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How to Tackle the Supplemental Essays

Sep 8, 2023

For high school seniors applying to college, the fall semester not only brings the excitement of returning to school, but also the release of many schools’ supplemental essay prompts. In addition to the personal statement, many schools require students to submit additional essays that address unique topics that the admissions committees are curious about. Supplemental questions range from 30-word short responses to full length essays of up to 1,000 words. Regardless of the length, the goal of the supplement is to answer two fundamental questions: Why are you a perfect candidate for this school? And why is this school the right place for you to continue your educational journey?

The Experiences Question

Top colleges that use this question: Princeton, Hopkins, Harvard, Tulane, UVA

The experiences question asks you to reflect on how your life experiences have shaped you and how they will allow you to meaningfully contribute to a given campus community. A strong response to this prompt will begin with an engaging anecdote relaying a particular experience that was formative for you. Then, reflect on the way your experience has informed your values, and connect that to 1) the values of the university and 2) specific academic and extracurricular opportunities the university offers and the communities of which you would be a part. The experience you choose does not have to be monumental or life-altering—but it should communicate insight about who you are and what you value.

The Question About Your Interests and Goals

Top colleges that use this question: Brown, UNC

Many colleges require students to reflect on their unique interests and goals and how they hope to pursue them at the particular college to which they are applying. Much like the last question, start off anecdotally and descriptively, and describe how the interest came about — perhaps it’s always been a fascination, or you initially hated the subject but grew to love it as you understood it more. At the end of the essay, connect this to your future career in this field and how you intend to use this career to “make the world a better place.” Be specific and intentional with your answer, and tailor your response to the values and offerings of each school to which you apply.

The Adversity Question

Top colleges that use this question: Columbia

This question helps the admissions committee understand how you react to challenges and difficult situations, as those moments often reveal a person’s true values and character. Be careful to be neither too self-deprecating nor too arrogant in your response to this question — it’s okay to admit weakness, but be sure to emphasize how you grew or learned from this moment. Ideally, your response to this question should combine an anecdote with introspection and reflection.

The Influential Person Question

Top colleges that use this question: UPenn, Yale

While your response to these questions will naturally highlight the qualities of another person that has impacted you, remember that it’s still an opportunity for the admissions officers to gauge your character and values in some way. The question is phrased differently by different schools—while Yale requires you to describe the person (noting that it cannot be a family member), UPenn asks you to craft a letter to someone important to you. Regardless of the structure, the reader should come away with the feeling that although you’re writing about someone else, this person’s influence provides a window into who you are today.

The Diversity & Community Question

Top colleges that use this question: Duke, Emory

Some schools include a question related to the communities you are a part of or, relatedly, the ways in which you will contribute to their diverse campus communities. Unless the school specifies the particular type of community/diversity they want you to reflect on (as in Duke’s optional question about gender and sexual orientation), feel free to define community in whatever way you choose when you answer this question. Community can mean a cultural, geographic, ethnic, or religious community, or it can mean a community that’s less traditional — perhaps the orchids at the florists’ where you work or the patients at the hospital where you volunteer. A creative approach to this question would pique the admissions officers’ interest. Focus on how you fit into this community, both in terms of how it has shaped you into the person you are, as well as how you have impacted the community.

The “Why Our School” Question

Top colleges that use this prompt: Yale, UChicago, Tufts

To answer this question specifically and compellingly, take the time to research what opportunities you would take advantage of as a student at the school to which you are applying. Ask yourself honestly how you would navigate those resources, considering particularly how those opportunities fit your interests and match your goals. Visit the academic department website of your intended major. Once there, browse through the resources and special opportunities they offer their students. Try to single out opportunities (such as study abroad programs, research opportunities, multi- or interdisciplinary academic programs) that are unique to that school and fit to your intended academic or professional pursuits in college. You can also check out recent research-related breakthroughs in the “News” tab on the academic department’s website. Look for articles that match your interests or mention professors whose research intrigues you.

The Rapid-Fire List

Top colleges that use this question: USC, Stanford

When responding to these short answer prompts, you should be really deliberate in the items, characteristics and/or experiences you choose to include. For instance, USC asks applicants to describe themselves in three words—in doing so, students should choose words that are highly descriptive and avoid clichés as much as possible. Meanwhile, Stanford asks students to name five things that are important to them, a question that is deliberately open-ended. Students should be creative, including creative answers as concrete as a family heirloom or as abstract as a quality they value in the people they surround themselves with.

The Roommate Question

Top colleges that use this prompt: Harvard, Stanford

Colleges and admissions officers are looking for applicants who can positively contribute to their campus communities. This prompt provides a space for applicants to reveal unique aspects of their personality and upbringing that may not have been mentioned in previous essays. In addition, seeing how you would interact with another member, or members, of the community shows admissions officers how you’d fit in on campus. This is the space where you can share your idiosyncrasies and quirks that make you, you. The key to approaching this prompt is being authentic and genuine in your tone and your writing.

The Significant Issue / Civic Engagement Question

Top colleges that use this question: Princeton, Stanford, BU

These prompts ask you to reflect on an important global issue or to share how you intend to use your education in a socially responsible and civically-minded way. The key to responding to this prompt is to avoid sounding cliche. You have to be plugged into current events to know what problems need solving, but try not to pick the most obvious issues. If you do choose to write about a hot topic, make sure you approach the essay with nuance and creativity. For instance, while there’s nothing inherently wrong with writing about climate change, it may be difficult to write a standout essay on a topic that’s so widely discussed and debated. For any issue you choose, make sure to root your response in why this issue matters to you and how you have taken action to address it in some way—doing so will not only help your essay stand out, but also tell the admissions committee more about you through your perspective on the issue.

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