Making Your Peace with the Supplemental Essays: It’s Easier…. and More Complicated than You Might Think
As if writing the personal essay for college apps wasn’t enough, many colleges also like to see supplemental essays! They’re not trying to torture you though, it’s more a way for them to get to know you even better, so be sure to write these supplements — and take your time and do your research for each one. Even though these essays can be short, they are really important! This is your opportunity to explore all that awesomeness that you do and want to be or to explain the context of your life, so they can have a greater understanding of your application.
What is optional and what does that mean for college admissions? Sometimes, colleges will say an essay is optional, but I encourage you to write every essay unless it doesn’t apply to you at all.
What’s the point of all these supplemental essays? The point is to paint a picture of you on their college campus. They want to see who you are and what you’ve done and how you are going to bring that to their specific campus. Each of these essays involves digging in and learning more about yourself and what’s important to you and then how that you who you are fits in with what they offer on their campus. Each of these essays requires research about what they offer and elements of you.
Often, these essays are more important than the Personal Essay. Colleges ask these questions for a reason — and it’s usually to make sure they learn more about you and the HUMAN you are (not a test-taking, grade-making, EC doing machine) and how you will bring that human (you) to THEIR specific campus. They also want you to show them some love and show them you’ve done the work — the research — to know why you want to be there.
Here’s something you might not know…colleges sometimes like to hide their supplements. These essays can be sneaky little devils and they aren’t always found in the writing section. Sometimes they call them questions — with 250-word answers:) Be sure to check the different sections of the Common App for where they might be hiding, like in Activities, Family, and Academics. As you’re organizing your essays, make sure you go through the entire common app, step by step to find the hidden essays — it’s like a treasure hunt!
THE WHY COLLEGE ESSAY
The most important thing to remember about a “Why College” essay is that it’s really a “Why You on our College Campus Essay.”
- This essay is just as much about you as the college.
- Why do they need you on their campus?
- What will you bring?
So, in essence, this should be an essay that ONLY YOU could write about ONLY THIS SCHOOL. If any sentence could apply to any other school or applicant, scratch it. Here’s an idea from College Essay Guy: take a sheet of paper and divide it down the middle. On one side list all the awesome stuff about you. On the other side list all the amazing stuff about the college. Where do you see overlaps? That’s the substance of your essay. Make sure you include SPECIFICS in your essay. Do your research, and let them know you’ve done your research:
- If you’ve visited (or virtually visited in pandemic times), say so. And talk about what you saw and liked and why it was specifically appealing to you.
- Read the student newspaper online. Find events and articles that appeal to you.
- Follow the admissions department on social media, and learn what interests you about their campus. Mention something they’ve profiled recently and why it’s specifically interesting to you.
- This year, I encourage you to follow the changes and updates they’ve been making in response to Covid 19 and other human rights issues. How has any of that resonated with you? Let them know that you are keeping up with what they are doing to open up or if they’re going test-optional or how they’re supporting their students.
- Read the website, especially the admissions website, carefully. Most college websites tell you exactly what they’re looking for. Are you that person? If so, demonstrate to them why. If not, well, maybe this school isn’t a great fit for you.
- Read the college’s mission statement. Does their mission mesh with your personal mission?
- Check out classes that look interesting to you. Look at course lists on the website. Do you find classes that you can see yourself attending? Tell them why this would be a great class for you. What will you get out of it? What can you contribute?
- Find professors that appeal to you. Maybe even reach out to them and learn about their programs.
- Again, devour their website. Check out clubs and activities on campus. What can you bring to the campus and how do you see yourself being involved?
- Recently, a student from A2C shared what they learned at a JHU workshop and I think it’s great info to share with y’all here: “I went to a supplemental essay workshop with JHU and … they (AOs at the workshop) essentially exemplified that we didn’t even have to mention specific programs about the school so much as use the supplement as an opportunity to write another mini-personal statement that connects our values and motivations to Hopkins’. “You don’t have to mention any classes or anything, we already know what we have, you’re just wasting words unless that specific class you mention is essential to your description/expression of values,” basically.” link to JHU workshops
- Here’s a longer post about the Why College Essay with some tables that can help you plan your Why College Essay.
- Also, Tulane has a great How-To for the Why College Essay on their admissions blog. Read it.
THE LEADERSHIP ESSAY
I want you to think about leadership a little differently. I don’t know if you know or follow Mark Manson, but he posted this recently on social media and I was struck by it: “Leadership is doing the shit nobody else wanted to do in a way nobody else thought possible.”
So, you see, leadership is about way more than being Captain High School or President Every Club. Think about all the different kinds of leadership there are. You don’t have to be a specific leader at your school like a president or captain or prefect.
- Are you a leader in your own life? Do you make decisions for yourself?
- Are you a leader in your family? Older sibling? Care for grandparents? Oldest cousin who everyone goes to for advice?
- Are you a leader among your friend groups? Do you make plans? Are you the “parent” of the group? Do you control the social calendar?
- Are you a leader in the classroom? Do you like to be the coordinator and organizer for group projects? Do you lead class discussions? Do teachers rely on you to be an active participant?
- Are you a leader in your school? Do you hold leadership roles? Or do you organize without needing some kind of title? Do you help underclassmen? Do you encourage others?
- Are you a leader in your community? Do you help in your religious community? Do you volunteer as a tutor? Do you organize drives for causes?
- And finally, do you have a job? A job demonstrates leadership and willingness to learn and work with others and to contribute to your own financial stability or that of your family.
Leadership is more than a title, it’s about what you do. And how will you demonstrate that leadership specifically on their campus? Do your research.
THE EXTRACURRICULAR ESSAY
- Choose your activity: Pick the one with the most hours, blood, sweat, and tears, and that’s the most important to you (could be school club, sport, summer activity, job, family responsibilities, personal hobby or interest)
- Discuss your history with the activity, any challenges or obstacles you’ve come across, failures you’ve learned from it, and successes. Be sure to describe in detail what you’ve learned and experienced.
- Go into the why — why is this activity important to you.
- Then the how — how will you use what you’ve learned and experienced with this activity and bring it to their campus — be specific. Are there clubs or activities on their campus you can be part of?
THE WHY MAJOR ESSAY
First, I suggest you apply with a major — even if you’re not certain. Many students change their minds. Admissions offices know that, but they like to know that you have some sense of direction. It’s important that you give them a clear idea of WHY you’ve chosen this major. So, once again, details are important. I see this is more of a why me in this major at this school essay than just a why major essay. Your job is to create a picture of you on their campus based on what you’ve already done and what you hope to do. Mention and Describe WHY these were meaningful to you and how they relate to the major:
- Courses you’ve taken in high school (or on Edx, Coursera, Khan Academy, etc)
- Activities you’ve participated in that have related
- Independent or personal research or hobbies that relate
Research and discuss the following within your potential major:
- Classes you are excited by on their campus (look at course offerings)
- Potential professors who you’d like to take classes with
- Potential research projects you’d like to be involved in
- Clubs and activities the college offers that are related to your major
Discuss how you see your major playing into your future — even if you’re not completely sure what you want that future to be.
THE COMMUNITY/IDENTITY/BACKGROUND ESSAY
Many colleges want to know more about your community, your background, or your identity, and how you play a part in it — and what they really want to know is how you will play a part in the community on their campus and in their community and what you might bring to their campus with your special perspective.
- Decide which community you want to describe. Communities can be super small or large: country, state, city, religion, ethnicity, neighborhood, school, club, activity, online, family, siblings, friends, social groups, and more.
- If you’re stuck I encourage you to think like an ant and look at your world from the tiniest being around — what communities do you see? Where do you fit in to that setting? Or look at the world from a giant lens and see where you fit. You don’t have to be a certain ethnicity or religion or be a team player or a club member to be part of a community. Even if you’re kind of a loner, there is some community you’re part of somewhere.
- Once you’ve decided, discuss and explain:
- How the community has molded you
- Challenges and obstacles you’ve faced because of it (if any)
- Lessons learned from the community
- How you have impacted your community
- How you plan to continue being part of this community on their campus
- Give details — do your research about what they offer on your campus that might allow you to continue to be involved
- If you’re discussing a community that might be hard to continue involvement (your family) on their campus, talk about how you will use what you’ve learned from your involvement in your community on their campus.
THE ADDITIONAL INFO ESSAY
The Additional Info Essay is there for you for just that — adding info to your application that they won’t otherwise be able to learn about. Basically, this space is available for you to provide whatever information you feel the admissions team needs to know in order to understand the context of your application. This is an important space and it can be used for lots of different aspects of your application. You could:
- Expand on an EC: when you’re not given the opportunity to do so in the application and you have an activity that is particularly meaningful and time-consuming to you — and your application wouldn’t be complete without the admissions officers understanding more about this activity, you can add it here. You can bullet point here or write it like a Why EC essay.
- Why College: If you have a particularly compelling reason why this is the right college for you, and you aren’t given the opportunity to present it in the application, you might want to let them know here. See the Why College Section.
- Life Isn’t Always Fair — Share your Story
- Sometimes you need to be able to explain the circumstances in your life — and colleges want to know about any hardships you’ve had.
- They want to understand the context of your application, so don’t worry about thinking you’re asking the colleges to feel sorry for you. I hear kids say that all the time.
- This is your real life. Let them know. They can’t know about your challenges and obstacles unless you tell them.
- Be proud of yourself for making it through your challenges and moving on to pursue college — that’s an accomplishment on its own!
- I feel like the Additional Info section is the place to talk about them; that way you can use your Personal Essay to get into details about other aspects of who you are beyond whatever challenges life has presented you.
- Some Aspects of Your Life Might Require More Context: adversity and hardship, sexual orientation, gender issues, family income and background, family obligations, mental health issues, deaths, divorce, drug-related incidents, illness, and even legal problems. If any of these have affected your school performance, you need to make sure to explain these events or issues.
- For more information and my thoughts and u/McNeilAdmissions’ thoughts about writing about Trauma in Your Applications, be sure to check out this post.
More Phoenix, Fewer Ashes (I wish I could take credit for that metaphor — I think it’s also from a story u/Ninotchka shared on a2c)
- Address your issue or circumstance BRIEFLY and be straightforward. Don’t dwell on it.
- Next, focus on what you did to take care of yourself and how you handled the situation. Describe how you’ve moved forward and what you learned from the experience.
- Then, write about how you will apply those lessons to your future college career and how you plan to help others with your self-knowledge as you continue to help yourself as you learn more and grow.
- Show them that, while you can’t control what happened in the past, you’ve taken steps to gain control over your life and you’re prepared to be the college student you can be.
- Remember to keep the focus on the positives and what you learned from your experiences.
- Make sure your essay is at least 90% phoenix, the rest ashes.
DISCIPLINARY ISSUES ESSAY (See More Phoenix, Fewer Ashes Above)
- First, briefly tell the story. Step up and take responsibility for whatever your issue is. Do NOT blame anyone else.
- Spend most of the essay talking about what you’ve learned, what positive impact the lesson had on you, and how you’ve grown from the experience. Be specific about steps you’ve taken to learn more.
- End by explaining how the experience will make you a better college student.
- Demonstrate that you are taking ownership and taking steps to change your life. You won’t hide from this event, and you’ve worked hard to move past it.
THE COVID-19 QUESTION
From over 300 College Admissions Deans: …”we encourage students to communicate any factors specific to their circumstances that impeded their academic performance. Those factors might include:
- lack of access to the internet
- no quiet place to study
- or the various family responsibilities described above.
We encourage students to describe concretely how any of these circumstances have negatively affected their academic performance or ability to engage in activities that matter to them. It is helpful to know, for example, how much time students spent per week taking on a family responsibility, such as taking care of a sick relative. “ My summary of the “Collective Statement from over 300 College Deans” is here.
Question on Common App: Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.
♻️ REDUCE, REUSE, RECYCLE
Many colleges will ask similar questions. It’s ok to rework an essay to make it work for one school and then another.
Do make sure you do specific research for that college to include like:
Clubs and Activities
Where you learned your research (website, tour, virtual visit, info session, social media, school paper, etc
Write a one size fits all essay
Use the WRONG name of the college!
Organize your supplemental essays. I suggest organizing your supplemental essay by colleges and common supplemental essays. I have one I’ll share with you if you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Then, I suggest making google doc folders for each college and copy and paste the topic and word count at the top of a google sheet as you’re organizing. In addition to the spreadsheet, write the Why College, Why EC, Why Major, and so on at the top so when you’re searching for that Why EC essay you’ve already written, you can easily find it.
ONE LAST TIP — When you’re submitting your apps, sometimes you have to submit the supplemental essay after you’ve submitted everything else, so be sure to go back and make sure all your supplements have been submitted. This is especially true in my experience with Rice — but I’ve also heard of it with other schools.
Tl;dr: Even though these Supplemental Essays can often be short, they are super important and must show that you’ve taken your time, given thought, highlighted yourself, and done your research on the college. Your job is to make them see you as an active member of their campus. Every word counts.