Do you hear that sound?
That’s the sound of groans and moans rising up from all over America as college-bound kids think about writing their college essays. Yes, essays. On top of the personal essay, many schools ask prospective students to write supplemental essays. As a result, students feel pressured not only to write a kick-butt personal essay but also to answer additional prompts that often feel like trick questions.
I know that the supplemental essays can be tough, especially prompts like “Why This School” or “Why Do You Want to Major in Art?” You have 150 words or less to write a cohesive, thoughtful answer. How do they expect you to do that?
It may not feel like it, but supplemental essays present a fantastic opportunity to speak directly to the admissions officers reading your application. Like your personal statement, supplemental essays help the college get to know you as an individual, which helps them assess your potential contribution. They want the big picture. As Lisa Heffernan pointed out in her recent article for The Washington Post, “What College Applicants Are Getting Wrong,” admissions officers want to read about “what you want to say” and not “what you think we want to hear.”
That’s why you need to treat the essays, especially the supplemental essays, as your secret weapons.
Here’s how you do it with some of the most common supplemental essay prompts.
“Why This College?”
Basically, a “Why This College?” essay is actually a “Why You at Our College” essay. The important part is that you must frame your “Why Me” answer in terms of how the school gains from your presence. What only you can bring to the college. Why they need you. And because it’s about your individual contributions, only you can write it.
As such, you cannot phone-in this essay by writing a template and sending it to a bunch of colleges. Unlike personal statements, which can be recycled with different schools, the “Why This College” essay needs to be tailored to the specific school. You’re writing a love letter to the school, after all.
So use it as an opportunity to convince the college of how much research you’ve done, how thoughtful you are, and what you bring to the table. Make it hard for them to see their campus without you. Even though the word count may be small, spend time on this essay. (Check out my post here for more advice about this supplemental essay.)
Tulane has a great “How-To” for the Why College Essay on their admissions blog. You should check it out.
“Why Your Major/Extracurriculars/Interests?”
This essay causes a lot of frustration for the kids I counsel. How could you possibly boil down the reasons behind why you want to study engineering in 150 words? Why you played soccer for four years? Why you’re a founding member of your school’s film appreciation club? On top of that, how are you supposed to distinguish yourself from the 500 billion other kids trying to do the same thing?
You focus on what YOU find meaningful. They don’t want you to get stuck in the weeds trying to explain details of your intended major, extracurriculars, or whatever.
Consider these questions: What makes the major so special to you? What connects you with your extracurricular? What drew you to your hobby?
Then, tie it back to the school: How will you take advantage of its academic setting to further pursue your major/activity/interest? How will your passion contribute to the college’s environment?
The additional information supplement essay allows you to provide context or details that are necessary to understand your application fully. It’s the place to explain a dip in grades, a long absence, or anything else that you feel the admissions office needs to form a complete picture of you. Furthermore, because the personal statement is more about you as a complex individual, the additional information section is the best place to discuss mental health challenges, learning disabilities, and sexuality or gender issues. This will help you avoid defining yourself by a single characteristic.
The key here is to focus more on your triumphs instead of your challenges. Colleges will want to know about the obstacles you faced. Address them by:
- Briefly explaining your issue or what happened,
- Focusing on your recovery and how you’re handling your problems,
- Stressing how the experience and your recovery have made you a stronger person and student.
This way, your essay is not about a bad thing that happened to you but how you have met and overcame a difficult challenge. That’s a much more compelling essay.
Hopefully, you won’t need to use this section, but it’s not the end of the world if you do. We’re all human, and humans make mistakes. Admissions officers feel the same way. Returning to “What College Applicants Are Getting Wrong,” Georgia Tech Director of Undergraduate Admissions Rick Clark wants to see applicants being upfront and truthful about their mistakes. “‘It’s a character thing. We are building a community, we don’t expect perfection, but we do want character,’” he explains.
As with the additional information essay, this supplemental essay empowers you to admit your mistake and focus on how your experience has made you a more mature person and devoted student.
You’ll approach the Disciplinary Action Essay by:
- Briefly and openly addressing what happened,
- Owning up to what you did without deflecting or making excuses,
- Focusing on how you resolved the issue,
- Stressing how you are a stronger student because of the lesson(s) you learned.
The supplemental essays are your chance to tell admissions officers, in your own voice, more about yourself. Despite those confusing prompts, you have the upper hand here because you have a ready and willing audience just waiting to listen. Approach these supplemental essays with careful attention and turn the essay section into your loudest, proudest endorsement.
If you want to learn more about supplemental essays, or if you need more college admissions advice, head over to Amazon and pick up a copy of my book, Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. You can also find me on r/ApplyingToCollege, drop into the comments, or reach out to me on Twitter or Instagram.
Good luck and stay awesome!
Carolyn Caplan is an independent college counselor, a moderator on r/ApplyingToCollege, and the author of Hey AdmissionsMom: Real Talk from Reddit. She’s on a one-woman mission to bring mindfulness to college admissions.