You’ve already spent weeks crafting the perfect personal statement… and then you realize that most of your top choice colleges also require supplemental essays. You’ll find these hiding in different nooks and crannies of the common app, usually under “Writing Supplement” but sometimes under “Questions→ Writing” or “Questions → Activities.” Supplemental questions range from short responses as small as 30 words, to full length essays up to 1000 words. The goal of the supplement is to answer one question: “Why are you an especially good match for our school, and not better off at a similar one?” 

Describe one of your extracurricular interests/passions. How do you intend to pursue it in college?

Top colleges that use this question: Princeton, Harvard

For this question, starting off anecdotally is key. Take the reader through how your passion came about, how any challenges you faced helped you grow, and how you foresee it figuring into your life in the future. Do some research about the extracurricular organizations at the college and indicate one or two groups you’d want to join there to continue developing your passion. 

Describe your academic interests or career/professional goals, how they came about, how you intend to pursue them in college?

Top colleges that use this question: Columbia, Cornell, Yale

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 started off hating the subject but grew to love it as you understood it more. At the end of the essay, connect this towards a potential career in this field and how you intend to use this career to “make the world a better place.” Be specific about how you intend to benefit society through this career so that it doesn’t come off sounding cliche. 

Describe a significant or unusual moment/failure/achievement in your life and what you learned from it/how it shaped you. 

Top colleges that use this question: Amherst, Harvard

This question is to see how you react to challenges and difficult decisions, as those moments often reveal the true values of a person. 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 what you learned from this moment. Ideally, your response to this question should be mainly anecdotal, but with plenty of room for reflection.

Describe a person who has been influential or inspiring to you in some way. 

Top colleges that use this question: Princeton 

This is a question where it’s entirely okay to talk about someone else — but remember that it’s still an attempt for the admissions officers to gauge your character in some way. At the end of the essay, the reader should come away with the feeling that although you’re writing about someone else, this person has had such a significant impact on your character that it’s influenced who you are today. 

Describe a community you consider yourself a part of/ how this community has influenced you/ describe the impact you’ve made on this community 

Top colleges that use this question: Yale, UVA 

Feel free to define community in whatever way you choose for 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.

Why do you want to attend our school?/How will our school nourish your academic/ intellectual/career goals?

Top colleges that use this question: Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, NYU

Admissions officers understand that the most realistic plans are flexible ones, but they still should be pointed. So take the time to research what opportunities you would have at your disposal as a student at that school. Ask yourself honestly not only how you would navigate those resources, but also be sure to think about why those opportunities fit your interests and match your goals. Visit the academic department website of your intended major for each school. 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. 

Another resource that may be helpful is checking 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 that you’d want to conduct research alongside. 

A list of books you’ve read recently/ your favorite book(s)

Top colleges that use this question: Columbia, Harvard, Stanford

When responding to this prompt, you should be really deliberate in the books you choose to include. One approach is to order the list to show progression of getting deeper into a topic (e.g. AP US History textbook, A People’s History of the United States, The Story of American Freedom, etc.) You could also list all of the books you’ve read from different genres and fields to demonstrate your eclectic taste. Listing is sufficient, but if you decide to write more, you should write concisely about why you read them and what you got out of them. In general, don’t try to act “smart,” other parts of your application will do that for you. The list of books you’ve read should be an accurate snapshot of your personality. 

Discuss a significant issue 

Top colleges that use this question: Dartmouth, Pomona, Stanford

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 not address 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, many seniors this year will likely write about climate change. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with writing about that, it will be difficult to write a standout essay on a topic that’s trending on Instagram. If you’re truly more passionate about climate change than any other issue, it’s okay to write about it, but make sure you focus on the unique ways you personally fight climate change. If you want to cite some leaders within the movement, mention people like Isra Hirsi and Xiye Bastida instead of bigger name people like Greta Thunberg to show how deeply engaged you are with the issue. 

Regardless of the prompts you respond to, you should be mindful of certain constants. Your interests will change, your preferences will come and go, but the values of a university are unchanging. If you’re serious about that school, you should know those values. Log on to that university’s website and look through as much material as you can – their mission statement, the college’s leadership, their history, student publications, even their YouTube channel. Talk to as many current students from that school as possible; visit the school and talk to students around campus if you can. While there’s no need to quote their mission statement in your supplements, your writing should be informed by the same kind of mindset and values that you and the university share.

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