Tips To Write Supplementary College Essay

September 26, 2021

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)Dealing with Supplemental Essays – Mediums to provide Additional Info

Getting into a college of interest can be quite a challenging task for any student. Today, every institution wants to secure the smartest and the most creative candidates because it boosts their reputation. They thus devise methods that enable them to put the spotlight on the best aspirants.

During the selection process, the committees generally ask a few questions which determine if a student is innovative enough to assess the depth of what’s being asked and answer accordingly. The response to such questions can be expected in the form of essays. Such essays are different from the “Personal Essays” that are meant to reflect a student’s personality. Usually, such supplemental essays can revolve around topics like “why this major,” “what’s the career you envision for yourself,” or even “tell us more about your background.” But mostly, institutions require students to write on the “why this college” supplemental essay.

If you’re applying for college this year, the supplemental essay is something you should pay keen attention to. And we’ve compiled this guide to help you understand better about it.

The “Why This College” Essay

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. 

Pro tip: For any of your supplemental essays, except the “why this college” essay, we recommend you to reuse and recycle your content as much as possible. But be VERY sure to edit each essay according to what you think that particular institution may be interested in. 

Many colleges tend to place more importance on supplementary essays than personal ones, thus making them crucial for your selection. So we recommend that you do not take them lightly and put your mind into creating them. These essays often target specific questions because they are undertaken to know whether a student has given a significant amount of time and thought about writing them. 

The two key sections of the essay

The two main sections of the supplemental essay, i.e., the additional information section and the disciplinary action section, can convey a lot about you. They can be used to understand the personality of the student better.

The additional information section is just about right to play with the topics that you think may interest the admissions officer. This section can convey health information ranging from your mental condition to a severe illness or a death in your family.

On the other hand, the disciplinary action section is one wherein you discuss whether you ever faced suspension from your high school. Or that you were expelled or asked to leave the school. And even though adding this information may seem like something that may hurt your chances of being selected, we suggest you to write it in a way that makes it look like you’re looking for a second opportunity. 

At the end of these sections, you should focus on how you had coped with the issue and what positive aspects they directed you towards. You can even mention the progress that you’ve made and how well you’ve been moving forward ever since. Be sure to make this essay draw light on the current situation and how it has helped you grow positively. 

Additional Info — Lots of it 

It’s not necessary that all the additional information you’re looking to share should be straight-up bad and hard conditions that you’ve been through. You might want to use this section to profile an EC 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. 

We basically mean that the additional information section is one where you should put any essential info that you feel should be considered before evaluating you as a potential student. 

Here are some more points you should keep in mind: 

  • Supplementary essays are crucial and shouldn’t be passed on till the last moment. 
  • They play an important role in helping admission officers frame a character for you at the back of their mind.
  • A “why this college” essay is essentially another way of portraying “why you.” 
  • Check and recheck the essay to be sure that you haven't jotted down any grossly wrong information, the incorrect college name, for instance! 
  • Use the additional section to convey any information that you think should be known to the officers. 

Personal essays (more additional info)

A personal essay has to inform the institution as to who you are as a person. They have to be composed of all your hopes, expectations, dreams, and personality. This is an essay which brings the real you into the spotlight!

But how can you sum up your entire life up to this point in a personal essay? Well, this is where the additional info comes into the picture. This section provides you with the space to expand about the details of any activity that you might’ve done, and what its effects were. Moreover, mentioning personal aspects like family income, gender identity and mental health issues here can provide a more informative context for your application. 

Writing down such experiences is relevant, especially if they’ve affected your application in any way. Colleges seek to know as much as they can about you, to see if you’ve dealt with any extreme conditions so that they can understand how these extremities have affected your application. 

But bear in mind that the personal statement should be reserved for reflecting who you as a person are. The discussion of these challenges shouldn’t be the epicenter. 

Extenuating Circumstances

Your application should reflect how you’ve powered through any ill circumstances that have come your way up until this point in your life. It could be mental illness, substance abuse, family drama or any other reason. The important factor is that you dealt with something very wrong and still didn’t give up!

And that, my friend, is exactly the type of attitude you should take while talking about these events in your application. It would be best if you focused on the phoenix, rather than the ashes. 

Much like the personal essay, you have to go ahead and present the very best in you to the evaluators in this section. While talking about difficult issues, you need to address them briefly without going too much in detail. And if there was any wrong done on your part, don’t be afraid to take responsibility for it and confidently own up to it. 

Next, you need to talk about how you kept yourself afloat and how you dealt with the situation. You need to describe the whole experience and then sum it up with the important lessons you learned. You can also put in a few sentences that describe how you grew through the situation and how, if you get the chance, would you help someone facing the same problem.

It would be best if you showed them that although you had no control over the situation, you were still able to regain control of yourself. Be sure always to keep the positives and lessons you’ve learned from the experiences in life. In short, keep the essay 90% dedicated to the phoenix, and the rest 10% can be on the ashes.

If you’re comfortable with it, we recommend you to discuss your situation with the college counselor so that they can advocate for you. This can help you in gaining the confidence of the admission officers since they now know that you reached out for help due to your vulnerability. At the same time, it shows that since you took the counselor on a trip down memory lane to face your fears, you’re mature enough to deal with any ill conditions coming your way.

Talking more about the application

The additional information section is where any topic that you’d previously left out from a section can be incorporated. It doesn’t necessarily have to be about an issue that has led to your performance downfall. You’re free to write about your gender identity, family background, or quality of yours that you feel must be considered before evaluating you as a student.

You need to keep the essay positive and refrain from focusing more on its negative effects on you. You can rather shed light on how you got back up and came out more determined and stronger than ever.

Wrapping it up 

An additional information section is a place where you can also elaborate on any activity of yours. You can explain a few points of a particular activity, discuss some different ones, or directly write an essay with the details of your involvement with the activity. 

In short, this space is available for you to provide any content that they feel is relevant and which might help them form a better perception about you as an individual. 

If you feel that writing about how you overcame a particular challenge will help in any way, we encourage you to do so in the additional info section, rather than the personal statement. Plus, these tips can help: 

  • Elaborate on your activities.
  • Use this section to discuss the various aspects of your life. 
  • Use it to explain the major issues that led to any dips in your performance in the past.

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