Supplemental college essay writing guidelines

Methods to amaze college admission staff with any school’s distinct cue

After completing the most difficult part of your college application – the Common App Essay/Personal Statement, you still have a few smaller hurdles to overcome – the supplemental/secondary essays, that many reputed colleges like Yale, Princeton, and others request.

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.

Synopsize and then write

Prior to actually writing your Common App Essay, you must have put aside many relevant incidents or stories from your life because you felt that they were not Common App Essay material. Review those temporarily discarded stories now and you will find ample material to write your supplemental essays.

Since these are also essays, you will do well to utilize the methods and cues that we discussed to aid you in putting together your Common App Essay. These methods will be a firm foundation to respond to any queries that come up in the supplemental essays section.

Since the supplemental essays are more limited in length, you will have to deal with it a bit differently.

Listed below is a basic plan of action to help you tackle supplemental essays with different requirements and essay examples to guide you further.

The 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.

The cue to this example:

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.

Tactics to write the 650-word essay

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 – refer to Topic 5: ‘Taking the first step to write’. Peruse the possibilities that you’d listed and which got eliminated in the last round when you were choosing the topic of your Common App Essay.

Now begin by synopsizing like you did for your Common App Essay and go the whole hog in writing your supplemental essay.

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.

The 500-word essay

Example:

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)

Tactics to write the 500-word essay

Considering that you have 150 lesser words to write with, a five-paragraph essay may not be a good idea for a 500-word essay of a story or a particular incident. A better option is to reconsider the structure and change it to:

  • A theme or premise that integrates the question with an occurrence in your life
  • Demonstrate a link between the theme or premise and your life
  • Writing a witty one-liner that conveys to the college staff committee that you know what you are responding to.

We will once again refer to our student Robbie from Topic#5 about writing a Stunning Common App Essay.

A theme or premise that integrates the question with an occurrence in your life

Robbie wears many hats – she does so many things that everybody who knows her identifies her with something different. While she intends to pursue medicine, Robbie also sings, participates in debates, plays golf, participates in theater, and is a reliable friend. Since Robbie doesn’t belong to an ethnic minority, she doesn’t even consider it as an option for her theme to demonstrate that she’s different. Robbie however has Harry Potter on her mind. Let’s stop here.

Robbie’s response when she was asked to mention what made her distinct, she wrote:

As a child and in my growing years, I was always around determined and enterprising people. But I’m not like them. I’ll never push my way to the front and try to get things done. I prefer to stay away from the public eye and get them going. I’m the reliable and responsible person around …

This occurrence in Robbie’s life has shown her that she’s distinct.

Now there’s also Harry Potter about which Robbie wrote:

I grew up reading all the books J.K. Rowling wrote in the Harry Potter series. As kids, we were so influenced by what we read that we segregated the houses with qualities. So Gryffindor was for the brave, Ravenclaw was for the smart, Slytherin was for the ambitious, and Hufflepuff was for the rest. Then when we discussed it further, those of us who were reliable and dependable were damned with nowhere to go.

Substantiating the occurrence in your life that validates the theme or premise

Similar to the stories and settings that we employed as a narrative to help you with your Personal Statement, we’ll repeat it here too. However, we do not have the luxury of that kind of time to allow Robbie to describe elaborately her feelings and responses when she confessed to being a Hufflepuff. We have to narrate by using time effectively while keeping all the details in.

You can follow Robbie’s method of listing information.

Moving on as kids, from our Harry Potter days, when we were older, I found it a bit odd that my friends relied on me for my Hufflepuff qualities. The Sorting Hat sings about being a Hufflepuff if you are just and loyal. Hufflepuffs are attributed with forbearance, loyalty, and hard work. There’s nothing rip-roaring about these characteristics. There’s no courage or assurance of being in charge. And yet the words depict me perfectly.

A few years back, one of our classmates passed away and I found my friends leaning on me then. As a mark of remembrance, we wanted to arrange a memorial, a gathering and set up a charity in the deceased classmate’s name. My school did not take it upon themselves as the school was going through a rough patch.

This grief was a new experience for us youngsters and we floundered with how to go about it. There were some students who quickly penned or spoke their thoughts with the conviction that somebody had to lead the way. Some were ill-at-ease and decided to simply lie low. I was silent as I usually am. However, seeing so many of us trying to vocalize our thoughts, it became clear to me that we certainly did not need one more torchbearer. Devoted and accommodating members were necessary to complete the various proposals that so many were attempting to initiate in memory of the deceased classmate.

The witty one-liner that conveys to the college admission staff that you know what you are responding to

An essay is your chance to talk to the reader and even as you include him in your space, you may simply digress from what you had begun narrating in the first instance because you got carried away with something else that caught your attention. But you should conduct yourself appropriately and address the main theme of your narrative.
Since this is a supplemental essay, you are expected to only answer that particular question that has been asked. It’s vital that you close your essay with a reference to it.

Robbie had to write an essay on what makes her distinct for her Stanford University application and it set her reflecting on her ‘Hufflepuff-ness’ and the memory of her lost classmate – so she was back in the life experience narrative realm. Robbie’s task is to integrate that occurrence with the specific supplemental essay question instead of simply projecting something unusual and different about herself.

Robbie’s wrote:

As kids, most of us grew up reading Rowling’s Harry Potter series and we learned a lot from her books – we unanimously agreed that you require different kinds of people personified by all the four houses. I’m reliable, low profile, mostly silent, - a Hufflepuff, and it seldom made me consider myself interesting back then. But lately, I’ve realized that it can be an asset to me as well as to my community.

Stanford comes across as a college with a spirited community and that’s why I’m applying here. Besides Stanford has a residential college structure and a close-knit campus which assures me that my Hufflepuff-ness will come in handy to my classmates and contemporaries at sports events, study sessions, and in taking everyday adversities as well as larger life issues in our stride.

Robbie has hit two birds with one stone here by mentioning how she will be an asset to the college community and at the same time responding to the ‘Why Rice’ query that she will eventually have an opportunity to elaborate on in detail.

The 150-250-word essay

The essay cue from University of Southern California asks for:

Narrate what strategy you will employ to achieve your academic objectives at USC. Your primary and secondary major choices can also be discussed.

(250-word limit)

Tactics to write the short essay

When you have space and word constraints, you must write sentences that are concise and to the point. For this kind of essay, you can put aside the theme or story narrative. In fact, if you don’t, you’ll run out of the allocated number of words. Lucidity, simplicity in narration, and junking indirect references is the best bet to make an impression with this kind of essay.

The structure and elements of responding well to a short essay are:

  • A theme statement that clearly responds to the question
  • Substantiating your conclusion (Ryan will choose neuroscience as his major)
  • Conclude with a touch of self-analysis

Ryan’s essay:

I’m inclined towards neuroscience and aim to double-major in it along with cinema and media studies. While I aim to pursue medicine, as an undergraduate, I wish to take advantage of the USC liberal arts program to try out diverse study programs. My choice of such diverse subjects may be bewildering. However, neuroscience and cinema studies together are a testimony of my passion for medicine. STEM programs were moderate at my elementary and middle school but we had great teachers. To feed the curiosity of a student who loved science, they’d play science documentaries of renowned scientists like Stephen Hawking, Oliver Sacks, and Neil deGrasse Tyson after I completed my classwork. I thus learned more from these documentaries than I ever would have from a textbook. So I plan to devote one half of my time at USC on programs that will help me achieve my career goal in neuroscience and commit the other half to learn about documentary filmmaking and production. During one summer, I aspire to intern at a production house that focuses on science documentaries and work on a project in my senior year with the hope that it will get released on the silver screen or on online platforms. I may or may not choose to take up documentary filmmaking as a career but I believe that understanding how to put across complex concepts to an audience will come in handy as a scientist.

The essay that Ryan was put together works well on various counts. The best thing going for him is that the essay responds to the question - how will you pursue your interests, by listing his plans of taking specific programs, work as a summer intern, and his academic goals with the two majors. The essay is further commendable because it’s been written specifically for USC – it’s not a patched up essay to fit the USC essay need. It is akin to Robbie’s essay as it is like a scaled-down essay that demonstrates Ryan’s understanding and enthusiasm about USC.

Classification of secondary and supplemental essays

You will encounter a variety of questions when you begin attending to secondary and supplemental essays 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.

More than a few of the secondary essay cues are close to what you had penned in the ‘taking the first step to writing’ stage – have you observed that? Some of the other questions will want you to ruminate about the program and the university and answer college-specific questions.

To ease your task, we’ve classified the secondary and supplemental essays into certain kinds of questions and worked out tactics that you can employ to take the next step.

The ‘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?’ cues

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)

Tactics to tackle ‘Why do you want to study here?’ essay

Begin from the end

First, ruminate about your career goals – about what you aspire to become. Then single out distinct features about the colleges you plan to apply to and question yourself about how those colleges can help you achieve your goals.

Put down a tiny theme for every school instead of having a list of basic qualities the school fulfills.

In her essay to Yale where she is keen on pursuing humanities, Agnes, the student we mentioned earlier in Topic 5, wrote that she’s keen to pursue history and goes on to include some interesting snippets. In her ‘Why do you want to study at Yale?’ essay, writes about her campus visit and how architects who designed Yale were so preoccupied with the past, that they ensured that the campus had a dated look. This observation is in tandem with her interest in history and Yale being the best college to study history in the US.

Don’t parrot what’s mentioned on the website, and be precise.

You may have pored through the Williams College website and know it all by heart. Putting any of this information in your essay is like stating what the college admission staff already knows. Your essay must discuss your familiarity with the college based on a campus visit perhaps. And if you were unable to visit the campus you could talk about something specific that you learned from further online exploring. Is there something that’s typically integral to the college? A college tradition or a specific class that has legendary repute? It could even be reputed alumni of the college whom you are inspired to emulate.

An example of a well written ‘Why do you want to study here?’ essay by an applicant to Yale’s cue – What factors influenced your application to Yale? (125 words or less).

Our student Agnes’ (from Topic 5) essay:

I wish to pursue English or history and what better place in the world than Yale? I’m interested in the interdisciplinary humanities programs and the Directed Studies program and the Humanities major. As a writer, I aspire to make contributions regularly to the Yale Daily News or the Globalist. Yale’s excellence in academics is just one of the reasons I gravitate towards it. I’m also drawn to the campus which exudes history and knowledge. When I visited the campus, I felt Sterling Memorial Library was a cathedral dedicated to knowledge and all the other buildings were intentionally made to look older by the architects who purposefully poured acid on them. I feel solemnness and intellect hangs in the air at Yale.

Agnes’ essay is precise. She mentions her interests in English, history, a first-year academic program, a definite major as well as aspiring to write for two campus publications. She further conveys her keenness about Yale by talking about her views of the campus. (If you can’t visit the campus, you can still be well informed about it by viewing numerous videos of the campus on YouTube, by talking to alumni, or conversing with admission staff at a local college fair).

Her essay is also effective because it clearly conveys her eagerness to pursue her chosen programs as well as her fascination with the college. She has very deftly connected her personal aspirations with Yale’s principles and standards and thereby demonstrates that she’s a suitable candidate.

Elaborate about one of your extracurricular activities

A few colleges may request you to tell them more about one of the extracurricular activities that you have stated in your Common App 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.

Example of this cue:

Please tell us a bit more about one of your extracurricular activities or work experience that meant a lot to you. (About 150 words)

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