Supplemental college application essays come in a vast range of topics and sizes and are often the biggest challenge for students after getting through the grueling initial application stages. These essays are crucial in the admissions process, as they provide a more personal and detailed context of your candidacy. They allow you to speak about more specific topics than the more general and broadly-structured personal statement or Common App essay that you submit in your primary application.
In this blog, our college essay advisors go over the general categories and purposes for the various supplemental essays you may have to navigate, and offer examples of short, medium, and lengthy supplemental essays.
Want us to help you? Applicants and students, book a free strategy call here. Universities, businesses, or student organizations representative, book a free call here.
Why Are Supplemental College Application Essays So Important?
Supplemental essay prompts are usually provided directly by colleges as part of the secondary application, after you’ve submitted your primary application. Some colleges ask for multiple essays of varying lengths while others may ask for just one long-form supplemental essay. The specific prompts and word count requirements vary widely between schools. Every admissions committee creates their own supplemental requirements, including secondary essay prompts, to help them form a holistic picture of the applicant and judge how well-suited they would be for their school.
At the outset, it’s vital to understand that the term “supplemental” does not mean optional or second in importance. A supplement fills or makes up for an absence or imbalance, and that’s precisely the role these essays play in your application. Think of it a bit like adding colored paint to a black and white drawing. Your high school resume, transcripts, and test scores have given admissions committees an initial sense of what your candidacy. Supplemental essays, when correctly attuned to the personal statement, create a more nuanced portrait of your as an applicant.
Your personal statement is a more high-level overview of your personal journey, with a broader scope, while your supplemental essays delve into the details. Via your responses to supplemental prompts, admissions committees want to know why you’re a good candidate based on specific criteria like your identity, background, opinions, experiences, or community impact, or why you want to pursue higher education at a specific school. The key is specificity: with word limits ranging from 150 on the lower end to 600 or more words on the high end, you’ll never have enough space to cover your entire life story. Instead, you’ll need to assess the question’s intent, really understand its boundaries, and respond as directly as possible.
For instance, a question asking why you want to attend a specific university is asking you to talk about what attracts you to that school and why you would be a good fit there. There isn’t any room for a general discussion of why higher education is inherently meaningful to you—you need to really know and be able to explain why you’re seeking admission in that university and not elsewhere. Similarly, for a question about your involvement in your community, you need to discuss your activities within that social context and not get lost in listing all the extracurricular activities you participated in since grade 9. The point of supplemental prompts is to learn more about your experiences in relation to what the schools wants to see in their applicants. You must answer the prompt as closely as possible so the schools can assess whether you are a good fit for them.
A frequent mistake students make is to assume that secondary essays aren’t important and can be written in a couple of days. That’s simply not true. While you can certainly re-visit some of the left-over materials from your Common App essay writing process for your supplemental essays, and the basic communication skills required are the same, you will still need to spend plenty of time doing in-depth planning, brainstorming, structuring, writing, editing, and revising to create impressive supplemental essays.
Pre-Writing Your Supplemental Essays
Supplemental essays present a unique challenge as they have to be written in a short period of time, typically in 2 weeks or a month. Colleges send out secondary applications only after receiving your primary application and they provide strict submission deadlines. Additionally, unlike your personal statement, it’s not always possible to write supplemental college essays in advance since colleges frequently change their exact prompts from one year to the next and secondary essays need to always be tailored in response to specific prompts. However, that doesn’t mean you have to wait till you actually receive your specific prompts to start work on the essays.
A good strategy to tackle advance work on supplemental college essays is to spend 2 to 3 weeks writing rough drafts of the most common supplemental college essay types. Depending on the colleges you’re applying to, you can focus on specific prompts they’ve frequently asked in previous years. You can also check out college essay examples to get a better idea of what kind of content you need to come up with.
As you’re working on your primary application in the summer before senior year of high school or in September/October of your senior year, you can spend a few minutes each day brainstorming ideas for the previous year’s secondary essay prompts from colleges you’re applying to and creating a few rough drafts. For instance, most colleges ask for the “why us” essay, so you should definitely brainstorm your answer to that question in advance for all the colleges you’re applying to.
The advantage of following this strategy is that you will probably be wrapping up your primary application, including your personal statement or Common App essay, just as you begin work on your secondaries. Writing an effective personal statement requires a lot of brainstorming, journaling, introspection, free writing, rough drafts, and revisions. In the process, you’re sure to have spent plenty of time identifying key experiences, events, incidents, and people in your life, and also thinking about your own strengths, weaknesses, motivations, ambitions, and failures. Not all of this would have made it into your personal statement, and you can re-use a lot of this rough material as inspiration for your supplemental essay content. Moreover, you would have already honed your structuring and writing skills working on your personal statement, and the basic written communication skills required for the secondary essays are the same.
The goal of this advanced writing process is to have ideas and inspiration ready for when you actually receive your specific essay prompts. All your pre-writing and brainstorming will give you plenty of base material to work with, and rather than starting from scratch, you can spend the critical time before your supplemental deadline tailoring your essays to respond to the specific prompts and word counts. Remember, this is going to be a very busy period for you: while different colleges have different supplemental application dates and timelines, they generally occur within a similar period of time, typically between October and November for early decision programs and December and January for regular applications. So, you’re bound to have some overlap between the secondary essay deadlines for different colleges you’re applying to. You might end up having to work on secondary essays for multiple colleges within the same 1 month period. That’s why it’s all the more important that you complete your brainstorming in advance and create a few rough drafts of essays in response to the most commonly expected prompts.
Now, let’s discuss some general trends and categories frequently used for supplemental college application essays.
How to Tackle Different Supplemental Essays Prompts
While these categories cover the general focus of most supplemental essays, it’s important to note that schools change their secondary and supplemental essay prompts regularly, sometimes every year, and as a result, topics and categories evolve over time. Nonetheless, these are the most common categories both historically and currently.
Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind while working on any essay type:
The School-Specific Supplemental Essay
What is it?
As we mentioned previously, this is one of the most frequently used supplemental college prompts. These are typically between 250-350 words in length, although this varies widely from school to school. This is actually one of the easiest types of secondary college prompts to answer. Students don’t usually choose their undergraduate institutions randomly, rather, they make their choice after careful deliberation and research. To answer the school-specific essays, use that research! Schools want to know you’re engaged with their overall mission and clearly understand their place in the world, as well as what you specifically hope to get out of the campus experience aside from a Bachelor’s degree.
Sample essay prompts
How to write this type of essay
- Provide specific details that tie to an overarching theme: It’s very important to set up the connection between your academic ambitions and what the college has to offer. Think deeply about what you hope to achieve and why you’ve identified this specific college. Back up your thesis with specific details about the college. It’s not enough to say – “I love XYZ college, and I’d love to pursue ABC major there.” The why is crucial. Remember, in this essay, colleges don’t want to see you simply discuss you and your journey; they want to know how that journey led you to them. Back up your claims with details about what attracts you to them, which could be anything from the campus and famous alumni, to the college’s unique values, or their innovative curriculum.
- Go beyond the obvious: This type of essay is, crucially, asking you to do your research and go beyond the obvious. Don’t just talk about a school’s generally known reputation or what’s on their homepage. Instead, try to identify specific projects, academic opportunities, research avenues, extracurriculars, or faculty that interest you, and relate them to your goals.
- Consider what you can do for them: Think not only about why this college is a great choice for you, but why you are a great choice for them. Why do you think you’ll fit into their campus? Are there college traditions you would be proud to continue? Can you contribute to any on-going projects or initiatives on campus? Demonstrate why they should choose you by using a concrete example.
The Extracurricular Essay
What is it?
In this essay, you may be asked to talk about a particularly meaningful extracurricular activity. You might have already covered the basic details of this activity in the activities section of your application, but supplemental essays dealing with your extracurricular activities get into more overtly personal territory. Remember, the intent here is not to simply get a rehash of your activities section or transcript; rather, in these essays, schools want you to get into the deeper aspects and psychological nuances of your involvement in those activities.
It’s important to keep in mind that most prompts will not directly reference extracurriculars, but the most likely answer to these kinds of prompt will include a discussion of an extracurricular activity. For instance, some colleges ask you to elaborate on an activity where you demonstrated leadership or what helps you explore your creative side.
Sample essay prompts
How to write this type of essay
- Pick the right activity: It’s important to pick the right activities to talk about in your supplemental essays. Research the school’s website and social media to see their mission, values, and what kind of qualities they value in their matriculants, and choose an activity that reflects these. While you obviously want to remain genuine in your essays, it does not mean you cannot be strategic. Choose an activity you know will resonate with the college you’re applying to. Another tip: If you’ve already discussed one activity in detail in your personal statement, avoid repeating that here. Additionally, don’t pick achievement-oriented activities just because you think this might impress the admissions committee. You’ve already communicated your achievements in the activities section – in this essay, you have a chance to share another side of your personality and show the admissions committee more of what makes you unique. So, you can either focus on activities you are passionate about but haven’t mentioned elsewhere, such as cooking, woodworking, non-competitive chess playing, and so on. Or pick a compelling angle for activities you’ve already mentioned. For instance, if you’ve noted being a musician in your application elsewhere, this essay would be an opportunity to discuss why and how it’s been meaningful in your life, and potentially the lives of others.
- Do not be repetitive: Think of the personal circumstances, feelings, failures, and learnings surrounding your extracurriculars and write an essay that elaborates on one of these aspects. For example, even if you do end up picking your top activity from your primary application to write about, make sure the essay you write covers a unique aspect of your experience that you haven’t discussed elsewhere in your application before. Continuing our previous example, don’t just cover the obvious aspects of musical performance, but get into the psychological impact of performing, and of what specific types or music have impacted you through immersive practice or playing.
Check out this infographic:
The Community/Diversity Essay
What is it?
This type of essay is often the hardest for students to navigate, and also comes with the longest minimum word count requirement, often 500 or more words. If you’ve had your head down in the grind of coursework and achievement-oriented activities for most of your time in high school, odds are, you haven’t had a lot of time to engage in community service or collective projects outside of school. In a sense, this is a supplemental essay that requires some advanced planning: volunteer or community service work is a widely-understood key to getting admitted to competitive universities, so you will need something to refer to in this regard. Moreover, in this essay more than any other, colleges want to see an account of meaningful experience rather than a mere description of activities performed. They’re looking for long-term involvement, thoughtful self-reflection, and a clear personal growth journey. It’s a lot to ask from a high school student writing a 500 word essay!
However, part of the brilliance of this type of essay is its flexibility. You don’t need to have built a new community center with your bare hands to have impacted your community. Maybe you’ve participated in a group project that benefitted other students, or maybe you took part in planning a school event. Even a part-time job likely had some impact on your neighbors and fellow citizens. You could also discuss “informal” activities, such as helping your elderly neighbor with her grocery shopping, helping your family with a cultural project, your background as a member of a minority group, and so on. Think creatively about the ways you’ve acted in the world, and from that, determine how those actions have impacted others.
Sample essay prompts
How to write this type of essay
- Find what makes you unique: If you’re having trouble identifying which communities you’ve been a part of, or which part of your identity to focus on, try the “what makes me unique?” angle. This is definitely something you would have brainstormed for your personal statement, so bring those notes out! We are all a part of various communities, whether we realize it or not, and we all contribute to them in our own unique way. You might have a unique skill or talent, or maybe it’s a personal quality that helped you deal with an issue in the community. Alternatively, maybe your background and identity are a key part of your life’s journey, and you have many experiences related to that. There’s no “wrong” community you could discuss, whether it’s a Dungeons and Dragons club you created with your friends, the ethnic community you’re a part of, or the neighborhood where you grew up. The key is to identify what makes you unique.
- Focus on your growth journey: The easiest way to discuss community engagement in a “meaningful” way is to focus on how you, individually, found growth and learning through your participation in a larger community, and how you simultaneously impacted them. No matter what the community is, the growth narrative is important. There has to be a clear two-way impact that demonstrates how your engagement and contributions affected those around you.
Create Your Own Class Essay
What is it?
One of the more creative type of essays, these prompts ask students to come up with their own class, reimagine a whole department, conceptualize their ideal lecture series, and so on. This essay is your chance to show your creative and out-of-the-box thinking, while also expanding upon your academic interests and sharing your passions with the admissions committee. This essay is essentially a more creative alternative to the “why this major” essay.
Sample essay prompts
How to write this type of essay
- Get creative: You can really use this essay topic to stand out from the crowd. Come up with a creative answer and expand upon it with fun, yet thoughtful details that show your intellectual curiosity and unique perspective on the world.
- Align your answer with the college: Remember, you’re being asked to come up with a course for the specific college you’re applying to. What’s their mission? What kind of curriculum do they have? What type of learning do they value? Find out the answer to these questions and incorporate these details in your essay. For example, if the college you’re applying to values an interdisciplinary learning environment, try to come up with a course that incorporates both science and humanities concepts.
- Use your experience: This prompt is also the school’s way to learn more about your personal goals and experiences. Try to ground your motivation for creating this course in your own life. For example, if you want to create a curriculum that covers the influence of fashion on punk rock culture, try to connect it to your own interests or skills, such as a sewing hobby or your love of underground culture.
The Major or Field of Study Essay
What is it?
This can be a tricky essay type to handle for college students who are still undecided about their major, which is very natural for high school students. Luckily, not all colleges ask for this type of essay. You can expect this essay mostly from colleges focused on a specific stream of study, who want to know why you’re attracted to that field. Some elite universities, like Ivy League schools, also ask this question because they want to see the applicants’ long-term academic ambitions and how well these fit in with their own mission.
Interested in learning more about how to gain acceptance to an Ivy League School? Check out this video!
Sample essay prompt
How to write this type of essay
- Include personal as well as college-specific details: Similar to the “why us” essay, you need to refer to specific details of the college program, faculty, academic curriculum, research opportunities, and campus life. Connect these details with your own experiences and passions and explain why this college or program aligns with your academic or professional interests. Think about key formative events and personal motivators for your interest. For example, if you’re applying to a top science, technology, engineering, or medicine (STEM) college such as MIT, you obviously have a specific passion for one of these subjects. While you can and should expand on your personal ambitions, don’t forget to explain why MIT is the best option to help you achieve them.
- Focus on the long-term: In a way, this type of essay is analogous to the “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” interview question. If you do have a clear plan of how you see your future academic and professional life developing, this essay is where you share it. However, you need to make sure you don’t just spin a beautiful story that isn’t based in reality. Your ambitions should be supported by thorough research, real-world industry knowledge, and a careful consideration of your own strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, don’t just include grand ambitions for the sake of sounding impressive – back them up with personal motivations, or better yet, include concrete, achievable goals. For instance, if you’re applying to the best undergrad business schools, your supplemental essay shouldn’t simply say “I want to be youngest CEO in the USA” or “I want to feature in a 30 under 30 article” – instead, it should focus on specific business interests and goals, for example – “I want to use my leadership skills, business training, and community engagement experience to eventually pay it forward by expanding the economic and business opportunities in my own community.”
The Quirky Essay
What is it?
This type of essay is meant to catch you off-guard or ask you to write about something not often discussed in the context of admissions. These essays are often among the shortest in terms of length, and generally hope to evince some humor and self-awareness from the writers. Topics for these essays include odd talents, strange experiences, or hyper-specific situational questions like what superpower you’d choose if given the chance. They can also be quite general: Princeton, for instance, includes a prompt asking, simply, “what brings you joy?”.
Sample essay prompts
How to write this type of essay
- Keep the tone light: When responding to such prompts, don’t get too caught up in trying to be ultra-intellectual, serious, or different from the crowd. Be creative, have fun, and try and show a lighter side of your personality to the admissions committee. Match the tone of the question and don’t overthink this one too much!
- Be genuine: The tricky part about responding to these random and creative prompts is to make your answer humorous while also being as honest and genuine as possible. Sincerity is key – make sure you don’t pick an answer you think sounds funny, or impressive, but that isn’t strictly true and backed up by the rest of your application. For instance, if asked “what kind of bird are you”, if you respond with something like “eagle” and talk generically about your leadership qualities without any specific details, admissions committees will be able to tell you aren’t being genuine. You can give any answer you like here! The important thing is to justify it with real aspects of your personality that add some interesting color to your application.
Now, let’s look at how to structure essays depending on the length. We’ll also go over an example for each essay type.
Short Supplemental Essay (250 Words or Fewer) Examples
According to our college admissions consulting experts, these can be quite dangerous for some students, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because an essay has a short word count, you don’t need to spend much time on it. This can actually be one of the toughest types of essays, since you have very limited space in which to capture the admission committee’s attention and make your point. When you start writing, you might find that by the time you’ve set up your premise, you’re already done with 80% of the available word count! The key here is to include crisp, well-structured sentences to directly address the question being asked. There’s not really any space for a “hook” here, such as a quote, story, or layered personal experience. Only include a story or a personal experience if the question explicitly asks you too. In just 250 words or less, you won’t be able to describe too complex an event or activity, so just cut straight to the point.
- Direct opening sentence: Your first sentence should clearly address the essay prompt and set up the topic. Don’t worry about this being a boring or straightforward strategy – that’s what you need here!
- Specific details to support the topic: Add personal details and self-reflections suitable for the prompt to support your opening sentence. Remember, every word is crucial here so leave out any unnecessary facts and descriptions – stick to what’s relevant. Try and focus on a single experience, reflection, opinion, or topic, as you really won’t be able to do justice to any more. At the same time, make sure you don’t sacrifice flow to brevity. Each sentence should connect smoothly to the next, setting up a logical pathway from your opening thesis to your conclusion.
- Conclusion: Add the key takeaway or reflection and tie it back to the prompt.
To see how a short essay should be structured, let’s take a look at this prompt from Brandeis:
“Justice Brandeis once said, ‘If we would guide by the light of reason, we must let our minds be bold.’ Tell us about something bold that you’ve recently done.”
Here’s a sample answer:
Although painting isn't itself an especially wild or bold activity, showing my art for the first time felt very bold indeed. As someone with a motor impairment, I've never been able to draw well, and found art classes throughout elementary school incredibly frustrating and embarrassing. However, discovering the wide and extremely varied world of abstract art a few years ago, I was finally bitten by the art bug, and began experimenting with acrylic paint. At first, I just learned how to operate the varying dilutions and textures of paint, but over time I became obsessed with the idea of color gradients and shading, and how the paint itself can do a lot of work that doesn't depend on a completely steady hand. I amassed a small stack of canvasses, and this past year asked around at the two art galleries in town to see if anyone was interested in putting some of my pieces up. Fortunately, and to my surprise, one independent gallery offered to show my entire collected work for a month. Not only did I receive a tonne of really positive and encouraging messages from visitors to the gallery, but I even sold 3 pieces! I was honestly terrified at every step of the way, but that first sale was about the most confidence-building event I've ever experienced. It felt bold, but also made me hungry to continue making art and sharing it with others. (237 words)
Medium Supplemental Essay (250-500 Words) Examples
Shorter than your personal statement, longer than a short answer, these essays require you to balance a logical flow with a crisp central narrative.
While the basic structure of this essay can be similar to the long-form 650 word essay, you’ll need to make a few adjustments to suit the shorter length.
- Opening paragraph: You can choose to add an “anchor experience” for these essays, or you can write it in a more direct style, responding to the prompt and getting straight to the point. It depends on what you want to say and how you want to say it. For example, if your essay is focused on personal experiences, then an evocatively described personal experience could be a great hook. However, if the prompt asks you to provide your opinion about a specific issue or creatively imagine a specific scenario, then getting right to the point is a better idea.
- Main body: Here, you describe your central thesis and add further details to support it. You have to be very efficient with your choice of experiences and even with the details of any experience you chose to include. Each sentence should be in service of the essay prompt. Review this section with the questions “Is this related to the essay prompt? Does this help to answer the question being asked?”.
- Conclusion: The key to an efficient, memorable conclusion of a medium length supplemental essay is economy of words. In a single sentence, you should address the question being asked and also communicate your own central thesis, with a focus on what makes you special. Crafting this conclusion will take you time! First, identify the points you want to make, and then figure out a way to compress them into as few words as possible, without sacrificing clarity.
Let’s check out an example of this type of essay.
University of California: Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement? (maximum 350 words)
Growing up as the precocious daughter of hard-working immigrant parents, academic excellence and achievements were always the two key cornerstones of my life. My parents inculcated the importance of doing well in school in me from a young age. After all, it was education that had enabled my parents to escape the poverty and trauma of their homeland and find refuge in this country. With a natural penchant for academics and a love for learning, I never had cause to question this life-long commitment – not until junior year of high school.
That was the year when my parents’ restaurant business took a huge hit, and from a regular middle-class American immigrant success story, we were brought to the brink of bleak poverty. It was a shock to our family that took us through some of the toughest times I’ve ever experienced. We all had to make sacrifices, and one of the most profound changes I experienced in that period was a total shift in my priorities, as I had to work at my parents’ restaurant every day after school to help keep the business afloat. From being a grade-A student, I became a struggling straggler who could barely keep up with tests and exams, much less take on extra credit projects. At one point, I even considered quitting school! The worst part was watching the pain in my parents’ eyes, knowing they couldn’t provide the ideal home environment they had envisioned for me, which they themselves had never received.
However, looking back, I consider that period one of the most significant learning experiences of my life. It tested my commitment to my academic interests, which had previously always been so easy to pursue, and I came through with a system that allowed me to contribute at home and also excel at school. It made me further appreciate the struggles my parents had gone through as immigrants juggling family, work, education, and a major cultural adjustment. And finally, it made me appreciate what a gift and privilege education truly is, and vow never to take it for granted. (347 words)
Long Supplemental Essay (500+ Words) Examples
Want to know a surprising fact? You might actually find the long-form supplemental essays easier to write than their shorter counterparts! These essays are typically 500 to 650 words long, which means you have plenty of space to build a coherent narrative, expand on your thesis, and support it with relevant details. When writing a longer supplemental essay, you can actually re-use many of the same strategies you employed for your Common App essay or personal statement. The basic structure (which we’ll explain in a moment) will be similar, and you can even recycle some of your rejected personal statement ideas to write an exemplary supplemental essay.
You can go for the commonly used 3 to 5 paragraph essay structure here. Include the following:
- Introduction: For longer essays, it’s critical to have a strong opening that hooks the reader and draws them into your narrative immediately. Admissions committees are reading thousands of essays, so you want to shake them out of their “reading fatigue” by capturing their attention with story, personal experience, unique quote, etc. In this paragraph, you should also clearly set up the central thesis of your essay. Critically for supplemental essays, ensure that your central thesis directly addresses or answers the prompt. Tie the “hook” of your opening paragraph in with this central thesis.
- Body paragraphs 1/2/3: While the 5-paragraph structure is the most commonly used essay format for long-form essays, you can include more or fewer, as per the requirements of your specific narrative. Remember to be selective when you choose the experiences to support your thesis. In these paragraphs, you build on the central narrative you set up in introduction, supported with your self-reflections and personal examples. Include only the necessary details that help to build the central theme of the essay. Your essay should be written in a natural, direct style, but you can try and include evocative details and personal reflections to help communicate your point.
- Conclusion: As with all other supplemental essays, the conclusion is critical. You must include a key takeaway, learning, or crisp one-liner to sum up your answer to the question being asked.
Let’s check out an example of this type of essay.
Harvard: An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science, or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you. (maximum 650 words)
“It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been.”
It’s a hot summer’s day, I’m red-faced, sweaty, and out-of-breath, hunched over a pile of earth, delicately brushing away tiny amounts of ancient mud, and John Bishop’s words suddenly pop into my mind. Our project director, Professor Saltzman, had led a brief session that morning concluding with this memorable quote, and it stayed with me for one clear reason: I felt it perfectly encapsulated my own journey, from a guy who cared too much about where he was going, to someone who now primarily cared about the business of these long, long, dead ancient women and their kitchen tools. The irony of the realization made me chuckle a little, disturbing the earth around the little kitchen mound I was excavating, and then I went back to my gentle brushing, once again fully absorbed.
It was simply not a picture of myself I could have believed merely months prior. From a very young age, I had a vision of myself as a lawyer. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather, carving an illustrious career that would begin, like theirs, at Harvard, and end with me on the Supreme Court. This dream hit a minor snag when, due to a medical absence is junior year, I missed my AP History exam. Mr. Griffin, my history teacher, suggested that I complete a summer archeology program he was affiliated with to make up the credit. And that was how this “minor snag” actually ended up diverting my passions, interests, and ambitions away from law and firmly into the field of archeology.
It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. I was resistant to what I perceived was a distraction from my true interest, the practice of law – I thought then I’d much rather be shadowing my father in a cushy air conditioned office than sweating it out in a desert, digging for broken bits of ancient pottery. But within a couple of days, I found to my surprise that I loved every second of it. The director of the program, Professor Saltzman, liked to walk us through our findings, however minor, at the end of each day. For the benefit of the younger students present, he often delivered lectures expanding upon the critical contextual history of that period. I was amazed at how these small, faded pieces of pottery could tell us so much about the socio-cultural norms of 8000 years ago; from which countries they traded with to what they ate, from their dominant gender roles to the kinds of currency they used.
Most amazing of all, at least to me, was how archeology could actually help envision the lived reality of these people from long ago. Our key findings in that dig were the kitchen utensils of a woman we nicknamed “Leda”, a widowed fisherwoman with two children. Every day, we would discover a new piece of evidence and spend hours classifying, dissecting, and contextualizing it to discover all it could tell us about how Leda lived her life. I realized that all the physical discomforts were worth the thrill of bringing these tiny pieces of history back to life.
In those 4 weeks, I experienced a kind of wonder, and joy in learning, and intrinsically motivated intellectual curiosity, that I had never experienced before in my life. With law, I was primarily attracted to all the perceived prestige and privileges that accrued to the profession; with archeology, the subject matter itself drew me onwards to push past my prejudices and discomforts. Today, I hope to continue to pursue my passion for archeology by continuing my work under Professor Saltzman as an undergraduate at Harvard, and hopefully discover the secret lives of many more Ledas in the future. (643)
1. What’s the difference between the personal statement and supplemental essays?
The personal statement is a more general essay with a broader scope, typically submitted as part of your primary application, whereas supplemental essays respond to specific prompts and are submitted with your secondary application directly to each school. You only need to write one personal statement (such as the Common App essay) which goes out to all your colleges, and it should therefore never include any college-specific details. On the other hand, each college asks for their own set of supplemental essays, and they may often ask you to expand upon your interest in the specific college, program, or major you are applying to. A personal statement is a single long-form essay of 650 words or more, whereas colleges can ask for multiple supplemental essays that can range in length from 35 to 650 words.
2. What are the most common supplemental college essay prompts?
The most commonly used supplemental college essay prompts are:
- The “why us” essay that asks you to discuss why you want go to a specific college
- The extracurricular essay that asks you to discuss your activities, talents, or skills
- The community essay that asks you to expand upon your identity, diversity, community engagement, and so on
- The “why this major” essay that asks you to discuss your specific academic interests
- The “create a class” essay that asks you to creatively design a major or come up with your own class
- The “quirky” essay that can include creative, zany, out-of-the-box, informal prompts
3. How long are supplemental college essays?
Supplemental college essays can range in length from 35 words to 650 words. Every college has their own prompts and requirements, so you should check the admissions website of your colleges to learn more.
4. How to write the “why this school” college essay?
The “why this school” college essay is one of the most common supplemental college essay types. It’s very important to be college-specific in this essay, and to include details of your special interest in the concerned college supported by your knowledge of their unique offerings. You will have to do some research on the college so you can make your essay as specific and unique as possible.
5. Are supplemental essays important?
Yes, supplemental essays are a critical part of your application. They help to personalize and flesh out your application, building on your achievements, transcripts, and scores, to show the admissions committee a well-rounded, unique individual. Crucially, supplemental essays are a chance for you to show how well your thinking and experiences align with the college’s missions and values and why you would be an excellent candidate for their program.
6. How do I write an effective “short answer” supplemental college essay?
A word count of 250 words or less can pose a significant challenge for students. To write an effective short answer, you need to be concise and direct, addressing the question asked while building a logical flow from introduction to conclusion. There’s no space in such questions for fancy opening hooks and elaborate narratives – just stick to the relevant experiences and reflections and always connect back to the prompt itself.
7. Can I re-use my supplemental essays between colleges?
It depends on the topic! It’s not a good idea to copy paste the essay content for college-specific prompts such as “why us” or “why this major”, where the expectation is that you will talk in detail about the unique features of that college which attract you. However, for more generic topics like “what inspires you” or “how did you serve your community”, you can certainly re-use topics and themes between essays. Just make sure you edit each essay to meet the specific word count and include college specific details wherever possible. Additionally, you should always read and understand the prompt thoroughly before drafting your essay. Respond to the spirit as well as the letter of the prompts in your opening and concluding sentences, even if you’ve re-used most of the main body content from another similar essay.
8. How creative and informal can I be in my supplemental college essay?
Supplemental college essays certainly afford you greater room to be creative and informal than your personal statement. However, the extent to which this style of writing would be appropriate depends on the prompts. The short answer, zany, creative prompts, are the perfect place to show a lighter side of your personality and introduce a little humor in your application. But an essay about significant obstacles you’re overcome, or your long-term academic goals, might not be an ideal place to get overtly casual and humorous.
9. How long do I have to complete my supplemental college essays?
You will receive your secondary application directly from the college after you submit your primary application. The deadline to complete secondary applications varies from college to college. Most colleges ask you to submit your completed supplemental application, including essays, within 2 weeks or a month of receiving the prompts. This isn’t a lot of time, especially considering most colleges will be sending out secondary applications in the same rough time period and you’ll have to work on multiple applications at once. However, you can prepare in advance for your supplemental essays by brainstorming ideas and writing rough drafts in response to previous years’ prompts.
10. How many supplemental college essays do I have to submit for each college?
Every college has their own unique secondary application requirements. You should check the admissions websites of your colleges to learn more about their specific requirements. Some colleges may ask for just a single 650-word essay, while others may provide 5 or 6 prompts of varying lengths. Generally speaking, most colleges don’t ask for more than 1 or 2 long supplemental essays (500+ words), along with 2 or 3 shorter essays.
Have a question? Ask our admissions experts below and we'll answer your questions!
Anything we didn't cover? Have a question? Ask below or share your comments!