7 tips to help you ace your college supplement essays

Posted by Neal Schwartz on August 11, 2020



Students often think that the main college essay is the most important part of their college application.

However, sometimes that means overlooking the importance of the rest of the college application, especially supplement essays. Supplement essays are additional essays that may be required by certain selective colleges that ask more specific questions. These essays are generally shorter in length but can also be the length of a standard college essay, so it’s important to give them equal attention. For some schools, the supplemental essay prompts can be deceptively simple. They can range in topic from asking students to describe moments of adversity to describing a favorite piece of art to discussing the student’s community and how they can contribute to the college or university. Overall, the supplemental essays help balance out the rest of the application. Because less attention is usually devoted to preparing for supplemental essays, we’ve compiled some tips to helps students write meaningful responses that can boost up their applications.

Know the school you’re applying to

College admissions officers want to know why you are applying to their school. An essay that addresses this question is usually the most important supplement as competitive colleges want to know that you will be likely to attend if accepted. Sometimes, students have a general idea of why they want to attend a certain school, but your response needs to be more than: “It’s the school my parents went to“ or “It’s a good location.” You need to do research on the specific programs offered, the faculty, courses and clubs to really envision yourself as a student there. With schools that are not your first choice, this becomes more difficult, but do your best to find a singular detail about the school that hooks you.

Avoid repetition

If you know that a school you’re applying to has supplements, make sure to read them ahead of time before finalizing your main college essay. If the supplement asks about your activities and your college essay is all about your activities, you may want to rethink that topic. You may even find it helpful to have several versions of your college essay that can be adapted to each school, if necessary. When answering supplements, your job is also to tell why you are interested in a particular topic or activity, not just what you did. But above all else, don’t just list again what admissions officers already see in your resume and transcript.

Addressing COVID-19 this year

The Common App added an optional essay to give students an opportunity to address the impact of COVID-19 on their academic, extracurricular and home life. Through this prompt colleges are signaling two very different things: 1) The main personal essay is probably not the place to write about your COVID-related issues.  2) If you are going to write about the COVID situation that you faced, it needs to be something that others didn’t experience. For example, a student that did not have accessible Internet or a quiet place to study at home – that would be important.  But for those that were inconvenienced and spent more time at home, that is probably assumed.  What a college would be interested in knowing is what a student did during the pandemic that was outside of the peer norm like setting up community assistance or getting food for an elderly neighbor on a regular basis.

Answer all the questions and watch out for hidden prompts

At first glance, you may think you have scouted out the supplements for a particular school by going to the Common App and viewing the questions. But for some schools, they won’t populate questions until you specify the intended college or major. So, be sure to fill out the information for that college as you plan out your essay writing project map. Also, some colleges may list certain questions as “optional.” However, that doesn’t mean that you have a free pass to skip to the next one. Providing the most information possible about yourself to the college will typically help you as long as it is not repetitious.

Be careful when reusing essays

If you are applying to top schools requiring many supplements, you will likely need to reuse a supplemental essay between college applications. However, pay attention to the fine details such as the college’s name and program titles. It’s easy to let this fall by the wayside. You need to adapt every essay to make it school-specific. Don’t let any detail go unchecked.

When to use the additional information essay

This area should be used judiciously.  If there was a gap beyond the “normal” COVID impact, this is the place to write about that. Some examples might be to highlight an illness that might not show up elsewhere. It might be something that doesn’t fit anywhere else in the application like an article or url. But as discussed earlier, this is not the place to restate something already in the application set. Brevity is key here.

Don’t talk about the school: talk about you

Many students make the mistake of making their supplemental essays sound like an ad for the school, discussing the school’s “amazing faculty” or “top-notch research facilities.” Be careful about sounding too “salesy”. The school already knows how great and desirable it is, so now it’s up to you to tell them why you’re the right fit for them. Also, reign in an over-enthusiastic tone by checking for empty adjectives like amazing, incredible, etc. Word choice is key. Also, avoid using exclamation points in your essay.  Let the reader determine the tone or emphasis on their own.

Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that supplemental essays can be completed at the last minute. They’re an essential part of the college application that deserve just as much time and thought as the college essay. 

With college applications now released, our services are in full swing, offering college counseling and essay coaching to help put students in the best position for admission at their top schools. Give us a call to schedule a free consultation today!

Best Regards, 

Neal Schwartz, Owner

College Planning of Westchester



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Topics: College Essays, College Applications, college admissions, supplemental essays, college counseling, commonapp, high school senior, college freshman year


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