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How Important Are Supplemental College Essays?

Historic Sather Gate at the University of California at Berkley.

There are several steps involved in applying to college. You need to have a balanced list, a strong resume, a good personal statement, and a clear application schedule. However, many students forget to devote sufficient time to one of the biggest pieces of their admissions profile: the supplemental essays.

Today, the vast majority of selective schools ask students to write and submit short essays responding to questions particular to that school. The topics can vary quite a bit by school, and they also range a great deal in length. Further, because they usually aren’t released on the Common App until August, students tend to write them while they are busy with senior year.

No wonder, then, that so many students don’t put the same level of time and care into these essays as they do on other parts of their application. But in approaching the school-specific essays in this way, they’re making a huge mistake. These essays are arguably the most important piece of your application outside of your grades and standardized test scores.

So, why do supplemental essays matter so much? And how can you ensure you’re writing ones that your dream schools will love?

Why Are Supplemental Essays So Important?

Imagine you’re interviewing someone for a job or role on your team. For 90% of the process, you have to ask standard questions that you weren’t involved in creating. Because the questions are standard, you frequently receive the same answers. Then, at the end of the interview, you get to ask the potential hire whatever you want. Wouldn’t you care about those answers the most?

That’s exactly the situation in which colleges and universities find themselves with applications. There are many benefits to a standard platform like the Common App, but that approach also means that individual schools don’t have a say in the personal statement questions, how the activities list is arranged, or what personal and demographic questions they can ask. The only place where they have total control is the supplemental essay section, which is why those responses matter so much to them.

In this additional section, colleges get to ask whatever they want. It stands to reason they would only ask questions to which they really, really care about the answers. If it’s clear that someone isn’t taking that section seriously, it may not matter at all what the rest of their profile looks like because admissions readers can tell the student isn’t truly interested in their institution.

How Many of These Essays Will I Have to Write?

The short answer is: it depends on the number of schools to which you apply and how selective they are.

If you’re planning to apply to a range of Ivy League and other highly selective schools, you can expect to write at least a few essays for each. Some, like Stanford and Yale, have more than a dozen questions of varying lengths. As a result, some students end up writing forty or fifty supplemental essays, depending on their particular selection of schools.

That said, a more balanced list in selectivity also generally means a more balanced assortment of supplemental essays. Many colleges outside the top twenty ask for only one or two school-specific essays, and sometimes none. School-specific essays can deter students from applying because they mean additional work beyond the regular Common Application, so universities that want to maximize their applications sometimes avoid them.

However, don’t expect to write none at all! Generally speaking, the norm is to have at least one supplemental essay. Unless you actively try to pick schools with no essay, it’s almost certain that at least some of the schools on your list will ask for additional responses.

What Kinds of Questions Do Colleges Ask?

Of course, the importance of these essays doesn’t mean each school asks completely unique questions. Indeed, because this is the only place they can prompt you to talk about their school specifically, many schools end up asking variations on the same questions.

The most common school-specific essay prompts are variations on:

  • Why do you want to attend our school?
  • What do you intend to study at our school, and why?
  • What has been your most meaningful extracurricular activity?
  • If given the opportunity, what new course would you take/teach?
  • How will you take advantage of [unique aspect of our school]?
  • Tell us about a community of which you are a member.
  • What will you bring to our campus community?
  • What are your goals for the future?

Additionally, if you are applying to a special program within the university, such as an accelerated medicine or dual-degree program, you can expect to answer even more questions, this time about your interest in, and preparation for, that program. Finally, if the university to which you’re applying has numerous colleges within it, each may have different essays for its particular applicants.

Of course, this is hardly the complete list of school-specific essay topics. In addition to variations on the above questions, many schools also get a little weird. Some schools, like the University of Chicago, take particular pride in having unusual school-specific prompts. Many give students a choice regarding which prompt to answer and use quotations from notable alumni or other school-specific details.

What Should I Say?

Generally, you should hold to the same rules about writing that apply everywhere else in your application: use good grammar and clear prose, be thoughtful and self-aware, incorporate specific examples wherever possible, and pay attention to word or character limits. However, there are some additional pitfalls to avoid when writing school-specific essays.

Be specific about the school.

The subtext of every school-specific essay is: why are you a good fit for our campus? As such, no matter the question, you should find ways to mention specific aspects of the school that you’re excited about, that relate to work you’ve done in the past, and/or to which you have some other connection. If admissions officers can tell you’ve simply copied and pasted an essay from another school into their box, they’re not going to be happy with you.

If an essay asks why you want to attend X University, talk about the specific academic and social things you hope to do there. If it asks what you want to major in, mention classes, labs, professors, and research opportunities. If it asks about a meaningful extracurricular experience, use a specific example to show how you’ll continue that work on campus. If you’re not talking about resources unique to that school, you’re doing it wrong.

Yes, this will take some research! But it will be worth it because at the end of a thoughtfully specific supplementary essay, an admissions officer will be able to picture you on campus, and they’ll like what they see. That’s what gets you into the “Yes” pile.

Show them what matters to you.

Supplemental college essay topics tend to seem either bland (explain why you want to attend our school) or completely weird (would you rather be raised by robots or dinosaurs?). No matter what they ask, though, the central purpose of these essays is to help admissions officers get to know you better. So, when devising an answer, ask yourself: what do I want them to know about me?

Of course, what you’re able to convey will depend on the prompt. But especially for the more out-there questions, take care to really think about what you want to convey about yourself. In practice, admissions officers only have a few minutes with your application, so you need to present your narrative clearly and concisely. If you get to choose your prompt, gravitate toward the one(s) that will allow you to present a new and meaningful part of yourself.

You’ll also want to think about what else is in your application. That is, if your personal statement focuses on a particular experience, you should aim not to return to that topic in a school-specific essay, to avoid boring your reader.

Pay close attention to the prompt.

Because schools do repeat supplementary essay questions, it can be tempting to use the same essay twice. Resist this urge! Colleges think a lot about what to ask in their supplemental essay prompts, and they really want you to take time and care in these answers. Pay close attention to the prompts, and really think about how best to answer.

This goes even for the tiniest of school-specific essays. Some colleges ask for an answer of only thirty or fifty words, some as short as three words! Or they ask for a list of books you’ve read recently, or films you’ve seen. Don’t give these micro-essays any less thought than you do the longer supplementary essays! If colleges are requiring you to answer, it means they care about what you say. Consider how each sentence reflects on you.

In helping students practice for college interviews, we sometimes talk about “the question behind the question.” That is, on its face the question may have been straightforward, but it’s clear there’s something larger the interviewer is getting at. The same goes for supplementary essays. Regardless of how boring or strange the prompt is, ask yourself: what is it they’re really trying to find out through this prompt?

Final Thoughts

Applying to college is a little bit like dating. A potential partner is more likely to be interested in you if you show that you’re genuinely interested in them. That’s why these supplemental essays are so important to the admissions process. They’re your chance to demonstrate that you know what makes the school special and that you’re excited to attend that particular institution.

Good supplementary essays both highlight what a good fit you are for a college and flatter the college by discussing its unique strengths. Remember: by the end of your essay, an admissions officer should feel that you are seriously interested, an excellent applicant, and a great match for the school.

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