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6 tips for writing great college essay supplements

6 tips for writing great college essay supplements

Worried about all the supplemental essays that college applications require?

Don’t panic. We have a strategy that should simplify the process of getting those pesky additional essays written — and improve your chances of admission while you’re at it.

Tip 1 — Brainstorm compelling experiences; Tip 2 — Write about actions you took that created impact and growth; Tip 3 — Be specific, concrete + paint a clear picture of the effort that went into your achievements; Tip 4 — Use uncommon/creative prompts to showcase your unique perspective; Tip 5 — Answer all parts of the prompt; Tip 6 — Get feedback on clarity
Tip 1 — Brainstorm compelling experiences; Tip 2 — Write about actions you took that created impact and growth; Tip 3 — Be specific, concrete + paint a clear picture of the effort that went into your achievements; Tip 4 — Use uncommon/creative prompts to showcase your unique perspective; Tip 5 — Answer all parts of the prompt; Tip 6 — Get feedback on clarity

Tip 1 — Brainstorm compelling experiences

The secret to writing a great college admissions essay is to show the admissions officer that you have what it takes to succeed on campus. But how do you do that? By describing experiences that show you have one or more of the 5 Traits that colleges look for in applicants:

  • Drive (aka grit)
  • Intellectual Curiosity (academic interests)
  • Contribution (helping others)
  • Initiative 
  • Diversity of Experiences

Since the personal score comes from all of your written components, Prompt’s method is to brainstorm all your best experiences until you have 3-6 that you think are the most compelling. 

If you want a free tool to help you brainstorm, you can create a Prompt account to access our brainstorming modules. 

For most students, you’ll use the best 1-2 experiences for your personal statement, also known as the Common App essay. You should use the rest of your experiences to answer the essay prompts each college asks, including why us, why major, quirky short answer questions, everything. (We recommend writing out your essays college by college, so that each application is a cohesive whole showcasing your potential to succeed. That is: do all of Barnard, then all of Amherst, then all of Penn, until you’re done.)

Tip 2 — Write about actions you took that created impact and growth

Colleges will find your experiences compelling if they are:

  • Active — you’re describing the steps you took to make something happen, or to learn and grow. (You’re not describing a situation you happened to find yourself in, or your feelings, or your preferences/thoughts/philosophy.)
  • Impactful — admissions readers love to see proof (quantifiable if possible) that things would be different if you hadn’t been there. Examples include: number of students recruited (say, for a club); an amount of money raised; number of wins since you became team captain. Think creatively, and you can probably come up with a compelling metric to show your impact.
  • Focused on learning — colleges look for growth, so it’s great if your past experiences led you to know more about something or to improve a skill.

If that makes sense, let’s also check on the opposite side, and make sure you don’t fall into some common pitfalls. 

Common topics that are less compelling to colleges than you might think:

  • Recovery from injuries
  • Service trips, (unless you can quantify a meaningful contribution)
  • Childhood experiences, or family vacations, 
  • Playing video games
  • Moving cities/transferring schools,
  • Despite what many people think, “tragedy” and “trauma” rarely make for great college admissions essays

Truthfully, any of these topics could be done well — if they focus on your own actions, growth, and impact. It’s just that they often lead students to write essays that are more passive. While they might showcase real struggles, they don’t necessarily say much about your character or potential to succeed on campus. 

(By the way, easy topics that are often more compelling than students think are extracurricular activities and work experiences.)

Tip 3 — Be specific, concrete + paint a clear picture of the effort that went into your achievements

College admissions officers love specific, concrete details. (Come to think of it, that might be true for any reader.)

What we’ve found in particular is that students tend to forget to describe the effort that went into any achievement. But that effort is often the most impressive part of the achievement.

Are you running a successful chess club? Tell us about how hard it was to recruit at first. Tell us how you made three different attempts, and kept improving as you went along. The reader is learning about your drive, perseverance, and initiative. The reader is impressed to hear you spent over a year recruiting to get to 15 regular chess club attendees. Much more then when you simply tell them you run a “successful” chess club. 

Specifics are always more impactful than generalizations, especially in super short essays.

This can also be helpful to bear in mind if you’re trying to cut down on your word limit; leave in concrete descriptions and cut general descriptions that aren’t earning their word count.

Tip 4 — Use uncommon/creative prompts to showcase your unique perspective

Many colleges have whimsical prompts that can feel daunting. (You know what we mean if you’re applying to MIT or the University of Chicago.) For example — how do you feel about Wednesdays? What are you supposed to do with that?

Generally, we find that colleges are looking for some combination of:

  • How you approach creative questions in a way that shows quality of thought
  • What’s unique and interesting about your intellectual curiosity or perspective.

Use each of these “fun” questions to show how thoughtful you are, and provide insight into the rest of your application. 

For example: Where would you travel if you could go anywhere?

One answer is: “Nantucket, because my family always goes there and I made a lot of good memories there.”

Contrast what you learn about that person with:

“Nantucket, because my trips there with my family sparked my interest in the island's whaling history, which in turn led me to read Moby Dick and discover my love for classic literature.”

The first person sounds somewhat passive. The second sounds like someone with a unique perspective who does interesting things. Note that it would be all the stronger if that person’s interest in literature were also evident elsewhere in the application. 

As you interpret a question like: how do you feel about Wednesdays?, don’t stress about the weirdness of it; instead, use it as an invitation to showcase something interesting about yourself (ideally that ties in with the rest of your application and the 5 Traits).

For example, you could write about Wednesdays being great because that's the day you lead Astronomy Club, or because of your love of etymology and how interesting it is that Wednesday comes from “Odin’s Day.” 

Tip 5 — Answer all parts of the prompt

We know, this one seems obvious. But it’s worth mentioning because we’ve seen multi-part supplemental essay prompts trip up too many students.

Colleges don’t ask questions to which they don’t want to see an answer. Their writing supplements are there for a reason. And you don’t want to miss a part 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 life 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.

Tip 6 — Get feedback on clarity

Unless you’re working with a professional essay coach, we’ve found that the people in your life (mom, dad, auntie) don’t tend to give great essay feedback. They don’t know about the 5 traits, and often want to steer you in directions that don’t work for admissions officers. (Ex: The cool trip you took in middle school; that awesome award you won … but that doesn’t make for a particularly “active” essay.)

The fix: Train your reviewer. Ask your trusted adult to focus only on whether your essay is clear or not. Do they have questions they want to see answered? 

This is the best way for you to improve your essay. You want to make sure your admissions officer understands it as they read through it very, very quickly. (Admissions officers spend about 8 minutes per application — so when they get confused, they just move on and your admission chances suffer.)

Note: Once you’ve done 1-2 rounds of the “clarity” feedback, you can also ask for spelling/grammar feedback. But save that for last, as the clarity piece is really the most important. 

Bonus Tip — Recycle

Earlier in this article, we advised you to go school by school, or application by application. And that remains good advice.

But it doesn’t mean you can’t recycle much of your content. 

Many schools ask similar questions. Naturally, you’ll need to make at least a few tweaks. But that should not preclude you from using the major components of your supplemental essays for more than one school. 

We even have a free tool that can help (as part of your Prompt account). 

Related posts:

The above articles and a step-by-step guide to the college essay writing process can be found in our Help Center.

Brad Schiller
Brad Schiller graduated from MIT with a Bachelors of Science in Mechanical Engineering and Management Science with a concentration in Operations Research. He has worked in business consulting with McKinsey, founded two businesses, and written a book. He started Prompt with two fellow MIT people, Jordan and John, to make people better writers. Their premise was simple: give everyone access to on-demand feedback on their writing from subject-knowledgeable Writing Coaches. Years later, Prompt is the largest provider of feedback on admissions essays in the world. Come and join us on our journey by emailing