What are supplemental essays and how should students prepare?

Supplemental essays can really make or break an application-and most students don’t take them seriously enough. These are essay questions or short answer questions specific to each college. Some colleges have none, some have multiple, and some require you to submit additional essays for their scholarships or honors programs. They require research and are time consuming. But if done well, they help you stand out.

The majority of colleges now use the Common Application for admission. The Common App has a required personal statement of no more than 650 words. Students choose to write on one of seven topics. The Common App officially opens August 1 but the personal statement topics are released in spring on the Common App blog. Many schools have November first early action/early decision deadlines. Having the personal statement done over the summer allows you to focus on writing supplemental essays from August through November (and earlier as you will learn below).

Most schools have a version of “why are you applying to this school”. Some want 200-250 words on this, others give you up to 500. They want to see that you have researched the school-understanding the general curriculum, the major curriculum, student life, career preparation, and what differentiates them from other schools. Most importantly they want to know why this is important to you and fits into your goals. What will you do on their campus to take advantage of these opportunities. Spending time over the summer researching this info is critical to writing successful essays. If you really understand what you want out of a college, your list will be similar (for example you are applying to all small liberal arts colleges or all large research one institutions). You should be able to write a general essay and then tweak it with specifics for each school.

Covid has made it hard to visit colleges in person. However you can still attend virtual information sessions, speak with an admissions counselor, and research the school on websites and social media. Fifty percent of US colleges admit more than fifty percent of their applicant pool, but for those colleges who are highly rejective (deny 80% or more of their applicant pool), demonstrating research and an understanding of the school are critical-but helping them get to know you is also really important.

I often read essays similar to this “I want to be a nurse. You have a strong nursing program. I will get hands on experience in clinicals beginning my sophomore year. I also hope to join a sorority. I look forward to attending football games and taking advantage of all the activities on your beautiful campus.” This could be written by any student about any college.

Here is a slightly better version “From my youngest memories, I’ve wanted to help people. The last two and half years of the Covid pandemic have shown me there is great need for nurses. I have taken certified nursing assistant courses and worked at my local nursing home to gain experience and confirm my career interests. I am applying to Fake University because the focus on critical care will best prepare me for work in a ICU or critical care unit. I also hope to assist Professor Jane Doe with her research on music in ICUs to better understand how hospital environments can impact healing. While nursing is a demanding major, and will take me off campus for clinical rotations, I want to continue my involvement with organizations like Dance Marathon, that raise money for pediatric infectious disease research.

For those who don’t know what want to do as a career or major, it’s ok to express that. Many colleges don’t make you declare a major until sophomore year. But understanding and being able to express how the curriculum will support that exploration is important.

Depending on the school, short answer questions can be completely esoteric like University of Chicago which asked something along the lines of “simple as pie” and you have to write something related to that statement (they basically want to see how you think). Princeton has asked in 150 characters explain what you can’t live without. Many people will say sow thing like “my family” or “oxygen” but it’s a chance for you to stand out, be unique and get to know you better. Think about something you truly love like your childhood lovey. You could say “a well-worn and loved dog blanket I’ve had since infant hood” or “a well-written historical fiction novel that takes me to a new time and place”. Give them a quick snippet into you.

Regardless of whether you are applying to one of the most competitive colleges in the country or a local college you know you will be admitted, do your research. Senior year is busy. Having your essays and applications done early, and well will alleviate a lot of stress. Doing your research is the most important factor in being able to write articulate and effective essays.

Published by Kate Coffman

Kate has worked in admissions, financial aid, college and career readiness for over twenty years. She most recently served as the Vice President and Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid at Franklin College. Kate has also worked in admissions at Butler University and Indiana University. Kate has presented at numerous schools and conferences helping families, educators and those who work with youth understand how to be college and career ready, how to apply to college and how to afford their education.

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