Succeeding With Your College Supplemental Essays: Everything You Need to Know

Padya Paramita

Succeeding With Your College Supplemental Essays: Everything You Need to Know

College applicants often underestimate the importance of supplemental essays and mistakenly put them off until the last minute. However, you should know that they make up a crucial component of your application. Different colleges have various characteristics that they look for in incoming students and supplemental essays are often what they use to determine a good fit. So, don’t underestimate the prompts for college supplemental essays that await you. To help guide you through how to navigate these essays, I’ve outlined why they’re important, the difference between personal statement and supplemental essays, and the categories of common examples of schools that use them, and tips for students to maximize their chance of receiving an acceptance letter.

Why are College Supplemental Essays Important?

College supplemental essays matter because top universities and colleges care a lot about the idea of “fit”. Fit indicates whether you are the kind of student that will work well in a particular college community. Different schools have different characters, different personality types that they’re looking for, different kinds of ways they’re involved in certain activities. The most important portion for a school to know if you are or aren’t a fit for their community are your supplemental essays. Responding to the questions carefully and making sure you’re answering what they’re asking and showing your personality through those supplements can really make a difference in convincing a top school that you’re a right fit for them. 

Factors such as academics and test scores are just the foundation of your profile. This is why they consider fit—are you the right kind of student for them or could they picture you more at a different university? Therefore you need to use college supplemental essays to convince them that you’ll take advantage of their resources and that you’re the kind of student they want. College admissions are increasingly competitive, and it’s not just about being perfect. Fit can outweigh your test scores and grades—of course, those are important too—but it’s also important that you address how much you fit the school. 

Personal Statement vs Supplemental Essays

When it comes to the personal statement, it doesn’t matter how much of the prompt you address. In the Common App, for example, the last prompt says that you can write an essay on a topic of your choice. The prompts themselves give you indications that the personal statement is looking for a story about you, something with an emotional arc, a transformation in you, or a big learning moment for you.

The college supplemental essays on the other hand can range dramatically from personal writing to academic writing or analytic writing. Some supplements ask you to be very specific about your impact through a certain extracurricular or specific research that you’ve done. Unlike in the personal statement, you don’t need to tell a story that shows your personality in some way. Instead, you can be focused on providing the concrete information that they’re looking for. One clue to that is how long is the supplemental essay that you’re writing. Some supplemental essays are relatively short. Some of them have prompts where they only give you 35 words to respond, or 200 characters, which is much shorter compared to the personal statement.

In asking for short essays, colleges just want specificity. They just want creative, unique answers different from what other students have written. But they don’t need you to tell the story the same way as the personal statement. Then, on the flip side, if you’re dealing with a longer supplemental essay asking you to expand on a longer extracurricular activity, for example, you are going to have to be specific on your experiences and what you’ve done, and why you’ve done it. So, your personality should still come through in your college supplemental essays. But many of them are much more specifically focused than the personal statement, in which it’s really fine to tell any story close to you, whereas for the supplements you need to look closely at the kind of additional information they’re looking for about you as an applicant. 

No matter what you write for either, you don’t want to repeat yourself. They are called supplemental essays for a reason. They should contain new information and provide a broader picture of you.

Can You Reuse College Supplemental Essays Across Schools?

Yes, but do it carefully! Reusing essays can save you time and energy. If you reuse material, make sure to do it strategically, and make sure what you’re reusing fits the prompt. Students should not force an essay in there that doesn’t really fit just because they already have it written. It is really important that the supplemental essay answer you provide does answer every part of the prompt. 

The “why school” prompts for college supplemental essays specifically are phrased in a lot of different ways but are essentially asking you to explain why you’re applying to the school, what resources that school has that fit you, why you’re interested in those things. Those essays can be reused across schools, but all of the specific examples need to change. Schools can tell if the things you’ve provided in the “why school” essay are generic. If it’s relevant to every single school, you’re doing it wrong. If there’s information that’s easily found on the first page of the school’s website you’re doing it wrong. The “why school” essay needs to include information that’s unique to that school. So, write about names of classes, names of professors, names of programs, extracurricular activities, specific things that only exist in that school that you’d take advantage of and why. 

Common Supplemental Prompts and How to Answer Them

Why School Essays:

The most common type of college supplemental essays is the “why school” essay. Let’s take a look at how different colleges frame this question this year.

Barnard College: What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College and why do you think the College would be a good match for you? [Max. 300 words]

Tufts University: Which aspects of the Tufts undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, Why Tufts?’ [100-150 words]

Northwestern University: Other parts of your application give us a sense for how you might contribute to Northwestern. But we also want to consider how Northwestern will contribute to your interests and goals. In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you'll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.

For any of these prompts, make sure you’ve conducted your research! Explore the detailed requirements, courses, faculty, and resources available to undergraduates and see how they align with your profile and interests. Emphasize your “demonstrated interest” in the school—drive home that you’re the right fit for this college and vice versa. You might explain how well you understand the mission or educational philosophy of the school or program. You must focus on how one or two particular aspects of the college suit you. Be as specific as possible and make sure that you show your enthusiasm.

Why Major Essays:

Next, we have the “why major” essays. For prompts such as these, you must prioritize clarity and precision when explaining your interest and background that make you a strong candidate for your intended major, as well as detailed knowledge of the school and its programs. Some example essay questions are:

University of Illinois: Please provide an essay that explains why you chose your intended program of study. What interests you the most about this major? Please be specific - those evaluating these essays are highly interested in your response. If Undecided, what areas of study do you look forward to studying in college? [50-500 words] 

Bucknell University: Please explain your interest in your first-choice major/undecided status and your second-choice major, should you opt to list one [Max. 250 words]

Start with an idea or a problem that you find most compelling within your intended field to show your unique approach to the discipline. Use your response to explain your academic interest — not your major. Your major should be determined by your interest, instead of your interest by your major. Connect your past experiences and academic activities to your interest. How did your intellectual curiosity develop out of your activities? Identify which major or program would best help you explore your interest before sitting down to write the essay and then explain why.

Essays on Your Activities

Another really common set of college supplemental essays involve asking you to expand on one of your activities, or questions that ask which activity you would pursue for the rest of your life if you could only pick one. Some example prompts are:

Harvard University: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. [Max. 150 words]

Vanderbilt University: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. [200-400 words]

California Institute of Technology: Describe three experiences and/or activities that have helped develop your passion for a possible career in a STEM field. [10-120 words each]

The reason colleges ask these questions is that they want to know the kind of community impact you’ve made—have you affected the people around you? What kind of impact have you had on your community? And impact isn’t only about the number of people you’ve reached. It’s about how much you’ve affected certain people and which kind of people you’ve connected with and why.

The bigger the scale of impact the more impressive it is. Not only should you write about an involvement that appears on your activities list, but you should choose one that appears high up since it needs to be an activity that looks really important to you. The best extracurriculars cannot be explained fully in the small amount of space they give you in your activities list description. 150 characters including spaces is hardly enough to explain the impact you have had in your most important extracurricular. Use your response to expand on what kind of leadership you demonstrated in the activity. If it’s something new you started, expound on why are you’re so motivated to spend time on it and what relationships you built along the way.

Identity Essays

Some supplemental essay prompts want to hear more about your background—who you are, where you come from, what unique perspectives you can bring to the college. The key to this essay is to capture a part of you that you haven’t necessarily talked about in your personal statement. Example prompts include:

University of Washington: Our families and communities often define us and our individual worlds. Community might refer to your cultural group, extended family, religious group, neighborhood or school, sports team or club, co-workers, etc. Describe the world you come from and how you, as a product of it, might add to the diversity of the UW. [Max. 300 words]

University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill: Expand on an aspect of your identity (for example, your religion, culture, race, sexual or gender identity, affinity group, etc.). How has this aspect of your identity shaped your life experiences thus far? [Max. 250 words]

University of Pennsylvania: At Penn, learning and growth happen outside of the classroom, too. How will you explore the community at Penn? Consider how this community will help shape your perspective and identity, and how your identity and perspective will help shape this community. [150-200 words]

Colleges want to gauge how you would add to the diversity of their campus. Remember, the word “diversity” doesn’t only include factors that are out of your control such as race or ethnicity. If you want to talk about your cultural or religious community - since your familial background is one of the topics that many of these college supplemental essays have primarily encouraged—that’s great! But if you believe it wouldn’t make you stand out, think about a community that you’ve found thanks to an extracurricular activity or work experience. No matter what community you choose, you shouldn’t dedicate all of your words to your explanation of the premise. 

This essay should be about you—think about how your perspective has been shaped by the community and vice versa. How would you be different had this community not existed? Make sure you haven’t elaborated on this part of your profile elsewhere in your application. This essay is a great way of providing more context on something meaningful that admissions officers wouldn’t easily be able to guess.

College supplemental essays can be easy to write off. Don’t underestimate them! One of the hardest parts of your college applications is not the writing itself, but coming up with good ideas to answer the questions. They often require a lot of thinking and trying to come up with the best examples from your life and you don’t want to rush that. So take your time and consider the various prompts before taking the leap and writing them. Good luck!

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