10 Supplemental Essay Tips for Your College Applications

Padya Paramita

10 Supplemental Essay Tips for Your College Applications

With your personal statement hopefully polished and out of the way, it’s time to shift gear to supplemental essays. 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. At InGenius Prep, we’ve been creating supplemental essay guides to help you work your way through the various prompts that colleges ask students to answer. Alongside addressing the prompts directly, we also have supplemental essay tips we share with you at the end of each article. In this particular blog, we’ve compiled some of the common tips that can apply to different supplemental essays as you continue writing them your school-specific responses.

Don’t repeat your personal statement or your activities list 

Number one on supplemental essay tips is a reminder that an admissions officer has very little time to go through your application and as a reason don’t want to see repeated information. The goal of the essays is to provide further information on who you are and what you’re all about. There’s no point in repeating what you’ve said on the rest of your application because admissions officers want each component to add something new. Colleges such as Princeton have even specified on the longer essay prompt that you must not repeat your personal statement. If you can’t follow these instructions, your application is basically on its way to the reject pile. You don’t want to lose before your essays have even been read!

Be authentic

Sometimes it might seem like colleges are looking for a certain answer that might make you seem intelligent and aware of the world. However, if you write something that isn’t genuinely true to you colleges will not appreciate that! Don’t write about topics or issues that you believe an admissions officer at a top school might want to see. In fact, those answers might just end up being too cliché and not work against you instead. Admissions officers will appreciate it much more if they can feel organic passion and commitment for the things that you’ve described.

Be as specific as possible

Supplemental essays aren’t the place to practice your creative writing skills. Especially for essays with larger word counts, it can be very easy for you to want to fit in as much information as you can in order to maximize your chances of admission. However, admissions officers don’t want to know every single thing about you. They’ve only got a limited amount of time to look through your essays so make sure your responses cover only what is necessary and keep the focus on yourself and how you would benefit from an education at their institution. This is not a place where you want to go off on tangents. Avoid general statements and stick to characteristics and experiences that make you unique.

Cut unnecessary words

Going off of the last point, it’s also important to be specific because many schools have an extremely strict word limit. Yale, for example, has questions that provide you as little as 125 words to write your answers. It can be tricky to get your point across in so little space, but you can’t change the limit. So don’t waste your time sulking or complaining about the fact that you’re 200 words over on your essay, but instead start cutting words. Use a thesaurus, ask a teacher or friend for feedback, and read sentences out loud to see if they still make sense after you shorten them.

Read about what the school is looking for

Different colleges want different characteristics from students. Next on our supplemental essay tips is to read up on these on college websites. For example, Harvard looks for students who demonstrate “maturity, character, leadership, self-confidence, sense of humor, energy, concern for others, and grace under pressure.” When choosing a topic for your supplemental essays, think about how you can bring these qualities forward in your essays. During your brainstorming process, ask yourself whether your topic depicts you as a mature individual, whether you’ve shown that you work well under pressure, and if there are any places you can sprinkle your sense of humor in without it sounding forced. Since a lot of students who apply to colleges like Harvard have strong numbers and extracurriculars, you need to further establish yourself as the perfect fit for the school when writing your supplemental essays.

If there are choices, think carefully about the options

Many supplemental essays ask students to “choose one of the following questions” from a series of prompts. For example, the University of California personal insight questions ask that you answer any 4 out of the 8 questions they’ve asked. In such cases, make sure you choose the four questions that will make you stand out! Focus on showing who you are and what makes you unique and how you can contribute to the particular campuses. If you don’t have a story that fits a particular prompt, choose a different one. 

Conduct research—it will come handy in your “why school essays”

This one is essential among supplemental essay tips. The “why school” essay is perhaps the most common supplemental essay prompt. For these, 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.

Don’t write about a college different from the one you’re applying to

Many colleges have schools within their institution that are specific to different fields. Schools such as University of Michigan, University of Pennsylvania, New York University and University of Southern California all require candidates to select which of the specialized colleges within these universities they would like to apply to. Next on our supplemental essay tips is for you to make sure you’re not writing about a different school within the same campus. For example, if you’re vying for the College of Arts and Sciences at Penn, and your answer is all about business, admissions officers will get the sense that you’re applying to a college you might feel is “easier” to get into with plans of later transferring to Wharton. This will not work in your favor at all. If you want to study business, apply to Wharton and write about Wharton.

Don’t let supplemental essays discourage you from applying to a college

Some schools, such as the University of Chicago have unusual prompts that tend to confuse students. While prompts such as “What’s so easy about pie?” are definitely unusual and undoubtedly tricky, they are not impossible to answer. The school has set a standard for similarly quirky questions and hundreds of students still get in every year. So the minute you see these on the Common App, don’t be tempted to run away and remove UChicago (or any other school you actually want to go to) from your school list. It’s a great school, and if you have a strong application to compete with other top students, don’t miss out on the chance just because the supplemental essays seem a little intimidating!

Don’t underestimate the power of your extracurriculars

The activities essay is one of the most common types of supplemental essay prompts. 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 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.

Admissions officers want to know what makes you tick outside the classroom. Don’t just shrug off this essay and repeat information you’ve already included in your activities list. They want to know about your perspective and identity. Your activities could have shifted your views in a way that you might not have even realized before sitting down to write the essay. And you won’t be able to analyze their impact properly if you don’t look at them from a more nuanced angle.

Each essay has to be tailored to your specific context and profile. Even though you may have to answer what you like about a school, make sure you detail how each component can help tie into your unique interests and goals. Follow our supplemental essay tips to make sure you’re hitting all the points necessary to give yourself a great shot at getting into your dream school. Good luck!

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