soup, salad, and breadsticks?” and “Where is Waldo, really?”. Other schools have wanted to know about students’ favorite words or asked them to submit a page from their imaginary autobiography.

Such open-endedness makes many students anxious, but there’s no reason to be. Most of these schools simply want to see that you can write and that you don’t take yourself too seriously. These prompts also give you a way to show what you would contribute to a campus community more subtly than if you came right out and said it. So don’t be afraid to have fun with these questions, but still make sure that your essay reveals your amazing personal qualities.

Supplemental essays will likely be more important than ever for the 2020-21 admissions cycle. Now that most extracurriculars have been put on hold and more and more students will be applying without SAT/ACT scores, anything that colleges can use to get to know their applicants will be welcomed. Admissions officers realize that students applying this year will have fewer opportunities than previous applicants to differentiate themselves, so they will have to depend on your essays for some insight into who you are.

According to the Georgia Tech blog:

"The way you thought your college applications would look has totally changed. Between cancelled ACT and SAT test dates, distance learning, changes in AP exams, and the cancellation of extracurricular activities, your application will not look the way you had planned. And guess what—we get it."

Stay tuned for our next post! In Part 2 of this blog series, we’ll be looking at some specific tips for students starting their supplemental essays right now. We’re also going to speak with recent high school grads and new college students, who have a lot of wisdom to share about the nitty-gritty involved with making these essays the best that they can be in this decidedly unusual year.

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