How to Write Your Supplemental Essays

We meet again! Previously I covered how to write a personal statement essay, but this is all about the supplementals.

October 20, 2020

So, we meet again.

If you’re here, it’s probably because you finished the hardest part of college applications: the Common App Personal Statement Essay. Congratulations! I’m so proud of you.


There’s more.

Now we have the supplemental essay, which is a school-specific essay that allows admissions officers to get to know you even better. Not every major requires one, and not every school requires one regardless of majors. I personally have to do a supplemental essay for two schools (and one of them requires two… sigh).

Some colleges ask why you want to attend, others may ask why you’re interested in a specific major, and a few may pick different questions altogether, but it will be specific to the college.

As always, I’ve gathered up research on writing a great essay, and we’ll work through it all together!

Mistakes to Avoid

You know the drill: we get the “Don’ts” out of the way first, then move to the “Do’s”.

Common Mistakes People Make when Writing Supplementals

(Source: Haley Kang, UPenn undergrad student, has edited 100+ essays)

While supplementals don’t require you to dig deep into your memories to bring some wild and unique story, there is a certain way you should go about answering the question. Y’all know I love to go through the DON’T DO THIS’s first, so let’s begin.


1. Brochure Writing

This is truly one of the biggest, if not the biggest, mistakes you could make. None of the tips I’m going to give you soon will work if you don’t do research on your school. Don’t write about surface level details like sports teams, the architecture, school colors. These will only sound fake, and therefore bad; you are not a brochure, I promise you admissions already knows about these things. Write about the details that are specific to you and the question.

(This is also a good reason to not break your back trying to apply to 20 schools, especially if they all have supplementals! Trying to cram all that research would not really be a good idea.)

If it’s asking why you’re picking a certain major, talk about specific classes that really interest you, or their phenomenal study-abroad program. Etc., you know?

– Part Two. Generic Outline Format

Haley gives a beautiful example of this absolute no:

“_________ college would provide me with the education and opportunities needed to facilitate innovation. I believe that application of knowledge through research and collaboration is the cornerstone of innovation and at _________, I intend to pursue both with vigor while walking down ______ with my _______ and _______ gear.”

Don’t you DARE.

This is exactly what the admissions officers expect, don’t do it to yourself. What all of this has in common is that it can be said for any school, any major. The goal is to be specific, so officers can get a good look at your reasoning for choosing them.

2. Talking Too Much About Academics

Of course this is an important part about your school selection, but it isn’t all college has to offer. Talk about how you’d be a good fit socially—the college experience is also about community, and people coming together from all over to thrive during these four+ years together.

This can mean clubs (especially ones that are specific to the college and can’t really be found in other places), internships that may give extra attention to the school, and many other things too.

Side note: if you’re going to discuss clubs, don’t just go on for paragraphs and paragraphs about academic clubs like Model United Nations, Debate, Mock Trial, etc.. These are amazing clubs, but the point I’m trying to get at is academics = intelligence, but ≠ personality.

If academics were all schools needed to know about, they wouldn’t bother with essays. They already have all your stats and accomplishments.

3. Bringing Up Subjects with no Context

If you’re trying to be a communications major, don’t just talk about the classes and clubs you’re excited to be a part of, give some context on why you wanted to become that in the first place. Maybe in high school you were in broadcast and newspaper, or you did a summer internship with a news station.

All of this gives some context into why you’ve had this interest, and shows that you’ve had this interest for a long time, you didn’t just suddenly decide right before you started your application that you wanted to be a communications major. Continuity, narrative, and flow gives admissions officers a clear view into you as a person and potential student.

I understand some people just didn’t do extracurriculars, though, so try to connect this interest to something else.

Haley is majoring in STEM, yet she had no extracurriculars to do with this; although it made writing her supplemental a little harder, she worked around it. She discussed her participation in debate, and how she amassed a lot of research skills from doing this for three years. She said that she’d love to use these skills in internships and other opportunities at UPenn.

4. To Reiterate – Don’t be a Walking Brochure

I PROMISE the admissions officers will know more about the school than you do. Always. Don’t spend the entire essay spitting out facts and hyping up the school, tell them what you have to offer as a potential student. How will you positively impact the environment?

It is important to talk about what the school has to offer to you, but don’t leave out how this is a mutual relationship where both benefit.

5. Trying to Fit Too Much into the Essay

You’re going to need space to elaborate on every big point you mention, so trying to fit in too many things will look super cramped. Haley recommends 2 points for any essay up to 200 words, and 3–4 points for every essay up to 500 words.

When you stick to a few key points, readers have something to stick with. There’s a much less likely chance they’ll remember what message you’re trying to send when you gave them too many things to focus on. Jumping around too much also takes away from the personal touch these essays are supposed to have, so really be careful of that.

6. Saying What You Think They Want to Hear

I also mentioned this in the personal statement article, because truly, this is an extremely common mistake. Admissions officers have read enough essays to tell when you’re truly passionate about something and when you’re just typing to type. It’s okay to not spend all of your time volunteering at homeless shelters, tell the readers about where you really spend your time.

Of course it has a lot less real-life impact as volunteering, but it makes an impact nonetheless. And okay, let’s say (throw up a quick prayer or knock on wood after this lol) you were rejected. Would you rather be rejected knowing you were honest and true to yourself, or rejected and left wondering whether if you had been more honest, you would’ve gotten accepted?

Anddd Some More Mistakes to Avoid

You have no clue how many videos I found out mistakes to avoid.. We’ll be finished after this one, I promise.

I don’t want to fill up this entire article with what not to do, but I do want to include these last five tips because they’re really important!

5 Mistakes Students Make on Supplemental Essays

(Source: SupertutorTV, Stanford-educated, perfect SAT and ACT-scoring, ACT and SAT prep tutor.)

1.  Don’t Repeat

If you wrote about your love for engineering in your personal statement, do not—do not—write about it in your supplemental essay. You don’t want to sound repetitive with your information, you have more to offer than just being an engineering student!

I’m not saying you cannot create a line throughout your essays that connects, you just don’t need to tell them “I want to be an engineer” over and over and over… and over again.

In fact, Supertutor recommends not making the basis of your personal statement your academic passion at all, because often that is what the supplemental essay is about.

2. Don’t Just Answer the Question

Okay, I know I told you earlier that supplemental essays is doing just this, BUT LET ME EXPLAIN. Yes you’re answering the question, but you cannot just give them a straightforward answer and be done. Sadly, it’s not that simple.

If you get the question, “How will you take advantage of the educational opportunities provided at ____?”, you’re not going to impress colleges by simply saying “I will major in engineering, take *insert 5 engineering classes that idk here*, study abroad in *enter dream country here*, and join *enter organization here*.”

You won’t impress them at all.

Supertutor stresses that “any time you have an essay, you have an opportunity… to share who you are, and what you love,” and she’s absolutely correct.

Essay form allows for you to tell a story about what matters about you, why it matters, and how your particular school fits in to that. Take advantage of it.

3. Don’t Tell That… Tell Why

This is already a common mistake for personal statements, so you know this is a problem with supplementals. Just because it’s a shorter essay, does not mean you still don’t have to give background!

Admissions officers get it: you love engineering, you’ve done three internships, started an engineering club at your school, blah blah blah. You didn’t just wake up one day and decide you wanted to be one.

How did you get there? What about it is interesting to you? How do your characteristics as an individual fit into this career path?

And this doesn’t just go for major questions, the same can be applied to the school as a whole.

If you’re asked “What do you look forward to at Unicorn University (this is not a real place, I wish it was)?”, or “How do you plan on taking advantage of the educational opportunities at Unicorn University?”, go with the why more than the that.

4. Don’t be Afraid to Overwrite and Cut

A big mistake students make when writing supplementals is underwriting due to the shorter word count of this essay. Don’t let that stand in your way, there is still much to be said here!

Don’t be scared of getting everything off your chest and then cutting it down to only the most important things once you finish.

It’s easier to figure out what points stand out more than others, and are more pertinent to the message you’re trying to convey, when you can read back through and cut as you go.

5. Don’t Settle for Boring Answers

Shorter essay ≠ settling for a boring answer. If 50 other people could’ve written the same thing as you, you should revise your work.

Admissions officers have to go through thousands and thousands of applications, so don’t be afraid to entertain. Give the reader something that will make an officer fight for your spot at this school.

Breaking Down The Supplementals

We have reached the “Do’s”! Honestly, as I write this article I’m learning too, so come on and take these notes with me.

Tips on Writing Your Essay(s)

(Source: CollegeEssayGuy, nationally-recognized college essay expert and admissions prep author)

Sometimes, the supplemental essays can be worth more than your personal statement. Neither you nor I will ever know when that is the case, so we have to make sure our supplementals are as amazing as possible regardless. Just to be prepared.

Before We Begin: Super Topics

huge help for my stressed babies who are working on several supplementals for several+ colleges: choose a “Super Topic”. It’ll help you save a ton of time, as it’s an activity you’ve spent a lot of time doing. This means:

  1. It shows several sides of you
  2. Works for several essay topics

So let’s say you have to answer a community service essay, an essay on an intellectual idea that’s important to you, an an extracurricular activity essay. BOOM, three essays done, just like that. It’s not a crime, this is strategy!

Now back to our regularly-scheduled programming.


The “Why Us?” Essay

This is where you tell the school why y’alls relationship would be mutually beneficial. CollegeEssayGuy suggests thinking of this as “a third date.”

If you’re out on a date and the person looks at you and asks “Why are you interested in me?”, you’re not just going to say “because you’re sexy and it makes me look better.” That’s awful, and if you do this I hope they throw their drink on you. Trifling.

You’re going to tell that person about specific qualities that capture your heart. Similarly, you need to explain this to colleges.

Specific courses, opportunities, and even professors are the things you should be discussing here. And don’t forget to connect all of it back to you, because you are a little important here. Just a bit.

As this will be a 50/50 relationship, your essay should have a 50/50 focus: 50% you, and 50% the school. Don’t try to do 20/80, or 80/20, etc., it just never works as well.

The 150-Word Extracurricular Essay

CEG gives multiple ways to approach this essay:

a) The Fire Hose Approach: Spouting out tons of information. In this case it would be your accomplishments, and what your role was in each of them.

b) Creative High Flyer with Nothing to Prove: This is a good approach for students whose grades and test scores are just beautiful, so they don’t want to blend in with many students. In this case, they’ll focus on one moment, one quality, and underline that.

c) (CEG’s fav) Uncommon Connections Approach: Once you’ve picked your activity, brainstorm all the clichés people could come up with. Then, dump them. Think about 3/4 things you could speak on that would be different from what everyone else is going to say, and go from there.

The Community Service Essay

In CEG’s exact words: “Write your community service essay like Elon Musk pitches the Powerwall.”

If you take a quick minute to google “Elon Musk Powerwall Andy Raskin,” Raskin analyzes this pitch and points out five qualities  included in this pitch that should be included in all pitches.

  1. Identify the problem you’re trying to solve (with the community service project you were doing)
  2. Identify why now (why was this an important problem that needed to be solved?)
  3. Describe your vision for the future (if we lived in a world where this problem was solved, how would it look?)
  4. Describe what you did on the project (obviously important since it’s your college application)
  5. Describe the impact of your project

The Short Answer Question “Essay”

This can be something as simple as: “What’s your favorite food?” and you have 2-15 words to answer it. Easy enough, right? NO.

Unless you have less than five words, this is a TRICK.

Do NOT just answer the question.

They want to see how you work with the small amount of space given, so try your best to attach a small story to it. I love my mom’s ribs, so if I have like 13 words max, I’d say something like “Saturday evenings eating my mom’s grilled ribs on the patio.”

Give that small little bit of context that gives your essay an extra sparkle.

Even if it’s a two-word answer: “Mom’s ribs.” This is sweet, and still answers the question.

The “Why *insert major here*?” Essay

If you don’t know what major you’re interested in yet, don’t fret! Pick a couple areas you’re interested in, and elaborate on what about them is interesting.

How’d your interest begin? What do you hope to do with it in the future? They won’t hold you to this answer, it’s okay. Don’t be afraid to not know something.

For those who do know, a great way to execute this essay is by creating a mini-movie. Recall some of the most important memories that brought you to your chosen major, and relay them in the submission box.

CEG includes an example on his blog from a boy who was interested in Electrical Engineering. He tied this interest to his childhood in Mexico, where his father’s restaurant security system was unable to protect them from robbers. It was this, and his cousin who taught him about Autonomous systems, that inspired him to pursue this career.

Now of course he worded it much better than me, but you get the point I hope.

The Describe/Define “Diversity” Essay

This also may appear in the form of the question, “Talk about a time when you interacted with someone who was different from you.”

Avoid the common mistake of describing a person you only met one time. If possible, discuss an unlikely relationship that has persisted over time.

Broaden your horizon of what “diversity” looks like: age, political beliefs, home location, cultural background, and the list goes on. This way, you’re much more likely to realize a friendship you have is less normal than you thought.

The “Create-Your-Own Class” Essay

CEG recommends taking a syllabus that already exists at the school, and using it as a template.

It’d be good to include a persuasive course description, required reading, hypothetical locations and times. And, though it may seem odd, CEG says to use a colon. Not only does it give room for a long title, but you can create a mix between fun:academic or vice versa.

If I wanted to do a class on unicorns, since I’ve become attached to my imaginary Unicorn University, I could include it on the syllabus for my class: “Myths and Legends: The Possibility of the Impossible”

(UC Schools) Personal Insight Questions

It’s very important that you ensure your answers connect back to the 14 Points of Comprehensive Review.

These are a quick google away, and are the 14 things these schools look for when evaluating your application. Don’t add any sparkle to these, be as straightforward as possible because you don’t have the room to do the most. CEG recommends bullet-pointing the content, and then writing the personal insight questions.

Farewell—for now

Oh don’t be so emotional (or is that just me..), you’ll see me again sooner than you know!

Wow, I can’t believe we’ve officially covered both personal statements and supplemental essays.

I feel so enlightened.

No but seriously, I hope these articles have helped you as they’ve helped me. So much work has gone into researching, piling up links to look through, and organizing the information. I’ve laid everything out in one place for a reason, so don’t be afraid to come back and view the article!

I swear I don’t go look at the traffic of my articles, nobody is judging you for having to reference the information. I’ll definitely be back to look over these myself.

This is where we part ways for a bit, but I’ll be back in a week or so. There are many more topics to be covered, we’ve only just scratched the surface. Good luck with your essays, see you soon!





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