How to Ace Those Supplemental Essays

How to ace those supplemental essaysSeniors, have you written your supplemental essays yet? If not, it’s time to get going. Before you start writing, here are a few things to consider. The supplemental questions colleges ask may sound simple, but answering well is harder than you think.

It’s easy to rattle off a bunch of truisms—much more challenging to say something fresh that will hold your reader’s interest. To do a good job, you need to get out of your own head and into the heads of the folks in the admissions office. Ask yourself: Why are they asking me this? What are they trying to find out?

The short answer is they’re trying to find out if you and the college are a good fit. Schools use various questions to determine this. I’ll describe two common ones below. But first bear in mind that different schools and different questions require different kinds of responses.

If the University of Chicago asks you to select and explain a group of five elements or things “that you believe compose our world,” you can be sure they’re looking for something imaginative. But, if Columbia asks you to “please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why,” you’re safe to assume that a super-creative answer is not required. What is required is an answer based on your knowledge of Columbia.

Don’t mistake every question for an opportunity to brag about yourself. Instead, remind yourself that fit isn’t about who’s “best”—it’s about who’s right for the school. Read each question carefully and answer as directly as possible.

Here are two types questions that often appear on college application supplements, and some tips on answering them.

The “Why us?” essay

“Why did you choose us?” is the most frequently-asked supplemental essay question, and for good reason. Every college wants to be sure you really understand what their school is all about. They want to know you’ve chosen them carefully and intelligently, not simply because of their rankings, their cafeteria food or their beautiful campus.

A college wants to be sure you’re going to say yes if they offer you a spot. They’re also trying to choose students who will be happy and stick around until graduation. That’s why they put this particular question to you in such  a straightforward way.

To ace this question, you must understand what is meant by “fit”. In your essay, show how you and the school are perfect together. Talk about the unique aspects of the college that especially interested you and inspired you to apply. Explain how you hope to take advantage of these things. Make it clear how the school would benefit you and also how you would benefit the school.

Be specific and, as with all writing, stay away from clichés. Don’t gush about the beautiful location, the high academic standards, the friendly people or the wonderful school spirit. All these truisms could easily apply to any one of hundreds of schools. Instead, write about what makes this college different from all the others and how that fits with your needs and hopes.

Of course, before you can answer this question, you’ll need to research the college carefully. Besides actually visiting the campus, the web is the best way to research. Go to the school’s site, and drill down deep. Investigate the departments that interest you, the courses and the professors. Find out about special programs, research opportunities, cultural activities and clubs. Once you’ve done your research, answering this question should be a cinch.

The “Tell us something else about yourself!” essay

Many colleges offer students a chance to say something about themselves that hasn’t been discussed in the rest of their application. The key here is to be sure you present new information that offers another window into who you are. Don’t rehash something you’ve covered in your personal essay. This is an opportunity to address another side of you.

Some students may want to share a story about unusual circumstances in their lives. If you’re a recent immigrant to the United States, you might want to talk about why your family came and what your hopes are. If you’ve had a tragedy in your life, something that temporarily interfered with your academic progress, this might be the place to share it. However, make sure you explain how you overcame the situation and righted yourself.

Other students will want to present another facet of their personalities, as demonstrated through activities they’ve been involved with. Maybe you’ve followed politics passionately for years, an interest that isn’t reflected in your personal essay. Perhaps you’re a devoted reader and writer of poetry or an amateur actor in a community theater group. Whatever you choose to write about, be sure to highlight something your readers will find interesting and new.

If you’d like to consult with someone about your supplemental essays, contact the College Strategist .

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About the Author: Mona Molarsky

Mona Molarsky is a private college counselor who offers advice and assistance to students and their families at every stage of the college preparation and application process. She also offers tutoring in English, social studies and language arts.