Making Your Peace with the Supplemental Essays

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.

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 your substance of your essay. Here’s a link to a table my students use. 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.

Tulane has a great How To for the Why College Essay on their admissions blog. Read it.

THE LEADERSHIP ESSAY: Leadership doesn’t necessarily mean captain or officer. Leadership is more than a title, it’s about what you do. How are you a leader: In your own life? In your family? Among your friends? In your school? In your community? 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.

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)

Research and discuss the following within your potential major:

  • Classes you are excited by on their campus (look at course offerings)

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.

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 those challenges; 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.

More Phoenix, Less Ashes (I wish I could take credit for that metaphor — I think it’s also from a story u/Ninotchka shared on a2c)

  1. Address your issue or circumstance BRIEFLY and be straightforward. Don’t dwell on it.

DISCIPLINARY ISSUES ESSAY (See More Phoenix, Less 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.

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: School Traditions, Classes, Profs, Research Opportunities, Clubs and Activities, Where you learned your research (website, tour, virtual visit, info session, social media, school paper, etc)

Don’t: Write a one size fits all essay or Use the WRONG name of the college!

SUGGESTION: Organize your supplemental essays. I suggest using a spreadsheet and organizing your supplemental essay by colleges and common supplemental essays. 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.

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.

If you’d rather see all this in a presentation format, here’s a link.



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College Admissions Consultant. Mindfulness in College Admissions. Author: Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit.