Supplemental Essay Prompts: Breaking Down the Most Common Questions

Padya Paramita

Supplemental Essay Prompts: Breaking Down the Most Common Questions

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 supplemental essay prompts that await you.

There are certain common patterns in supplemental essay questions that you might recognize across different colleges. Many admissions officers want to know why you’re interested specifically in their university. Others might want to know about the impact you’ve made in your community. To help guide you through the different types of questions, I’ve outlined the categories of common supplemental essay prompts, examples of schools that use them, and tips for students in order to optimize their chance of  receiving an acceptance letter.

Why School Essays:

The most common type of supplemental essay prompts 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.

Schools can definitely tell if the examples you’ve provided in the “why school” essay are generic or taken from a different response. If it’s relevant to every single college, you’re approaching this essay incorrectly. If there’s information that’s easily found on the first page of the school’s website, you must try harder. The “why school” essay needs to include information that is unique to that particular school. So include names of classes, professors, programs, extracurricular activities, and other specific factors and resources that only exist in that school that you’d take advantage of and elaborate on why.

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.

Why School + Why Major

Sometimes, supplemental essay prompts may combine the “why school” and “why major” questions. Schools that do so are:

NYU: We would like to know more about your interest in NYU. What motivated you to apply to NYU? Why have you applied or expressed interest in a particular campus, school, college, program, and or area of study? If you have applied to more than one, please also tell us why you are interested in these additional areas of study or campuses. We want to understand

- Why NYU? [Max. 400 words]

University of Michigan: Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests? [Required for all applicants; 550 word limit]

For prompts such as these, you must divide your essay into two parts. Admissions officers don’t just want to know why you’re applying to the university generally; they expect you to go into greater detail about the campus(es), school, and major you’ve picked. Think about what makes you excited to attend college in the campus you’re applying to. But, don’t  just fixate on the location, because your main focus should be explaining why the particular university is the best institution to pursue your interests and goals, rather than the campus setting. Then dive into the major. Think about specific resources that are available within your chosen department that you can’t find elsewhere.

Notice that this type of essay should mainly cover academics. A university’s clubs and student organizations may make it an alluring place for you, but the question explicitly asks about your choice of study. Look through the website and think about what you can write that won’t be common in other students’ essays. Is there a professor whose research resonates with you? Would a particular psychology or sociology class perfectly fit in with your 10-year plan? Remember that admissions officers are trying to figure out why you’d make the most of your experience on campus. So, talk elaborately about how you would take advantage of the facilities and give them a sense of the ways in which you’d make a valuable addition in the classroom.

Essays on Your Activities

Another really common set of supplemental essay prompts 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 because 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 numbers 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 prompts 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.

Short Responses

Some colleges have a list of shorter questions that they expect you to answer in one line, or a couple of phrases. These can trip you as you might be used to seeing questions that ask for at least a couple paragraphs in answers. Schools that ask shorter questions among their supplemental essay prompts include:

Columbia University: For the four list questions that follow, we ask that you list each individual response using commas or semicolons; the items do not have to be numbered or in any specific order. No explanatory text or formatting is needed. Please respond to each of the three short answer questions in 200 words or fewer.

  • List the titles of the required readings from academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (150 words)
  • List the titles of the books, essays, poetry, short stories or plays you read outside of academic courses that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school. (150 words)
  • List the titles of the print or digital publications, websites, journals, podcasts or other content with which you regularly engage. (150 words)
  • List the movies, albums, shows, museums, lectures, events at your school or other entertainments that you enjoyed most during secondary/high school (in person or online). (150)


        Princeton University: A Few Details:

        • Your favorite book and its author
        • Your favorite website
        • Your favorite recording
        • Your favorite source of inspiration
        • Your favorite line from a movie or book and its title
        • Your favorite movie
        • Two adjectives your friends would use to describe you
        • Your favorite keepsake or memento
        • Your favorite word

                      If you know that you’ll be applying to one or more of these schools, keep a running list of your brainstorming. Give yourself time to really think about your answers — you want to distinguish yourself from the competition. Discard your first 5-10 ideas — these are usually too obvious, too common, and too cliché. As you come up with new entries, scrutinize the implications of your answers. What does each answer contribute to your reader’s understanding of you and your interests? Avoid obscure answers as those might not convey much about your profile. Think about what is important for your reader to know about your answer in order to understand its relevance. Keep the goals of your overall application in mind — how does each answer contribute to your persona, interests, or activities?

                      All of your short answers could follow a particular theme — your answer to questions about your favorite movie or TV show could be a great way to show that you’ve pursued your academic interests through more than just schoolwork. Or, you could highlight a passion outside your intended major, such as sports or cooking, by mentioning relevant books or magazines. Don’t list big names such as The New York Times as your favorite website or publication just because you think it sounds impressive. It will probably be one of the more common answers anyway. Go through your browser history, DVD collections, music library — to determine answers that are true to you.

                      Supplemental essay prompts are designed to help colleges understand why you’re a perfect fit for their institution. Take advantage of the common question patterns to understand what schools look for from the different prompts, then convey how you would uniquely contribute to campus and make the most of the school’s resources. You got this!

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