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Everything You Need To Know About The Supplemental Essays

30 AUG 2022

Supplemental essays are required by many highly selective institutions in addition to the personal essay included in your Common Application. You can learn all about what they are and why they’re important here.


What is the Supplemental Essay?

Imagine you want to hire someone for a job. 

Your boss gives you 10 questions that you have to use — but she tells you that you can create a few extra questions of your own in addition.

The first 10 questions will give you a good sense of who the applicant is, but those extra few that you create — those are the ones that will give you the best insight into whether the person will be a good fit to work with you and your team. 

You can think about US college supplemental essay questions in the same way. The Common Application questions are the standard questions that every school gets answers to—but the supplemental questions are the individual universities’ best chance to really get to know you and to judge whether or not you’ll be a good fit on their campus(es)

They’re also your best chance to show schools why they should pick you. Lots of students underestimate the importance of the supplemental essays—and lots of students get rejected as a result. If you’re here reading this, then you’re already well on your way to avoiding that critical mistake.

Luckily, there are identifiable patterns in the supplemental questions that most universities ask, so you won’t have to start anew on every single essay.

In this blog our leading admissions strategist Gabe Gladstrien, walks you through the 8 most frequent types of supplemental essay questions and provides tips on how to answer them for you. Ready to get started? Read on!

Why do Universities ask for Supplemental Essays?

Admissions Officers use supplemental essays to fill out their picture of who you are and learn things about you that are not contained in the rest of your application. The supplemental essays shouldn’t contradict anything you’ve written elsewhere, but they shouldn’t repeat anything either.

If we were to choose three words that are key to the success of your supplemental essays, they’d be specificity, authenticity, and commitment.

1. Specificity

When it comes to specificity, colleges want you to go deep into your research on what they have to offer, and the various unique aspects of their campuses that appeal to you directly. That means taking time to do substantive research—it doesn’t mean finding the first class on microeconomics they offer and mentioning it in your essay, because that’s neither specific to the university (every university has an intro to microeconomics class!) nor is it specific to you (thousands of students will take a class like that).

2. Authenticity

When it comes to authenticity, colleges are looking for personality and individuality. That means talking narrowly and specifically about what interests you. If you love completing Rubik’s cubes as a hobby, that should go in the essay. If you love model trains, that should go in the essay — the key is just finding an outlet for it at the university (a cubing club? a hobbying club?). Don’t just talk generally about the “incredible career opportunities” — what specifically is going to be great for you?

3. Commitment

When it comes to commitment, universities want to see that you’re the type of person who’s had experience committing to extracurricular activities and your various communities in the past, and that you intend to do so at their school in the future. You can express this eagerness to commit in ways small and large—it can be as simple as saying something like “I plan to build on a passion for community service that began in high school by joining tutoring club at Harvard.” Little additions like that show that you value your commitment to things you did in the past and plan to continue building on that commitment in the future.

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The Different Types of Supplemental Essay Questions

Broadly speaking, there are eight main supplemental essay types. Below we explore these types AND offer some Top Tips on how to answer them!

1. The ‘Why us? / Why you?’ Question

For a ‘why us’ prompt, your focus should be on

  • What does the school offer?
  • How does it align with your interests, passions, and values?

The college is asking you: “why are you choosing us?” For a ‘why you’ essay, your focus should be on (1) your interests, passions, and values and (2) how they align with the school’s offerings. The college is asking you: “why should we choose you?”

How to Answer this Question?

The ‘Why us’ / ‘Why you’ questions are two sides of the same coin, but the order in which you present the items, and the amount of the essay you spend on them is reversed for each.

Ultimately, your goal with this essay should be to sincerely, authentically, and excitedly tell admissions committees what you will get out of going to their school in particular, and what you will contribute to their school as a student there. Which specific opportunities will you take advantage of? How will you bring your skills and past experiences to bear as a leader and collaborator on their campus?

Top 3 "Why This School?" Essay Tips

2. The Academic Interest Essay

These essays ask you to explain your intended choice of major, or if you don’t have one, your academic interests in general. They are typically ‘short’ answer questions - with universities often asking for responses in 150-250 words.

How to Answer this Question?

When answering this prompt you must address three questions:

  • Why you want to study your elected future major area of study (or if you are undecided, you’ll need to write about your primary area(s) of academic interest)?
  • What your your goals are for the future?
  • How pursuing this course of study will help you to achieve them?

You don’t need to know exactly what you plan to do in the future, but it’ll make your essay a lot stronger to have a few ideas and try to develop those ideas with a bit of detail!

3. Describe an extracurricular

Tell us about an extracurricular activity you’re involved in and how it has shaped you. Once again these questions normally ask for a 150-250 word response. In these essays you explore one of your extracurriculars in greater depth.

How to Answer this Question?

In this essay, it’s more important to talk about something that matters to you than it is to talk about something that is impressive. With this question, admissions officers want to know

  • Which item on your activities list is most important to you, and why?
  • What is something about your participation in that activity that we can’t learn elsewhere on your application?
  • What you have learned through your experience doing that activity that you can take into the future?
  • How this extracurricular positively impact others and/or embody your values?

4. The Meaning of Community

Colleges may word these questions somewhat like this: “Our college campus is all about community and valuing a diverse group of people. In what ways do you value community? How have you contributed to communities in the past? What would you bring to our community?”

As you can see in this case you need to narrow down on what you would bring to this specific university’s community.

How to Answer this Question?

In asking this question, admissions officers are trying to find out: What in particular does our school have to offer that you’d like to get involved in as a future student? And what will you contribute or bring to the table as a student on our campus?

In answering these questions you must show how your past experience as part of a community informs what you’ll contribute.

My Brown Supplemental Essay

5. The Second Common App essay

These essays can vary in content just like the Common App essay, and they are similar in length (500-650 words). They might ask you to write about

  • A person who has inspired you
  • Write about an experience that has shaped how you approach the world
  • Use a quote as a starting place to tell them about your perspective.

How to Answer this Question?

This supplemental essay type typically asks you to write a 500-650 word piece using a usually broad prompt to guide your answer. Writing this essay is like writing a second Common App essay - but you must be sure to pick a new topic that explores a new area of your past, interests, personality or attributes.

My Harvard Supplemental Essay

6. Short Takes

Some colleges ask you to provide brief descriptions of yourself or things you like in 100 words or less — sometimes without even using complete sentences. They might ask for

  • What two adjectives your friends would use to describe you ?
  • Your favorite word?
  • What your favorite snack is?
  • Who (living or dead) you’d like to ask a question to, and what you’d ask them;
  • If you were teaching a class, what it’d be called?

How to Answer this Question?

These short answer questions can be hard to tackle! Top tips include: answer the question, but don’t repeat it, consider the underlying message you are sending, explain your answer and be specific!

7. The Write a Letter to Your Future Roommate Prompt

This prompt is pretty self-explanatory the aim of it being for admissions officers to gauge what you will bring to campus as an enthusiastic, passionate, intellectual and empathetic member of the college community. They can be creative, humorous, reflective, inspirational — whatever theme and style reflects your personality best.

How to Answer this Question?

These questions provide a great opportunity to show what you will bring to campus on micro level. Will you be the ball of energy that exudes positivity, or the reflective listener who is always there to lend a helping hand?  This question must be honestly and reflect a side of yourself that will provide a true insight as to who you are beyond the classroom.

8. Miscellaneous prompts

These are the creative or otherwise unusual prompts design a major

  • Design a class
  • What do you do for fun?”
  • Choose an image that represents you
  • What gets you excited about learning?

They typically vary in length and style. While not common, they can be great fun for applicants to create!

How to Answer this Question?

These questions vary, but some basic tips include: be personal (go deep!), be humble (no bragging!), be intellectually curious (show your love of learning) and be genuine (no platitudes or clichés).

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Final Thoughts

These tips are the foundation for writing great supplemental essays that enhance your college applications. However, these essays are only one piece of the package you’ll deliver when you click ‘submit.’ To learn how Crimson can help you tick all the boxes for a strong college application, click the link below and schedule a free one hour consultation with one of our Academic Advisors.

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