What Are Supplemental Essays?
Students applying to college understandably put a lot of time and energy into worrying about the “College Essays.” That is, of course, a perfectly reasonable thing to do. By the time you reach this point, there’s a lot about your applications that is already set in stone—it’s too late to go back and invent a flying car and that B- in sophomore Chemistry is there to stay. One of the things students do have control over is what they write for the colleges, though the term “essay” has a tendency to dig up a lot of general academic and literary angst as well.
But not all essays are created equal, and it’s important to differentiate between them. The personal statement is the one that doesn’t change, except maybe for some small tweaks to word count depending on the school and application platform. It goes to every college that accepts one, and its prompts and content are necessarily more general. (Note, we say “general” but not “generic.”) When people talk about—and sometimes freak out about—college essays, they’re usually thinking about the personal statement. But that’s not the only or, in some cases, most important thing that students will write.
In addition to the personal statement, many colleges will also request supplemental pieces of writing that are usually shorter, more direct, and, most importantly, specific to a single school. Think about it this way. The personal statement is a student standing at the top of the admission and higher education landscape declaring, “Here I am, world!” The supplements are more subtle, intimate conversations with particular schools to say, “Here’s why you should care, Northwestern. And why you should give me a shot.” Coming up, we’re going to give some overarching tips and tricks that you might want to keep in mind as you approach these supplemental essays. And then we’ll look at some common themes that you might find as you start diving into your school-specific supplements.
Why This School?
One of the most common questions that colleges will ask on a supplemental essay is why a student wants to go to that college in particular. This sometimes seems like the most obvious question, but for some students it can be one of the hardest to answer (and no, “you have a pretty campus, a funny mascot, and a biology program” probably isn’t going to cut it). So it’s important to understand why a college might be asking this question. Are they looking for something specific? Are they quizzing you to see how much time you spent on your college research? Are they just insecure and want you to shower them with flowery language and unfiltered praise?
Well, yes and no. Yes, they want to know that you’ve done your research and been introspective about your wants and goals. And yes, they probably want you to give some specific examples of things that draw you to the college, why you’d be likely to take advantage of them, and what that might look like if the school were to admit you. But there’s a second part of the question that’s not explicitly stated but just as important. It’s not just “Why do you want to attend our institution?” It’s “Why do you want to attend our institution as opposed to any of the dozen or more similar institutions with whom we compete for students every year?”
The reason colleges really care about your answer to this question is that they want to admit good, thoughtful students who would be a good fit. But more than anything, they want to admit good, thoughtful students who are going to enroll. As a student, you no doubt pay close attention to the admit rate of colleges where you’re applying. Colleges pay attention to that too, but what they pay closer attention to is their “yield rate.” Yield is the percentage of students accepted who choose to enroll at their school. And a student who has a good answer to the “Why are you applying to this school?” question is probably going to be more likely to enroll than one who is applying because they really like the Tiger mascot.
- Write your essay right after you’ve visited (or virtually visited) the campus. You’ve undoubtedly come across specific things that you like about a school—the resources it has, the excellent Mexican restaurant across the street from campus that you’ve heard so much about from your tour guide, or the student organization that engages directly with the community. Sometimes writing your essay after you’ve just learned this information can help you paint a more vivid picture of why you like that school in particular.
- Always follow up your statements with the “why” part. You like the quality of the biology program. Why? You appreciate the fact that the university offers a study abroad program. Why? You like the size of the college. Why? It’s important to not only list the things you like about colleges, but also give them insight into why those particular areas stand out to you. This is a good chance for you to talk about short or long-term goals you have and how those particular aspects can help you achieve your goals.
- If you can’t answer the question, you probably shouldn’t be applying. Many universities ask leading questions that want you to address why you’re interested in their school from a particular aspect. For example, Tufts asks, “What excites you about Tufts’ intellectual, playful community?” If you don’t think there’s anything fun about an intellectual community, you should probably apply elsewhere. Use the clues in the prompt to help you understand the colleges’ values and be sure to address those values in your response.
Why do you want to study X?
This is probably the second most common supplemental question, and it can appear in a lot of different ways. Sometimes it’s phrased as clearly as asking students why they want to pursue their selected major. Other times it’s a little vaguer and more open-ended with phrasing like “Tell us about something that fascinates you,” or “What have you really enjoyed learning about in the past year?” And frequently you will find that it’s coupled with the “Why this school” prompt with some version of “Why are you interested in the major you mentioned, and how do you see yourself pursuing those interests here?”
There are a number of reasons colleges might want to know your answer to this question. The first is that individual institutions will vary in terms of their flexibility and how easy it is to change majors or departments once you’re on campus. Some might be totally open, and you can switch majors at any time (they would usually ask the more open-ended questions). Some allow you to switch majors within a school or department but not schools as a whole—for example, moving from Chemical Engineering to Mechanical Engineering is totally fine, but moving from Chemical Engineering to Business Management isn’t going to fly.
But another reason is that they want to make sure you know what you’re getting into. If you’re applying to be an engineer because you liked playing with Legos when you were a kid, or you think you want to be a computer scientist just because you enjoy video games, you’ll probably be in for a rude awakening. And if a college admits you, they don’t just want you to enroll. They want you to enroll, be successful, and graduate, which means they want to be sure you understand what will be expected of you within that major or area of study.
- Don’t feel the need to convince someone of your passions. If you are passionate about something, you can likely go on and on about it. That’s a good thing—colleges love passionate students. You don’t have to convince the colleges that you are passionate about public health, though, because your application will do that for you. Instead, talk about public health in the context of this university. What classes, research programs, or extracurricular opportunities are you excited to take part in? What are some things you hope to learn and contribute to? Don’t be afraid to speak about what you plan to do in the future so colleges can better understand your fit for their environment.
- Lead with what you’ve enjoyed, even if it doesn’t seem directly applicable. Your interest in anything demonstrates ability to be interested in something else, which is what the learning environment in college is all about: pursuing your passions and discovering new ones. At Collegewise, we believe that each student should own their story. By leading with what you enjoy, you are owning your story and using details to tell it from a point of view that no one else can. Plus, that essay is probably more compelling as a result.
- A lot of times “Undecided” is a perfectly valid answer. There seems to be conflicting messages here: you have time to make up your mind about what you want to major in, but you also need to know what to major in when you apply to college. That’s true and not true—while you are not usually declaring a major from the time you apply, colleges like to know what academic areas you are interested in. It’s okay to not know that information. However, if you are undecided, you should write about the ways you’d explore the curriculum to become decided. Undecided should not mean “uninterested.” It should convey a student who is open to exploring the curriculum, and that’s a good way to, again, relate that short-term goal of finding a major to the university itself.
Tell us more about something you do.
While this question is also phrased in several different ways, the main goal remains the same. Beyond the body in the seat and some tuition revenue, what are you going to bring to a college campus? What do you care about and enjoy doing enough that you pursued it in ways beyond what you could list in your college application?
The point of this question is not to give you more space to list your laudable extracurricular accomplishments and accolades in high school. And like previous questions, it has a phantom extra piece to it. Tell us more about something you do and would keep doing even if you didn’t get to list it on your college application. Sometimes this is something that’s listed in the activities section, but sometimes it’s not. Sometimes it’s something you are passionate about and plan to continue pursuing in college, but that’s not a requirement either.
When you go off to college, you will be a student, yes. But you’ll also be a community member, and the colleges that ask this question are really trying to get a sense of how you will contribute to their community. But again, it doesn’t have to be something that you’re planning to pursue in college. A student who is a good member of their home community tends to be a good member of the college community, and a student who can be passionate about something is capable of being passionate about anything.
- Don’t repeat information. A college application has finite components, so you want to make the best use of all pieces of it. If you’ve already written about being captain of the track team in your personal statement, don’t write about that, if you can help it, in this essay, too. If you are a part of something that is truly extraordinary, you may write about it in several places, but always try to offer a different take on it. If it’s going to be the same activity, make sure it shares different parts of who you are.
- Hobbies count, too. Just because it didn’t make it to the activities list on the Common App doesn’t mean you can’t write about it in an essay. In fact, hobbies are sometimes the more interesting parts of a student. I know a student who is wrapping and modifying his car and another student who loves origami. Both of these tidbits made it to various essays they wrote, but neither activity appeared on their activities list. Now, those colleges know a little more, personality-wise, about each of those students because they chose to write about their hobbies instead of a school-sponsored club or summer activity.
- Smaller moments are good to talk about here. This kind of question is asking you to look at your daily life and share something about it. Most of us aren’t winning track meets or discovering the meaning of life on a daily basis. Don’t be afraid to lean into the smaller moments in an essay like this. If it’s something you do every day, odds are that it’s an important part of who you are. Maybe you take a walk with your dog, or help your dad make dinner, or water the plants because everyone else forgets to. Share that information with colleges, and they’ll be able to understand who you’ll be on their campus every day.
Tell us about the world you come from.
While a different context from the previous question, the answer that students provide here still relates to fostering that sense of community because it’s up to the student to define what constitutes “the world you come from.” And what group or groups they choose can be quite telling about the communities in which they will involve themselves in colleges. There’s no right or wrong answer to this question, but inevitably students have to make the decision about what constitutes “the world they come from,” and what they choose to highlight can be just as telling as what they don’t.
When given only a limited amount of space to discuss the world and communities that shaped you, what do you immediately think of? Friend groups, sports teams, drama clubs, immediate and extended family, cultural groups, religious organizations, coworkers? These are all perfectly valid groups to draw from, and this question (and the responses students give) provides the admission readers a lot more insight into the student behind the list of classes and grades and test scores. It’s these intangibles that make the student a human being rather than just an applicant. And that human being—not their SAT score—is who will ultimately be joining a college campus, interacting with other human beings, and creating a community of their own.
- Nobody thinks their lives are interesting, because they’re the ones who lived them. The immediate reaction we get from students is that there is nothing interesting to write about, but that’s looking at it from your point of view. To someone else, your life is completely different. Think about the communities that you’re a part of and get detailed. Some of them don’t have to be communities in the traditional sense. One of my students wrote about a waffle truck she goes to every week and the group of people she met and connected with there. Be creative, because if you’re the type of student colleges want, you can create community anywhere.
- Your response to this question doesn’t have to be positive, but it shouldn’t be entirely negative, either. As someone on the cusp of college, you are probably excited about the possibility of a new city or town and a way to meet new people. That’s normal, and, in reflecting on where you come from, there might be a few things you’ll be glad to get away from. That’s okay, too; a part of why the residential aspect of college is so formative is to allow you that room to grow and have new experiences. Keep in mind, though, that a community is what you make of it. While you’ve likely outgrown parts of your hometown or local community, be sure to focus on the positives. Colleges probably would think twice about admitting a student who didn’t have at least a few positive things to say about where they come from.
- Sometimes folded into these prompts are more nuanced, leading questions about diversity: what kind of perspectives and experiences will you be bringing to campus, and how might you learn from others’ experiences? Don’t shy away from these questions, because diversity and inclusion are important parts of going to college. Colleges want to be inclusive; that’s why they’re asking about it. They value a student’s ability to learn from and collaborate with people with all kinds of different, lived experiences.
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