How to Write College Supplemental Essays
Don’t be afraid of applying to colleges that require supplemental essays! These supplements, which can cover everything from your favorite extracurricular activity to the way you’ve been shaped by your community, are a perfect way to complement your Common App personal statement. And if you plan wisely, they won’t take you too much time to write.
Your College Supplements should….
- Build on the positive traits displayed elsewhere in your application. These essays should add to the reader’s understanding of who you are.
- Answer the whole prompt. Many essays are looking for specific things – make sure you answer everything the prompt is asking!
- Be direct! Most supplements focus on concisely providing more detail about who you are than measuring creativity. Use a direct approach by starting your essay with the answer to the prompt.
- Be specific! Use anecdotes and details from your experiences to “show” the reader the answer rather than just telling the reader. This is difficult to do on a limited word count but will set you apart
- Focus on Initiative, Impact, and Growth. These tend to be the most compelling themes
Picking Perfect Topics
The goal of your college supplemental essays is the same as the goal of your main essay: to prove that you will be successful in college and beyond. That means that, while you are developing great potential topics for your main essay, you are also developing great potential topics for your supplements!
We covered the five qualities that colleges are looking for in our article on the common app essay, but let’s go over them again now.
- Drive: Also known as grit! Driven students push themselves to succeed no matter how long the odds. They have been through difficult situations and come out a better person.
- Intellectual Curiosity: Students motivated by intellectual curiosity spend their free time learning for the fun of it, going above and beyond their coursework to gain a deeper understanding of subjects that interest them.
- Initiative: These students are not willing to accept the status quo, but instead are willing to challenge it, do things to improve, and generate outcomes. They like to take the lead, or at last the first step!
- Contribution: Students with this quality (otherwise known as a social conscience) give back, making their communities, schools, and organizations better places. They want to help!
- Diversity of Experiences: These students have life experiences and backgrounds that set them apart from the vast majority of college applicants. They’ll be able to add unique perspectives to the student body!
Important note: Colleges are not looking for students who present all five of these traits! Most successful students just have two or three.
- If you need help understanding which of these five qualities are your strengths, sign up here to get access to our free brainstorming tools. They’ll help you come up with a list of compelling experiences that relate to your strengths.
Once you’ve created your list of experiences, ask yourself:
- Does this experience show you taking initiative, or having a positive impact?
- Does it show you undergoing personal growth?
- Does it relate to one of your main extracurricular activities or jobs?
- Is it something you don’t talk about elsewhere in your application?
If you answer yes to one or more of these questions, that means the experience will make a great topic for your college supplement!
Note: You can use your college supplemental essay topics to complement your common app essay topic. For example, if you are strong in contribution and intellectual curiosity, but your common app personal statement focuses on your intellectual curiosity, you might want to pick supplement topics that highlight your contribution.
Structuring Your Response
The strongest Common App essays start with “a hook” to get the reader’s attention. Often, this takes the form of a vivid moment from the experience you’re writing about. But college supplemental essays are different. Most of them are short (in the 100-350 range), and there simply isn’t time to “set the scene.”
Instead, start off with a sentence or two that gives the reader the “big picture” and directly answers the prompt. For example:
- “When I joined Glee Club my sophomore year, there were only five members, and enthusiasm was low. When I agreed to serve as president, I knew I’d have to make some changes, but I never dreamed I’d be leading a 20-member choir to a second place finish in regionals.”
From there, you can go on to describe either the impact you had, or the growth that you experienced.
Let’s take a look at an example structure to guide you through a supplemental essay about an activity.
- The big picture: What is your proudest accomplishment from this activity? Try to summarize your story in just 1-2 sentences.
- Identify the problem or starting point: Describe a challenge you faced in this activity, or describe what you or your group was like before you took action.
- Raise the stakes: Help readers understand the obstacles you were facing. This will help them see that you were up against a real challenge.
- Articulate the vision: What would the benefit of solving the problem be, to you or to others?
- Describe your actions: Tell readers the specific actions you or your team did to solve the problem.
- Impact and effects: Explain the impact of your actions on yourself and others.
- Above and beyond: Describe how this activity has shaped the way you act, think, or solve problems in other areas of your life.
Want to know which colleges require supplemental essays? Click here for access to Prompt’s free organizing tool. You’ll be able to input your college list, and get a complete list of the supplements you have to write, sorted by category.