College Essays

Know How to Write Supplemental College Essays

The request differs from one college to another – it could range from just one additional essay, to writing out numerous essays. The length of the essay will also vary between colleges and so will the cues or prompts that they want you to write about. 

Many students make the mistake of taking their Personal Statement seriously and treating it like the main question to be answered in an exam. They subsequently tend to treat the supplemental essays as subsidiary questions and therefore don’t apply themselves with the same level of passion while attending to them. While the Common App Essay is significant and gives you a better opportunity to write about yourself, you must not sideline the supplemental essays.

After perusing your Personal Statement and letters of recommendation, the college admission staff will turn to your supplemental essays for further information about you. They will also be looking for a match in what’s mentioned in all these documents so that they have a picture of you which is validated in all three papers. Your supplemental essays should give them further information about you rather than repeat what’s already mentioned in your Personal Statement and letters of recommendation.

Instead of comparing your the Common App Essay and supplemental essays to exam questions, let’s compare the similarity with your interview. When your interviewer says – ‘Tell me something about yourself’, it’s like the Common App Essay. The interviewer is giving you a chance to showcase yourself and since you will have gone well prepared to answer such a question, you will do so with elan and style.

Further into the interview, when the interviewer asks you why you have chosen their college, or what your preferred extracurricular activities are and why, how will you respond? You must be prepared with an equally enthusiastic response to such questions too so that the whole interview goes off memorably.

Supplemental essays usually have different word limits and the requirement of colleges differ but whatever guidelines the colleges set, it is still important that you write your supplemental essays using the same methods - of writing a synopsis, drafting and reworking like you did for your Common App Essay.

The thought of going through the whole difficult exercise all over again will most probably put you off but supplemental essays should not be taken lightly. Since you have already done it once, you will find the task of doing it all over again simpler and easier to handle. So it’s best that you prepare your supplemental essays using the methods of writing a Common App Essay that we discussed earlier.

You will encounter a variety of questions in the supplemental essays section while applying to various universities. However, don’t be surprised to find some specific cues or types of cues popping up repeatedly. It will help you to know beforehand about the basic kinds of secondary and supplemental essays you may be asked to write about.

Below are common supplemental essay questions and a plan of action to tackle them:

1. The 500 - 650 word essay

This could be an extra opportunity that a college gives you to write about yourself besides the 650-word Common App Essay. For example, the following is the supplemental essay question from Yale University:

Besides the 650-word Common App Essay, write a 500-word essay (maximum 650 words and not less than 250 words). Choose from the topics listed below to set in motion your narrative about a person, happening or encounter that gave meaning to your moral principles or altered how you respond to a situation or to the world at large. Please ensure that the content of this essay is in no way a repetition of what you have already put down in your Common App Essay.

  • Write about somebody who has impacted you immensely.
  • “The best way to get things done is to begin.” Robert Charles Post was the Dean and is a professor of law at Yale Law School. This is a motivational quote that he has shared on the Internet.
  • “The democratic tradition offers better resources than the going alternatives for ensuring that political claims and counter-claims are tested for their veracity in the public arena, and for protecting those individual rights that best embody the aspiration for human freedom.” Ian Shapiro is Sterling Professor of Political Science and Henry R. Luce Director of the MacMillan Center at Yale University. This quote is from his book ‘The Moral Foundations of Politics’.
  • Begin your essay by putting down a quote from a book or article that you’ve read in the last couple of years and narrate to us how an incident or encounter validated your moral principles or altered how you respond to a situation or to the world at large. Please start your essay with the quote, title, and author.

Stanford University: The University has a thriving community of creative and accomplished people from around the world and prepares students to make meaningful contributions to society as engaged citizens and leaders in a complex world. How do you see yourself playing a part in adding value to Stanford with your outlook and approach to life? (500 words) 

This will be version 2 of your Common App Essay so you need to rewind and replay all that you did at the beginning of writing your Personal Statement. Revisit all that you penned as the first steps to writing. Now begin your brainstorming by like you did for your Common App Essay and go the whole hog in writing your supplemental essay.  Refer to the first part of this guide.

Like your Common App Essay, the supplemental essay will also comprise five paragraphs – paragraph one will be the preamble followed by spelling out loudly your story, then two paragraphs with the main content and then the finale. A story or a particular incident will work best as a narrative structure.

2. ‘Why do you want to study here?’ essay

Many colleges ask applicants to spell out the reasons for wanting to study there. Some instances of ‘Why do you want to study here?’ are

  • Williams College: Mention the reasons why you chose to apply to Williams College? Why do you think you will fit in well here? (100-250 words) 
  • College of William and Mary: Why did you choose us? (250-300 suggested word limit)
  • Dartmouth College : In the case at the US Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster said the unforgettable words “It is, Sir ... a small college. And yet there are those who love it!” Tell us why you have applied here? What features of our study program, community, or campus environment appeal to you? (100 words or less)

The answer to this question revolves primarily around you. Such an essay is simply another version of a “why you” essay. The admission department wants to hear the right reasons for why they need you on their campus, what exactly you will contribute, and how you will benefit the college down the line.

This essay focuses just as much on you as the college. In our opinion, this essay is one where you should write positively only about that particular school or college. If there’s any sentence that can be applied to any other institution, we recommend you to simply eliminate it.

In essence, you need to write an essay full of reasons as to why you are the perfect fit for them. To start you off, we propose an idea that might help you find the ideal answer.

Start by drawing two columns on a sheet. On one side, you need to come up with cool stuff about yourself, and on the other, you can write the fantastic things about this institution that drew you towards it. Once you have both lists, all you need to do is check for the points where these columns overlap, and just like that, you’ll have the perfect answer!

Now, we get that coming up with specifics about the college can be a challenge, so below listed are a few pointers that you can consider while conducting your research:

  • Keep a tab on the online student newspaper. It may have certain articles or events which may interest you.
  • Connect with the professors you find interesting.
  • The best pointers can be listed if you have visited the college. You can list the features that caught your eyes.
  • Keep a check on the admission department’s social media accounts. This way you can be sure of mentioning a thing or two about something that they profiled recently.
  • 9 out of 10 times, the website of most colleges lists exactly what they're looking for in their prospective students. Being up-to-date with the website can thus prove to be quite fruitful.
  • Being incorporated with the in-house events can take you a long way, you can check out the campus activities to understand what you can contribute in any of them.

3. Extracurricular activity Essay

A few colleges may request you to tell them more about one of the extracurricular activities that you have stated in your CommonApp Activities Section. It is only because you’ve been specifically asked that you can talk more about something that’s already mentioned in your application.

Examples prompt will be please tell us a bit more about one of your extracurricular activities or work experience that meant a lot to you. (About150 words)

Select an activity that you find significant or which could be a feather in your cap simply because of the way you write about it. The first rule is to never repeat what you’ve already written in the Common App essay!

You might want to use this section to profile an extracurricular for which you didn’t have the space to shed light on completely. Moreover, you can also talk about a certain quality of yours that you feel is relevant and something that the admission officer should know.

4. Why this major Essay

A few colleges will want you to choose a particular major at the onset itself while some may ask you to mention your choice. There are other colleges who don’t expect you to have thought through the options and state the major you hope to pursue.

  • University of Florida: What is the reason for your choosing this particular major? Please convey what fascinates you about this major and if there are any incidents that have influenced your selection. In particular, discuss how studying from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the University of Florida will help you achieve your educational objectives.
  • Syracuse University: Please mention why you want to pursue the program that you have indicated in your application. Are you in doubt or still in two minds of which programs at Syracuse will correspond with your interests? Then, broadly speaking, mention the educational subjects or points of discussion that keeps you preoccupied. (150 words limit)
  • University of Michigan: Describe your academic objectives and how you will accomplish them at the University of Michigan. You can discuss your primary selection and second major choice. (250 words limit)

The colleges are actually asking you to address two questions in this essay – so it’s a dual essay. It is a ‘why us’ essay integrated with where you see yourself a decade from now.

Browse through the undergraduate program or major on the website of the college that you are applying to. Check their alumni too. Does anyone mentioned inspire you? Describe them and what you find inspiring.

Thereafter, describe where you see yourself in a decade. Look into the future and see yourself living your dreams and describe to the college admission staff how the major you want to pursue will help you make it a reality. You should be as accurate and explicit as possible as this is what is driving you to take up that program and aspire for a future that you’ve envisioned – it’s reality, not a story.

5. Create a Program or Major Essay

A few colleges more so the ones that have a liberal arts base may request you to devise a seminar or even envision a complete department.

Examples are the following:

  • Washington University: There is one typographical error – a misspelling from an extra, missing, or misplaced alphabet, in the name of each department at the Washington University due to clerical oversight. 
  • Bowdoin College: The focus of Bowdoin College is to offer undergraduate programs primarily in the liberal arts with excellent training, personal growth, and participation in vital matters. Given a chance, what kind of study program would you devise? Which single perennial problem or concurrent issue would you confront and why?
  • Duke University: What will your academic program look like if you had a chance to create something new that is in keeping with Duke’s principles of inventiveness, cooperation, enterprise, and exploration? How would such a program effect and influence your classmates and your education? (500 words)

Here’s a chance for you to let go and have some fun – wear your creative hat and demonstrate some adventure and enthusiasm at having an opportunity to learn something unique and different. But take this seriously and project fun and excitement in your essay as the college has a reason for posing such a cue – they want to be assured that you are a good fit for a college that puts a premium on cerebral curiosity.

What is the new major you’ve devised and want to pursue? Mention the reasons why it appeals to you. What classes or subjects do you want to concentrate on in this program? Possibilities that you can choose from are Computer Science, Languages and Literatures, Art History – take your pick from the complete list of unaltered majors.

6. Offer the Community Essay

When a college cue asks you to write an essay about what you will offer to the college community, what the college actually wants to know is how you will bring something different and add to the mélange in their college community. Your response can be based on your identity – racial, cultural, gender, socioeconomic, or whatever else, but there is no compulsion to do so. All that such a cue seeks is for you to describe what new experience and difference you as an individual will bring to the college campus and community.

  • Rice University: The educational experience and Residential College System at Rice are largely determined by the distinctive ethnic traditions and life experiences that every student brings with them. What individual outlook or perspectives will you enrich the life at Rice with? (500 words)
  • Cornell University: Cornell constantly looks for students who will become a part of a wide variety of human experience as we are convinced that a mélange of students gives more strength to our community. Would you like to tell us about your perspectives and outlook? Or are there some life experiences pertaining to your ethnicity, community, or something else that will give us a better picture of you? It will be really helpful if you do as real people will read what you have to say and we wish to know as much as we can about all our applicants (250 words)

Is there anything about you that makes you stand out among your classmates? Usually, there is something about you that’s perhaps not easily seen by others but seems obvious to you. Or maybe you think things differently and can bring your unique perspective to your community.

7. Snappy Responses

A few colleges may request you to respond with snappy, short answers in about 35 words.  Some instances are

  • Stanford University: The residential colleges at Stanford often present informal conversations with guests who come with varied achievements and experiences. Mention a person – past or present, whom you will invite. What is that one question you will ask him?
  • Harvard University: Which two adjectives will your friends use to describe you? What’s your favorite word?
  • Columbia University: Name the snack that you love the most. Which TV show do you love?

Your answers must be genuine and honest. Some colleges may go to the extreme of having somebody read out the snappy questions - like they do in ‘rapid-fire’ session in programs, and reply spontaneously. Use this opportunity to sound like the real you – the person your family and friends know.