What are supplemental essays & how do I write one?

Posted on 5th July 2021

There are many unique things about the 1500+ US universities, one of which is that each institution generally requires applicants to write a supplemental, or college-specific, essay. This is in addition to the main 650-word personal essay required as part of the Common Application (the main portal for US applications). These essays are different from anything UK students will have written in school, and from the Common Application essay, so it’s good to know a few things about supplemental essays before getting started.

Supplemental essays range in length from only a few words to around 650. Although it varies, each university typically sets 1-3 supplements, and one usually asks why students are interested in that particular university. Universities are asking this question because the main purpose of the supplemental essay is to assess fit: how well a student’s passions and strengths would match the specific type of community that a university offers. So, paying attention to the types of questions colleges ask in their supplemental essays can give you important information about colleges’ values. This can help you assess whether you would be a good fit at that institution.

For example, Columbia University has a strong core curriculum with lots of required reading, and one of their supplemental essays asks applicants to list books they have enjoyed reading over the past year, both in school and for fun. When faced with this question, some students may wonder, ‘If I don’t read for fun, what should I write here?’ Rather than puzzling over an answer, it may be better to see this as a sign that a curriculum like Columbia’s with lots of required reading is unlikely to suit your particular learning style, and that you may be a better fit at a college with a different type of curriculum.

Another good example of a college whose supplemental essay prompts reflect its values is the University of Chicago. UChicago is known for asking unusual questions for its supplemental essays, and you can see examples below:

  • It's said that history repeats itself. But what about other disciplines? Choose another field (chemistry, philosophy, etc.) and explain how it repeats itself.
  • What can actually be divided by zero?

You can read an archive of UChicago’s supplemental essay prompts over the years here . Again, when encountering unique essay questions, you want to ask yourself why the college may be taking this approach. In the case of UChicago, they seem to be looking for students who have a playful intellect, and enjoy thinking outside the box. If you find these types of questions difficult or uninspiring, that might indicate that the academic environment of UChicago isn’t going to be the best fit for you. Don’t be discouraged if you’re stumped by one college’s supplemental essay questions, though! Just keep researching lots of other colleges, and soon you’ll find questions that you’re excited to answer.

Although UChicago’s supplemental essay questions are unique, other colleges will have more predictable types of prompts, and you may see the same questions cropping up in supplemental essays from different colleges. Often, students are asked to expand on a particular extracurricular activity or leadership experience, so by drafting some ideas on this early on, you will have a bank of writing to draw on when you have finalised your college lists. Something to avoid, though, is using the exact same piece of writing for multiple college essays. Make sure if you’re re-using content, that you still tweak it a bit to tailor it to each specific college.

How can you make sure you write strong supplemental essays? These are very important pieces of writing: in the eyes of some university representatives, the ‘why this university’ essay can hold even more weight than the main Common Application essay. The main way you can do this is by thoroughly researching each college on your list before starting to write. This may seem like a daunting task—especially when supplemental essays are short, and there are so many things to do for US applications generally. However, by taking time to do this (ideally in the spring and summer of year 12) you can not only ensure that your essays will be good, but also that you will find colleges that fit you. This is key to ensuring a good overall college experience, as well as boosting your chances of admission.

To find out more about colleges on your list, you can attend online events: college fairs are great ways to learn about universities that may not be on your radar, but match your passions and learning style. You can also reach out directly to admissions officers, whose email addresses are generally available on university websites. Using universities’ websites to find out information about classes offered in your area of interest is also beneficial. Does one course or professor stand out to you as interesting? Look for their lectures online- this would be a great talking point for a supplemental essay.

Regarding the writing style of supplemental essays, you don’t have to think as much about crafting your story and having a literary writing style as you do for the main Common App essay. But you still want to make sure your essay is well-written and engaging, and connects specific information about what you’ve done to your personal motivations and values; those values should match those of the particular college. Even for the more objective or academic questions, you want to draw a connection of some kind to your personal qualities and experience.

For help with your supplemental and Common Application essays, you can get in touch with UES Education. Our essay tutors can help you with brainstorming and drafting, and if you also need help with college research generally, our college counselling service can guide and support you. For more info, email info@ueseducation.com!

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