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All About College Supplemental Essays #2: Student Voices

University of Redlands, Administration Building, 2014. Image by Don Graham at Flickr. CC BY-SA 2.0.

Welcome to Part 2 of our peek into the world of college supplemental essays. In our last blog, we reviewed the types of supplemental essay questions most commonly asked on college applications. Now, we’re going to hear from three recent high school grads, who were eager to share their thoughts on the specifics of writing these essays. Here we provide a few tips, geared toward this year’s college-bound seniors, that we hope will be helpful whether you’re just starting, drafting, or revising and finalizing this essential part of your applications.

Start on time

The personal statement is important, but I would argue that college admissions officers value well-written supplemental essays even more. Developing prompts and reading responses takes time and effort on the part of the admissions office, and they wouldn’t do that if they didn’t think the information they gained from it was important. In fact, colleges that require supplements often evaluate those responses even more closely than they read the Common App essay, so make sure to give them the same attention that you do your personal statement. And because good writing is well-thought-out writing, it’s crucial that you start these essays as soon as you possibly can! If you’re reading this now, you still have some time before many deadlines, but it’s a good idea to get going, since writing always takes longer than you think it will.

When I asked Anna, a first-year at UC Berkeley, if there’s anything she wishes she had known before writing her supplements, she advised:

“I can’t count how many drafts I wrote for these supplemental essays, so in order to give yourself enough time to write that perfect draft, START NOW! The first draft you write is not going to be the one you end up with, so starting early gives you enough time to brainstorm as many ideas as possible... Therefore, DO NOT PROCRASTINATE!!”

Hull Gate at the University of Chicago. Image by Drsitu at Wikimedia Commons. CC BY-SA 4.0 Int'l.

Elizabeth, who decided to defer for a year before enrolling at Columbia University, says “you’ll hear this again and again and I know you won’t listen because I didn’t. DO YOUR ESSAYS EARLY! Like, before school starts, if you can.”

If we recent seniors had to condense all of our collective advice into one point, it would almost certainly be this!

Elizabeth stayed organized by first deciding which ideas she wanted to focus on, then applying them to her supplemental essays. About her brainstorming process, she says, “During the summer before senior year, I drafted my UC application. I wrote an answer for all 8 of their Personal Insight Questions questions, even though you only use 4 on the final application. This was helpful because the questions are very similar to many supplements. So I used my ideas from the UC application in other supplementals.”

For this year’s seniors, she continues, “I completed supplements in the order they were due. But if they are all due around the same time, complete [the essays for your] safeties first so that you have a lot of practice by the time you get to your top choices.”

Stay organized

Between all the supplemental essays and the many other responses an application requires, it’s crucial to stay organized so you can get all the different components finished with some time to spare. Here are some more tips from last year’s high school seniors on how best to get organized and stay that way for a smooth supplemental essay-writing process.

Anna recalls, “I created a system in a Google doc... I like to organize everything in one document so I don’t get confused later. It’s all about figuring out a system that is efficient, easily accessed, and makes the most sense to yourself.”

She elaborated further on the specific set-up she used to stay on top of her essays: “On the very first page of my document titled ‘College Essays’ is a table of contents. This table gives me a short summary of what essays I still need to write, what essays need revision, and what essays are completed/submitted. After the Table of Contents page is the Essays section. Each page is dedicated to the essay topics of ONE college. Continue this format for the other colleges.” A lot of essays can make for a long document, so Anna recommends using the bookmark function in your word processing program to navigate it easily.

This system is what worked best for Anna, so absolutely customize it to fit your own needs if you plan to use something similar. But I will say that when we were both seniors in high school, I was amazed at how efficient and productive she was with her college essays.

Gabriela, another incoming Columbia student taking a gap year, also worked on her supplements in a methodical way. “After finishing my personal essay, I made separate documents for each of the schools to which I wanted to apply, adding all of the supplemental questions listed on the Common Application (or their websites). I uploaded my essays to each college's portal only when I was completely finished editing and revising.”

An example of how you can organize your college applications in Google Drive.
An example of how you can organize your college applications in Google Drive.

Be yourself

Much like the personal statement, supplements provide an opportunity to add dimension to the more mundane aspects of your application (i.e. test scores, transcripts). Your essays should include details that describe you, whether you use your writing to show what your favorite features of a college say about you as a student, how your after-school experiences have changed you, or what going to college means to you and how it will affect your life. As Elizabeth says, “What you like about a college says a lot about you because not everyone will be interested in the same things… And tie every reason you like the school back to yourself. Why do you like that aspect?” In the application, you have precious few chances to speak to your admissions reader so personally, so please use these essays wisely.

"In my opinion, your personal essay is like the cake and your supplements are the icing on top. The supplemental essays really give you a chance to shine and enhance your application with your creativity, wit, and overall personality—so, with the risk of sounding like a cliché, just be yourself!" —Gabriela, Columbia, Class of 2025

When it comes to bringing personal elements into your essays, Anna explains that “these essays are a chance for you to dig back to your earliest memories—your proudest moment, most embarrassing moment, saddest moment, etc.—and showcase them to the college admissions. Since you are not meeting these college admissions [representatives] in person, your essays are the most compelling introduction of yourself to the colleges. What is something special about me that I want the colleges to know?... Keep reminding yourself of these questions when writing all of your essays.”

Specificity, Specificity, Specificity

The fit between you and a college and the contributions you can make there should be first and foremost in your essays, Therefore, it’s important that you demonstrate that you have done your research on every school on your list and have legitimate reasons for applying to them. Elizabeth recommends, “When writing the “Why This College? [aka “Why Us?”] essay, completely rewrite it for each college. Do your research before. Look at cool classes you want to take, traditions you want to be part of, professors you want to be taught by, research you want to take part in.”

Anna, a psychology major, had a few more suggestions for students who choose to mention research in your essay. “If appropriate, mention in your essay that one of the reasons why you are so drawn to this university is because you deeply admire X professor’s research and would love to work alongside this professor to deepen your knowledge in the field. However, this is not an approach for everyone: Use this approach only if you have a pretty good foundation knowledge of the field or are genuinely interested in the research topics you’re mentioning.”

Research internships, courses & traditions at the colleges where you're applying.
Research internships, courses & traditions at the colleges where you're applying.

Lastly, Gabriela had some more suggestions on being specific in your answers: “When answering a question about your extracurricular activities, write about what you like to do and why it is important to you, so that your admissions counselor can get an idea of who you are as a person. Don't just write what you think colleges want to hear because you'll lose ways for admissions counselors to connect with you!”

Lastly, Gabriela had some more suggestions on being specific in your answers: “When answering a question about your extracurricular activities, write about what you like to do and why it is important to you, so that your admissions counselor can get an idea of who you are as a person. Don't just write what you think colleges want to hear because you'll lose ways for admissions counselors to connect with you!”

Supplemental essays will be easier than you think if you set up a system, stick to it, and start getting them done one at a time. Because so many extracurriculars and other after-school obligations aren’t possible this year, the Class of 2021 may have more time to work on their essays and make sure they’re happy with them by the time application deadlines roll around. Be sure to take plenty of time for each supplemental. Between the details you share about yourself and your unique insights into why you want to go to each college, your interest and experiences (COVID-impacted or not) will tell a beautiful story!

Posted in Education Tips & Strategies, Student Voices

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