How to Approach the Supplemental Essays

When our students dig into the college application process, they are often surprised to encounter, not just the main Common Application’s personal statement, but a host of supplemental essay questions. These assignments are often school-specific writing prompts for which a student must also craft thoughtful, well-written replies. Colleges often release these supplemental essay requirements around August, right before the start of the new school year. What are these wicked questions? What is the best way to approach them? How are they different from the Common Application’s main essay?

The main Common Application essay is what many refer to as a “personal statement,” meant to shed light on a student’s personality and other characteristics that cannot be gleaned from a transcript or activity resume. The supplemental essays are often more focused than the Common App assignment, though they vary in length and scope. Their prompts tackle subjects that range from deeper explorations of a student’s collegiate and academic interests like:

“Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?” (University of Michigan (2014-2015), 500 words)

to more amorphous topics like:

“Celebrate your nerdy side.” (Tufts University (2014-2015), 250 words)

We often encourage students to nail down their personal statement topic first, then asking them to approach their supplemental essays in priority order, according to submission deadlines. Many schools will offer prompts that are similar in theme and content to the questions of other colleges (for example, many institutions now ask about a student’s most important activity), so it is helpful for students gather all supplement questions before beginning the brainstorm process to see where they might naturally overlap. For example, take the University of North Carolina and University of Virginia supplemental questions from 2013-2014:

UNC’s prompt stated, “Most of us have one or more personality quirks. Explain one of yours and what it says about you.” (500 words)

U.Va similarly asked,“ We are a community with quirks, both in language (we’ll welcome you to Grounds, not campus) and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.” (250 words)

UVA’s prompt was easily answered by making thoughtful tweaks to the UNC’s essay of similar subject and elongated word count.

Ivy League applications often have extensive supplemental sections, as do some honors programs, so students should keep this in mind as they hunt for their essay questions and map out their plan of attack. Know that all supplemental essays should be given the same time and care as the main Common Application essay. Schools want confirmation that students are willing to put in the thought and effort required to meet their specific requirements. You would be amazed how many people have trouble following instructions, or checking their essay content to make sure they are truly answering what is being asked of them. These supplements are an excellent opportunity to show a school both your competence and level of devotion to their institution. And, they offer additional opportunities to paint some personality into your application. So embrace The Dreaded Supplements, and show these schools what you’re made of!

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