College Supplemental Essays That Worked: Tips & Inspiration

August 15, 2018

As summer winds down, it’s time to start thinking about supplemental essays as well! How do they fit into your college application?

College supplemental essays are what makes the application process so challenging. With students applying to 5-8 schools and each school requiring 2-3 additional writing supplements, students are looking at writing 25 essays (including the personal statement!) in 4 months time.

That doesn’t end up being a lot of time, especially given the effort that goes into brainstorming, writing and editing each essay.

While it’s tempting, students shouldn’t reuse application essays. Most supplemental essays prompts are tailored to the university and reflects what the university is looking for in their student body. Thus, you should also tailor your response to the schools you’re applying to in order to demonstrate good fit.

Supplemental essays may initially seem tedious, but they offer applicants a great opportunity to share more about themselves. You can elaborate on your extracurriculars, your interest in a specific major, your cultural background, or just something unique about yourself that’s not represented in your academics or resume.

Here are 5 supplemental essay writing tips to help you make the most out of them and craft a winning application:

Supplemental Essay Tip 1: Bigger Picture

View your application holistically. Don’t just focus on your personal statement or your supplemental essays, or even your SAT/ACT score as individual components of your application. If they are reviewed by the admissions office altogether, you should aim to do the same. Think of the bigger picture.

Why is this important? To make sure you’ve highlighted everything you want to about yourself in your application. Think strategically about your grades, test scores, classes you took, extracurriculars and recommendation letters—what will each of these components highlight about you? These are things that reflect your high school career that you can no longer change. So consider these anchoring points that you can build off of. 

Is there a particular passion of yours that isn’t readily apparent from reviewing other parts of your application? Maybe you want to devote more room to discussing a specific major you want to pursue. Or perhaps it’s an extracurricular you dedicated 4 years too that didn’t get much airtime in your personal statement. While your personal statement should highlight the most integral part of your identity, your supplements are a great place to elaborate on aspects of your candidacy that more fully develop you as an applicant. Remember to tie your essays back to why you’re a good fit for the schools you’re applying to.

Read more: UChicago Supplemental Essay Prompts 2018-2019

Supplemental Essay Tip 2: Do Your Research

Supplemental essay prompts are developed by the university’s admissions office, and are often inspired by past successful applicants. You can tell a lot about a university based on their supplemental essay prompts and what they want to know more about from their applicants. In order to respond accordingly, it’s important you do your research.

Research comes in many different ways. You can explore and read the university website or blog, follow them on social media channels, reach out to professors or current students, or visit campus. The point is to learn as much as you can about the school you’re applying to. More than being able to respond to the essay prompts, it’s crucial to make sure you’re applying to the right school for you. Consider incorporating details from the information session or the overnight stay that highlight aspects of the school that appeal to you. It’s also an opportunity to discuss a fact that may be lesser known or speak to an experience that’s personal to you; the more specific you can be about your interest in the school, the better.

Supplemental Essay Tip 3: Know Your Essay Prompts

Universities that require additional supplemental essays usually come in 4 categories of prompts. They will either ask you to respond to one of these prompts, or a combination of the following:

1. ‘Why Us’ School Specific Supplement

This is probably the most common supplemental essay question that is required. With increasing applications every year, universities want to be able to set applicants apart based on why they want to attend their institution. Do applicants really understand what the university stands for? Do they know what the campus culture is like and would they be a good fit? And finally, if accepted, how would they contribute to university’s community?

This is where your research is important. Based on your understanding of the university, respond in relation to your own strengths. This then ties back to thinking about the bigger picture. Is there a quality that makes the university a great fit for you and vice versa? Or a specific major you’re interested in that would be best studied at this institution? This is how all these different elements come together!

Big universities with many different undergraduate schools and colleges will typically offer this as their only additional supplement. If you need help on this particular supplemental essay, here are some tips and examples for the Why NYU supplemental essay and the Why Cornell supplemental essay

2. Extracurricular Supplement

Some universities will ask you to elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. This is a great opportunity for you to share more about your extracurricular resume, especially if you haven’t been able to highlight too much of it in your personal statement. If you come across this supplement, choose the extracurricular that was most important to you, or perhaps the one you’d like to continue to pursue in college.

Admissions offices ask for this supplement to see how you’ve engaged in your community, what you enjoy doing outside of the classroom, and what you’ve learned by participating in it. College isn’t just about going to class, so they want to see how else you’d potentially engage with the rest of the student body if given the opportunity.

This supplement is often disguised as a community question. For example, how have you contributed to your community and what would you contribute to our community? Schools like MIT and Princeton both ask for this supplement.

3. Unique Question Supplement

This supplement is usually the one that stumps most applicants. Universities will offer multiple thought provoking essay prompts for applicants to respond to. While it gives students a lot of freedom to be creative and share something different about themselves, it also takes up a lot of time when they are brainstorming and responding to this prompt.

The most stressful part of the process is just breaking down the essay prompts to figure out what they are really trying to ask you. Take Boston College’s supplemental essay prompts for example. All the prompts are 2-3 sentences long and cover a lot ground. Follow our blog to get the breakdown of all the different supplemental essay prompts. It’ll make it easier for you to choose which one to respond to, and what to write about.

Finally, don’t forget to think about the bigger picture. Go back to the qualities you want to show off with your application and see if there is an essay prompt that gives you the opportunity to do that.

4. Short Questions

Last but not least, there are the short questions. A few universities will have a few questions for you to list out your favorite film, book, website, role model, and so on. This is another way for the admissions office to learn more about you as an individual. Don’t agonize over these short questions and waste too much time on them. Just be genuine about who you are and let your voice come through in how you answer these (meaning word choice and tone). It’ll read authentically to the admissions officer if you do. 

Supplemental Essay Tip 4: Be Genuine

If there’s one advice that is constantly reiterated by people in the college admissions field, it’s this: “Be Genuine.” It seems intuitive, but it is a hard to do when you are trying to appeal to these selective universities to choose you over thousands of other applicants. It goes without saying that you certainly should not lie about anything in your application, and also be careful you’re not exaggerating any of your achievements. When applicants try to make certain activities sound more impressive than they are, this often backfires. Same goes for trying to sound too mature or intellectual; if your essay doesn’t sound like your writing, it’s easy to spot (admissions officers have been doing this a long time!). Give the admissions officers a chance to know the real you, and they, too, will give you a chance at their university.

Read more: UNC Chapel Hill 2018-2019 Essay Prompts

Supplemental Essay Tip 5: Pay Attention to Detail & Plan Ahead

At best, you won’t have any supplemental essays to write (woohoo!). At worst, you’ll have 24 additional writing requirements. So, finalize your school list and create a list of supplemental essay prompts you have to respond to. You don’t want to find out late in the game you’ve missed a prompt for one of your schools, and have to scramble last minute.

One more time: think about the bigger picture. Consider all the major themes you want to convey with your essays, then attribute them accordingly to each essay prompt. Look at your application as whole and strategize what you should emphasize in what essay. It’ll be helpful to plan ahead, so it doesn’t feel like you’re starting fresh every time you begin a new supplemental essay—you have a plan.

Don’t slack off just because these are “supplemental” essays. They should receive the same kind of attention as your personal statement. Get your friends, family or a trusted teacher to proofread them. Everything you submit with your application should be meaningful and impactful. Make everything count.


Applying to college next year?
View the application files, essays and advice of accepted students.

If there are any additional supplemental essay prompts you need help breaking down, comment the school name below! For supplemental essay examples, you can now search by supplemental essay topics on our search page. Or, you can check out our curated packages to find what you’re looking! For further access, upgrade to our premium plans offer different levels of profile access and data insights that can help you get into your dream school. 

About The Author

Frances Wong
Frances Wong

Frances was born in Hong Kong and received her bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University. She loves super sad drama television, cooking, and reading. Her favorite person on Earth isn’t actually a member of the AdmitSee team - it’s her dog Cooper.


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