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What Your Supplemental Essays Are Really Asking

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supplemental essays glassesWe have bad news and good news. The bad news is that the Common App personal statement, while important, is not the only essay you have to write; in fact, by now you may have noticed that many of your schools have one or two (or five) supplemental writing requirements. And if you’re applying to more than 10 schools, well, the math isn’t pretty. (But maybe we’re just biased against math.)

The good news is that supplemental essays present a uniquely targeted opportunity for you to show admissions why you and your target school are a perfect fit. And to make things easier, we made you a guide that will help you decode two of the most common types of supplemental essay questions and mine for the most creative responses.

The Activity Essay

Aside from the infamous “Why here?” question, the activity essay may be the most common supplemental gremlin out there. In its typical form, this question will ask you to write an expanded description of one activity for your list.

The assignment seems easy enough, but wait. Don’t you think Harvard already knows how soccer works or what the yearbook is? Why would admissions ask a question they already knew the answer to? The activity essay is not merely asking for a run-through of the rules of Lincoln Douglas debating, but for a deeper understanding of your interests and motivations. So, the key to answering this question is not necessarily to pick your most impressive-sounding or longest-running activity. Instead, pick an activity that you really enjoy and see yourself continuing in college.

Ultimately, this essay should help an admissions officer understand the relationship you will have with their school, whether as an improv savant or student government rockstar. This is your opportunity to connect your own interests to the offerings on campus and demonstrate that you belong at whatever school you may be applying to.

The Community Essay

This can be a tricky one, so let’s take a look at Duke’s optional 2015 community prompt:

“Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to, your sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke. (250 words maximum)”

Wow. That’s a big and intimidating mouthful, and many applicants, regardless of background, may believe that they do not belong to a unique community. Some applicants may not know where to begin defining their community, and some may find it difficult to reduce their experiences into membership in a single community. The amazing thing about communities, though, is that they are everywhere. Duke provides a few examples, but community is so much more than “sexual orientation or gender identity, or your family or cultural background.” So, before you dive into a community essay, spend some time brainstorming to expand your definition of community.

What kinds of groups – interest, faith, heritage – do you consider yourself a part of? Or, stepping back, what do you think are some of the most important parts of your personality that you have not yet had the opportunity to display? Where did they come from? Chances are a community (or, more likely, many communities) have helped shape you into who you are today, so don’t limit yourself to traditional definitions. Ultimately, your goal, as with the activity essay, is to share something about your social habits. Demonstrate not just who you are, but who you might be on campus.

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