The 5-part strategy for great college supplements | 2022-23
Note: This post is part of our super-detailed College Essay Help Center, a detailed breakdown of our method for writing strong college essays that help thousands of students get into every top-50 school, every year.
Are you afraid of colleges that require supplemental essays? No longer!
This article will replace that fear with a powerful, easy-to-follow strategy. We’ll give you everything you need to not only write great supplements but also do it quickly.
Our strategy involves:
- Content: Talk about experiences that show off your most compelling traits.
- Content: Focus on Initiative, Impact, Growth, and Passion.
- Instructions: Answer the whole prompt. (Leaving pieces out is a shockingly common mistake.)
- Writing style: Use a direct approach — give a clear answer to the prompt within the first few sentences. Then, cover the details. Leave creative style choices and philosophical musings for another day.
- Writing style: Use specific, concrete details to make a memorable impact on your reader.
This article will show you why colleges want supplemental essays in the first place and elaborate on our 5-part strategy so that you know what to do. We’ll also give you tips for the most common supplements: “Why Us?” “Why Major?” and “Describe an Activity.”
These are the insights we’ve developed as essay coaches and tutors for tens of thousands of applicants.
Colleges use supplemental essays to see if you’ll be successful in college
Supplemental essays are just as important as the personal statement (Common App essay). That’s because admissions readers don’t score your application essay-by-essay. Rather, they give you a “personal score” which comes from all of your essays, as well as your activities list, recommendations, and interviews (if you had any).
In other words, colleges combine all the content you provide to understand who you are. Your writing helps them develop a deep understanding of your traits — in particular, to decide whether they think you’ll be successful in college.
In fact, colleges use supplements to ask questions they believe tie to future success on their campuses. For example, Stanford values intellectual curiosity; their supplements explicitly ask about it. Colleges take this seriously. Often, they’ll track how students do on campus (ex: their GPAs) based on the academic and personal scores they received as applicants.
There are two big lessons to take here:
- Take the supplements as seriously as the colleges do. On one level, that means carefully answering every part of the question. On a deeper level, it means trying to figure out the spirit of the question (ie: the larger values the school is reaching for) and answering in that spirit.
- Think of the supplements as a place to show your potential to succeed on campus. College essays aren’t about showing off writing skills, but rather experiences you’ve had that show potential for success.
How do you demonstrate “potential for success” in an essay? You do it by talking about things you’ve done that show you’ve got 1 or more of the 5 traits colleges love:
- Drive (aka grit): Driven students push themselves to succeed no matter how long the odds. They’ve pushed through difficult situations; they’ve gone above and beyond.
- Intellectual Curiosity: Intellectually curious students spend their free time learning for the fun of it, delving deep into their coursework to gain a deeper understanding of subjects that interest them.
- Initiative: These students won’t accept the status quo. They’ll challenge it, take steps to improve it and deliver impact. They like to take the lead, or at least the first step.
- Contribution (aka social conscience): Students with this quality give back, making their communities, schools, and organizations better. 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.
Most students identify most strongly with 2-3 of these traits. These are the strengths you should particularly emphasize. (You’ll notice that you might end up exhibiting all 5 traits across your essays.) Find out which traits work best for you by taking our 5 traits quiz (login to create a free account).
Part 1: Writing essays is easy once you’ve brainstormed your experiences
If you’re following the Prompt method, we advise students to brainstorm 3-6 strong experiences that relate to their 2-3 most compelling traits. Once you have a Prompt account, you can do this brainstorming via our tools.
Once you’ve brainstormed your best experiences, you’ll match them to the questions in each of your school’s applications. Your top 1-2 best experiences will tend to go into the personal statement. Then, you can fit your next most important within each school’s supplements. (You do have to do this separately for each school, as the supplements are always different.)
Experiences that admissions officers love to see: Whether you brainstorm with our tools or without, remember that colleges are looking to see evidence of your potential for success. That means that the most compelling experiences you can point to should be ones in which you are:
- Active — you’re taking steps (rather than taking things in).
- Making an impact — things would be different if it hadn’t been for your participation.
- Learning skills or information — you take actions that result in your knowing more and improving on weaknesses.
Experiences that can turn admissions officers off: Your poor readers suffer through a lot of the same kind of essay. As a rule, these aren’t compelling because they don’t show you taking actions that demonstrate potential for success. Here are the most common problem topics:
- Athletics (unless the main focus is on significant volunteering or coaching),
- Recovery from injuries,
- Service trips to other countries,
- Childhood experiences, or family vacations,
- Music albums that changed your life,
- Playing video games, and
- Moving cities/transferring schools.
To be clear, this list doesn’t mean these topics can’t be great settings for your essays. They can be. What we mean is that your essay’s theme or topic must relate to something deeper — for example, leadership within athletics, or growing as a person and learning lessons about contribution during a family vacation.
Part 2: Base your essays on experiences that show Initiative, Impact, and Growth
Once you know which of the 5 traits describe you and have brainstormed your best experiences, most of the hard work is done.
Nevertheless, as you choose content for your supplemental essays, these guidelines can help:
- Make sure your personal statement covers your very best experiences. If you didn’t, go back and rewrite it!
- Choose supplement topics that complement the personal statement. For example, if you’re strong in contribution and intellectual curiosity, but your main essay focuses on intellectual curiosity, you should probably pick supplement topics that highlight contribution.
- Or, go deep on one trait in which you’re unusually gifted. Some students may want to strengthen a trait in which they’re particularly strong. For example, they might talk about intellectual curiosity in 2-3 essays, making it clear they’re more IC than even other really compelling candidates. Which is great!
- Choose supplement topics that complement your entire application. For example, a supplement is a great place to expand on your main extracurricular activities or jobs. By diving deeper into these experiences, you’ll paint a fuller picture of yourself, and of the type of student you’ll be on their campus.
- You can tell the same experience in a myriad of ways, some strong, some weak. Tell a story that focuses on the initiative you took, the impact you had (how would it have been different without you?), or the growth you underwent. Impact, in particular, can say a lot in a few words. For example, instead of “I tutored some students and they got better,” how about, “My tutoring led to 5 students placing at the state speech and debate tournament.” This tangible result shows the quality of your tutoring. The fact that you put time, effort, and thought into it speaks volumes about your potential to succeed.
- A common error is to tell a good story that’s interesting, but where you don’t say enough about the part that you played in it. College essays are about you. Talk about the actions you took and how you yourself generated results.
- Another common error is to focus too much on a dramatic event, without showing the actions you’ve taken since, as a result of how the event changed (improved) you. Do you say you're a changed person in your essay? Well, prove it! Describe what you’ve done differently since you changed from this experience.
Nothing is more important than the quality of the experiences you showcase in your essays. If you do this right, writing up those great experiences will be relatively straightforward. If you get this part wrong, you’ll end up losing a lot of time for a less successful result.
That’s why it’s crucial to get a second opinion at this stage. Of course, the easiest way is to ask professionals (like us) who know exactly what admissions officers are looking for. But you can also ask trusted adults in your life, so long as you give them a quick training on what colleges want to see (showing them this article will work).
Part 3: Answer all parts of the prompt
This one seems pretty obvious, right?
Unfortunately, as writing coaches, we’ve seen smart kids miss key pieces of the prompt all the time. It’s a wonderful way to needlessly lose points.
Colleges don’t ask questions to which they don’t want to see an answer, as we discussed above. They’re grading each part of the question, and you don’t want to miss one simply because you read the prompt too quickly or because you got so “into” your answer that you forgot to check it against the prompt.
The fix: After you’ve brainstormed your experiences, but before you begin the actual writing, break the prompt up into its smallest pieces. Then outline what you’ll say for every piece. If the prompt is exceedingly simple (ex: Why Tulane?), it will still save you time to briefly outline the most important things you need to say.
Recycling essays across multiple schools. It’s no secret supplements are similar across various schools. In fact, we take advantage of this with our powerful 3-outline framework for medium and long supplements (see below).
Nevertheless, you can almost never straight-up recycle the same essay. You can adapt one carefully — look really closely at the new prompt. Make sure your old content fully answers each part of it. Almost certainly you’ll have to modify the essay somewhat (or a lot) to make your new essay succeed.
Finally, we have guidance on almost every single college supplemental essay out there. Taking a look at those specific tips can show you how to position each required sub-answer.
Part 4a: Be punchy and crisp with short essays
Punchy and crisp is the best way to succeed with very short questions — those in the 50-100 word range.
Here are some quick tips:
- Give the answer in the first sentence. Then, back your answer with a rationale.
- Do use full sentences (not fragments as with the activities list descriptions).
- Exception: The “answer” sentence can be a fragment. For example, for “What’s your favorite book?” you might say: “The Hate U Give. It showed me how hard it is to do the right thing in an overly politicized atmosphere.” (Feel free to say something much smarter in your second sentence!)
Part 4b: Use our 3-outline system for medium-to-longer essays
Now, this 3-outline secret we’re about to share works wonders for most essays, but not “Why Us” and “Why Major,” about which we’ll say more below. They also won’t work for idiosyncratic college supplemental essays, so check out our individual guides for those. (However, these 3 outlines do work for “Describe an Activity,” about which we also say more below.)
Most supplemental essays cover issues like impact, growth, and passions. So, for most medium (150-350 words), and longer essays (400+), these 3 outlines will set you up for success.
The best way to access these structures is to get into our supplements material on our Dashboard — it will walk you through exactly what to write. At the end of the process, your essay will be mostly written.
The gist of the three outlines is this:
 Initiative and Impact Structure — for essays in which your actions had a concrete impact on an organization, your family, community, or your peers; or where you solved a problem or overcame a challenge.
- Hook (1-2 sentences). Briefly describe your achievement. Aim to make the reader think, “Impressive! How did they do that?”
- Raise the stakes (1 paragraph). Add context and detail about the challenge/problem. Hint: The lower the starting point, the more meaningful your achievement will seem.
- Your actions (1 paragraph). List the actions you took. Think: How would things have been different if I hadn’t been there?
- The impact (1 paragraph). The most important part!! Using concrete language — quantify where you can — describe what you achieved.
 Personal Growth Structure — for essays in which your actions led you to change as a person; you improved your skills, or learned to see yourself or others differently.
- Hook (1-2 sentences). Briefly describe the experience and how you grew from it. Aim to make the reader think, “What a cool way to be. How did they get that way?”
- Raise the stakes (1 paragraph). Add detail about Before You’s problems. Hint: The worse things were for Before You, the more impressive your transformation will seem.
- Your actions (1 paragraph). List the actions you took. Think: How would things have been different if I hadn’t been there?
- What you learned (1 paragraph). The most important part!! Describe what the experience taught you, and what New You does differently (better).
 Passions Structure — for essays in which you pursue a meaningful interest in a deeply engaged way.
- Hook (1-2 sentences). Briefly describe your interest and how you pursue it. Aim to make the reader think, “What a fascinating interest. How do they pursue it?”
- Raise the stakes (1-2 paragraphs). Add detail on the actions you take to pursue this interest. Hint: You should be drawing a silent contrast between your extraordinary pursuit of this interest compared to less motivated and engaged people.
- How it makes you feel (1 paragraph). The most important part!! Show why the interest is meaningful to you by describing what it brings out in you, or how it’s changed you.
Part 5: Use specific, concrete details
Don’t let fear of writing slow you down when it comes time to translate your excellent experiences into a polished essay. Remember that admissions officer? All they really care about is seeing the experiences you’ve had that show the 5 traits.
Here are 3 important ways to stay focused on what matters:
First, keep the 5 traits in mind. This should steer you clear of the temptation to show off “writerly” ways, such as weaving metaphors, waxing philosophical, and using literary devices. This is good. Your writing style for your essays should be straightforward and easy-to-understand. Nothing fancy.
Second, include concrete, specific details. The more room you give over to specific situations and specific actions you’ve taken, the less time you’ll have for vague generalizations. This is also good. Not only is it that all-important “show-not-tell,” it will make for much more believable and memorable responses.
Third, get feedback on clarity. You’ve lived through this story. Of course it makes sense to you! Recruit someone who hasn’t lived through it. Your admissions reader won’t have — and they need to understand it. No matter how strong of a writer you are, you need an outside perspective here.
As we said above, the easiest way to get excellent feedback is to ask a professional, who knows exactly what’s required in these essays. If you go with a friend or trusted adult, just make sure you ask them to focus their initial feedback on clarity. (Only ask for spelling and grammar feedback when you’re at your very last draft.)
Know the quirks of the most common supplements
Many schools use “Why Us?” “Why Major?” and “Describe an activity.” Each of these has its own special quirks that we, as admissions-obsessed professionals, have figured out for you. Let’s get to it!
Why Us: The point is to demonstrate interest in the college
With some exceptions (ex: Yale), most “Why Us” essays are about Demonstrated Interest. Meaning, “Will this applicant likely enroll if we offer them a spot?”
Demonstrated interest only matters to some schools. Googling [school name] + “demonstrated interest” should show you which ones. Highly elite schools generally don’t care about it, whereas many schools that are almost as exclusive do care. That’s because of the importance of “yield” (ie: how many accepted students actually enroll) to the US News and World Report rankings.
The bottom line is that schools use extremely surprising methods to determine if you’re interested in actually going there. We’ve distilled 11 tips and tricks for showing Demonstrated Interest. Read them because (1) they’re easy to do, and (2) they are, as we said, quite … surprising. (Website cookies figure in this list.)
Ultimately, the strongest way to show interest is to write a great Why Us essay, so let’s get to our pointers.
Why Us: Write the college a love letter based on research
A great Why Us essay is a love letter to the college — a love letter that says, “If you accept me, I will enroll.” A love letter that is Demonstrated Interest incarnate.
Needless to say, most students don’t write love letters, so this is a place you can really distinguish yourself from the herd.
Short version, a great Why Us essay is all about research. Research on your own academic and extracurricular interests. Research on what the school has to offer, academically and extracurricularly. And straightforwardly tying those two together.
Long version, we’ve written a comprehensive guide on how to ace your Why Us essay. It’s a great idea either to read that or to follow our Why Us module in our College Admissions Dashboard, which walks you through the entire method, leaving you with the content for a great Why Us essay.
Here’s the gist, if you’re still here:
First, you. Devote time to brainstorming your academic interests, your intellectual origin stories (how did you develop those interests?), your extracurricular interests, and what your time on campus might actually look like (think: what kinds of classes you’ll take, what kinds of friends you’d like to meet, what kinds of activities you’d like to engage in, what kinds of jobs you’ll likely take).
Second, them. Most “Why Us” essays are terrible because the students don’t take the time to research the school. Our advice? Research the school!
In particular, look up the department pages for the academics you’ll likely take. Look at the syllabus for a few advanced classes that you can see yourself taking one day. Look at what research professors are doing, or what books they’re writing.
In addition, learn about the school’s clubs, what extracurriculars are available, and what research or job opportunities are on offer.
Third, match the research up. Using an extremely direct style, match up your interests to what the school has on offer. For example:
“I’m interested in Modern American History. These classes have been my favorite in high school, and I particularly love having greater insight on current political issues because of my knowledge of what came before. At Your College, I’ll most likely major in American History, and I’d love to take classes such as Professor X’s ‘The Suffragist Movement,’ and Professor Y’s ‘Civil Rights from Johnson to Biden.’ Each year, Your College gives out an award for the best American history paper. I can’t say I’m going to win that, but I can promise that I’m going to try. Writing my Senior History Research paper on the history of redlining in Boston was the highlight of my senior year.”
Bonus tip. Since the secret reason behind “Why Us” is to find out if you’d likely enroll, feel free to say if the school is your top choice or a top choice (only if true), and be sure to pepper in some enthusiasm.
Why Major: Show your history of success with the subject
“Why Major” can look a lot like “Why Us.” Both require you to examine your own academic (and extracurricular) interests:
- “Why Us” wants to see how they match up to what the school has to offer,
- “Why Major” wants to see how they match up with a particular field of study.
They do differ, however, in what the admissions officers care about:
- For “Why Us,” it’s whether you seem like you’d enroll if offered admission,
- For “Why Major,” it’s whether you’ll likely be an academic success at the school or in the particular major or program.
The easiest way to get started on a strong “Why Major” essay is to follow the “Why Major” module in our free brainstorming tools. We’ve also written a comprehensive guide to writing a stellar “Why Major” essay.
If you want the quick and dirty version, though, here are our top tips:
First, brainstorm your academic interest(s).
- Think about the subjects you enjoy learning about (or doing). What aspects are most interesting to you and why?
- Think of examples of things you’ve done to further your interest in this topic. Have you read books on your own, or sought out additional academic or summer opportunities related to it?
- What was your “academic origin story”? This is even more important to “Why Major” than to “Why Us.” Showing that you’ve had a long history of loving this subject will add depth and meaning to your essay. It will give your reader confidence that you and this subject are at the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Second, brainstorm/research how you hope to pursue the major and what the school or program offers. As with “Why Us,” this essay will connect your interests with a place where you can develop them — in this case, the major itself, or perhaps the school’s program. So put some deep thinking into:
- What are you especially curious about? Are there any skills you want to develop related to this field of interest? What other classes might you take?
- (Optional): Will this interest lead you to your career? What would that look like? How will you get there?
- (Depending on the prompt — some schools, such as Cornell, want to know “Why this major at this school”:) How will you continue developing this interest at the school? What classes do they offer? What do the most interesting syllabuses and research opportunities look like? Who are the professors? What major-related opportunities exist?
Third, put these two pieces together in a straightforward way. This essay can be quite short, so you may or may not have room to use all of the brainstormed nuggets you came up with. Still, you’ll be ahead if you use specific, concrete examples of things you’ve done that show interest and success in your chosen field. You’ll do even better if you can add in a compelling picture of the path you’re itching to take to pursue this field generally or at the specific school.
Finally, asking for feedback on clarity is critical. As we’ve said before, get an outside perspective from admissions coaches or an adult you trust. If it’s from non-professionals, just be sure to ask them for clarity and content-related feedback, not thoughts on your “writing” itself.
Describe an activity: Paint a picture of you bringing something exciting to campus
Activity supplements are a bit like “Why Major,” except with an extracurricular instead of an academic interest.
The admissions readers are looking to understand if the activities you’ve engaged with in high school are deep and meaningful to you — activities you might use as stepping stones to succeed in college and beyond. Or are they just things you did because you thought you had to?
We’ve written a comprehensive guide to these supplements. But here’s our 3-step cheat sheet version. (By the way, this is an essay that you can write using one of the three outlines we described above for medium and longer essays.)
Step one: Choose an activity for which you can show a steady commitment.
Just as “Why Major” is about showing you’ll be able to cut it academically at the school (or in the program), “Describe a major” is about showing you’ll develop an interesting extracurricular fully while on campus. You can only convince the admissions reader you’ll do that if you’ve had a sustained engagement with this thing.
Step two: Make sure your involvement with the activity shows off 1 or more of the 5 traits.
Admissions officers are always looking for those 5 delectable traits. They want to see you’ve got what it takes to succeed, and what you’ve done with an activity is generally an excellent way to show that.
Your activity is an excuse to show off:
- Drive you’ve exhibited — you’ve never missed a soccer practice, you convinced the team to add another practice when the team hit a rough patch, you added weights to your fitness routine when you learned it might help your performance.
- Intellectual curiosity — if you write for your high school fiction magazine, talk about the authors you’ve discovered in extra reading you’ve done in your own time; talk about a seminar you sought out on the basics of fiction writing.
- Initiative — there was no band before you came to your high school. Or there was a band, but it had old, broken instruments, and you held a fundraiser to pay for upgrades, and advocated for a budget change, too.
- Contribution — you started volunteering more and more hours at a local food pantry and got involved with neighborhood groups publicizing free food pantries during the pandemic. You’ve learned how deep food insecurity goes in your own community, and you’ve recruited friends to help and to see that for themselves.
- Diversity of experiences — Your love of band comes from growing up in jazz-soaked New Orleans, where you learned jazz trumpet. Your volunteer work gives you a perspective into your community that many others lack. (Activities are a great place to show off what gives you a unique perspective.)
Step 3: Show how you’ll continue the activity on campus.
Paint a picture for your admissions reader of you, doing this exciting activity on their campus. Making their campus better and more interesting because of your work. Make them salivate over the prospect of seeing you doing your thing.
They’ll be itching to get you admitted.
To do this, you do want to research that campus and what opportunities it offers to further your activity. This might mean what clubs and funding it has available, but it also could mean showing how the activity would influence or benefit from certain academics.
Step 4 (bonus!): Get feedback. Hey, we can give you feedback! Or, if you’ve trained your trusted adult by this time, they can give you feedback. It’s all about clarity, the 5 traits, and showing you’ll be an asset on campus.
Stepping stones photo by Jessica Paterson. Just 5 easy steps to get you safely to the land of great college supplements.
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