Mistakes to Avoid

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

October 20, 2020

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?

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