What You Need to Know About Supplemental Essays

Writing up a supplemental essay.
What You Need to Know About Supplemental Essays

As hundreds of colleges and universities turn to the Common App for their application and admissions process, students can expect to see the supplemental essay requirement regularly as they work through the sections of their applications. With admissions officers striving to find quality candidates who will add value to their schools' classrooms and communities academically, socially, culturally, etc., the importance of these supplemental essays increases exponentially.

What does this mean?

It means that prospective students will have a better chance for acceptance if they:

  1. Start their applications early and remain focused and disciplined until the application is submitted

  2. Spend quality time brainstorming ideas, experiences, and insights that are personally relevant

  3. Research the college to the point of knowing it inside and out

  4. Align themselves with what's offered by the school

  5. Set up a strong support team for essay edits and feedback

What is a supplemental essay and how long should it be?

A supplemental essay is a written statement that is submitted in addition to the main application. Its length depends on the word count or character limit set by each college, and the topic choices vary depending on what each school's admissions team wishes to know more about.

What is the importance of a supplemental essay?

The importance of the supplemental essay lies in the opportunity for applicants to provide--and admissions officers to gather--additional details that were likely not included in other parts of the application. Oftentimes, there is an essay question or two in the main section of an application, though these tend to be generic and broad in view. The information gathered through these may work sufficiently if the amount of applicants are minimal and/or there are a lot of spaces available. But, when spots are limited and in high demand, the added perspectives and information that can come through in supplemental essays offer deeper levels of insight into candidates. In highly competitive circumstances, finding the uniqueness in people--their personalities, character, interests, values, and more--lead to better selection results that benefit not only the applicants who are selected, but the colleges as well.

What angle should you take when writing a supplemental essay response?

Strategically, you should always start by identifying what the prompt is specifically asking for. Read it very carefully and do not let your focus veer. To be sure that you're processing the prompt accurately, have someone else review it and discuss what he or she read. It's very easy to detract from the prompt or question simply because our minds are often quick to start thinking about answers even before we're finished reading. Just like the tendency to start thinking of what to say even before a speaker is done talking, we can easily head down the wrong path when we don't attend to finishing the task of reading a prompt in its entirety first, and then processing it as it's written. If the prompt is referencing a quote from a history textbook and asks for an analysis of that quote, you should consider taking an academic approach with your writing style, phrasing, and structure. On the other hand, if it asks you to write a letter to your future roommate, you'll likely be better off coming from a more creative, personal approach--one that reveals your personality, charisma, and relationship skills. There would need to be a degree of structure, one that invites emotional flow more than informational flow (as in the first example). Then there are those questions that ask about your goals or what you've learned from past experiences. These often fall in between an academic style of writing and a personable style. It'll be important to present your thoughts in an organized fashion, but infuse your personality and style into the flow of your writing. Differentiating between professional, academic, casual, creative, and other styles and approaches to writing is an important step to take when you start your brainstorming and writing processes. It's often helpful to discuss this with others who are, at minimum, familiar with the college admissions process as hearing other perspectives can be very influential in choosing an angle that works well for the prompt at hand. In most cases, you'll want to use personal anecdotes to draw your readers in. Being relatable is created through shared emotions, and structuring your writing so it reads like your personal story can leave lasting impressions.

If there are multiple prompts to choose from, which one should you pick?

Read each prompt carefully, paying close attention to how you feel about each one. Notice any reflexive reactions that may occur. For example, one may cause you to cringe or it may trigger a bad memory. Or, there may be one that makes you smile as you wind up reminiscing about a recent event or result. If the question sparks a positive reaction in you, mark it as one to consider. If you end up with a few options, sleep on it and revisit it when your mind is fresh from a good night's sleep. If, after a day or two, you still can't decide, just start writing to one of the prompts and see where it leads. Sometimes, when you have a few paragraphs in front of you and you can see where it's heading, you'll be able to determine if there's a strong future to the response or if you're nearing a dead-end.

What are admissions officers looking for in these supplemental essays?

To be honest, only the admissions officers who are assigned to read your application will have the answer to this question. Some schools may have rubrics that teams work off of; but, even with rubrics, the process of evaluating people's writing is very subjective work. It's often a moving target and it's rare, if ever, that guarantees can ever be made in who gets selected in the end.

That being said, here are some ideas that may offer direction in how to present yourself in these essays:

  1. Show that you've put effort into your response

  2. Offer something new that reviewers won't already know from reading other parts of your application

  3. Choose words that reflect your sincerity and genuineness

  4. Express eagerness to learn and grow

  5. Share your interests and curiosities

  6. Reveal originality and uniqueness in who you are, what you do, what you've done, and where you're going in life

  7. Discuss your passions and show how you're clearly invested in them

  8. Don't be repetitive in what you write

  9. Write about topics that may be completely unexpected (e.g., experiences and commitments) for those who may know you only academically

  10. Describe your thought processes and critical thinking ability

  11. Illustrate your personality traits, attitudes, outlook, beliefs, values, desires, preferences, motivations, inspirations

  12. What abilities, skills, knowledge, and expertise do you have that are not mentioned anywhere else in the application?

  13. Share the insights you've gained from experiences of successes and failure. How did you grow from them? How were they beneficial to you and/or others?

  14. How will you benefit and what are you looking forward to, if selected? How will you contribute to the college community?


Adding a deeper layer to the college application process, some schools require responses to supplemental essay prompts and questions in an attempt to uncover more about each applicant. Who are you? What value would you bring to the school community? How will you contribute to the learning environment and future opportunities offered at their school? Will you add to the school's successes, and if so, in what ways? Amount of words to respond to these essays depend on the instructions listed on each application, and the angle in which you write your response should align with what's being asked for. Before investing hours on piecing your words together for these supplemental essays, consider discussing your ideas with someone who is at least familiar with the college application process. Then, select the prompts that you resonate with, if you have several options to choose from. Ultimately, you'll want your genuine voice and style to come through in these essays so the person you are--not just as a scholar, but as a community member, leader, and future professional--shines through.

A final word…

There's so much more to each student beyond grades, test scores, number of clubs and extracurricular activities. Supplemental essays help admissions officers get to the heart of each person. As you tackle these essays for your college applications, do your best to stay true to who you are. Authenticity goes a very long way, and anything less can often be easily detected. Don't be afraid to reveal who you are and the unique value you bring to the table, whether it's through your personality, skills, insights, outlook, etc.. Also, remember, if you have any questions, support is just a click away! Contact us by clicking here and we'll get back to you as soon as possible.