Sample Supplemental Essay for College Admissions: Why This College?

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Most college applicants fail to put adequate time into a supplemental college essay. The Common Application's personal essay allows a student to write a single essay for multiple colleges. The supplemental college essay, however, needs to be different for every application. Thus, it's tempting to dash off a generic and vague piece that can be used at multiple schools, resulting in a  weak essay .

Don't make this mistake. Your "Why This College" essay must be specific, demonstrating a high level of interest in and commitment to this particular school. To better understand how to ace this supplemental essay prompt, let's analyze a sample essay written for Oberlin College .

The essay prompt reads:

"Given your interests, values, and goals, explain why Oberlin College will help you grow (as a student and a person) during your undergraduate years."

Sample Supplemental Essay

I visited 18 colleges over the past year, yet Oberlin is the one place that most spoke to my interests. Early in my college search I learned that I prefer a liberal arts college to a larger university. The collaboration between the faculty and undergraduate students, the sense of community, and the flexible, interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum are all important to me. Also, my high school experience was greatly enriched by the diversity of the student body, and I am impressed by Oberlin’s rich history and its current efforts connected to inclusiveness and equality. To say the least, I’d be proud to say I attended the first coeducational college in the country.
I plan to major in Environmental Studies at Oberlin. After my campus tour , I took some extra time to visit the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. It’s an amazing space and the students I chatted with spoke highly of their professors. I became truly interested in issues of sustainability during my volunteer work in the Hudson River Valley, and everything I’ve learned about Oberlin makes it seem the ideal place for me to continue exploring and building upon those interests. I am also impressed by Oberlin’s Creativity and Leadership Project. I’ve been a bit of an entrepreneur ever since second grade when I made a dollar producing and performing The Runaway Bunny for my extended family. I’m drawn to a program that supports the move from classroom learning to creative hands-on, real-world applications.
Finally, as the rest of my application clearly demonstrates, music is an important part of my life. I’ve been playing the trumpet since fourth grade, and I hope to continue performing and developing my skills throughout college. What better place than Oberlin to do so? With more performances than days in the year and a large group of talented musicians in the Conservatory of Music, Oberlin is an ideal place for exploring my love of both music and the environment.

Understanding the Essay Prompt

To understand the strength of the essay, we must first look at the prompt: the admissions officers at Oberlin want you to "explain why Oberlin College will help you grow." This sounds straightforward, but be careful. You're not being asked to explain how college, in general, will help you grow, nor are you being asked how attending a small liberal arts school will help you grow. The admissions offers want to hear how  Oberlin , in particular, will help you grow, so the essay needs to include specific information about Oberlin College.

A strong "Why This College" essay will make a case for why the school in question is a good fit for the student. The case should be made by connecting facts about the school—unique opportunities, educational values, campus culture, et cetera—with the student's goals, values, and interests.

From the Admissions Desk

"We want to see [in the "Why This School" essay] that students understand the unique educational model at High Point University. We know that students have access to more information than ever before and that most colleges focus on the classroom experience. We want students who desire 25% of their time to be experiential ... who want to grow as people of character with strong values and to fully immerse themselves in our life skills education."

–Kerr Ramsay Vice President for Undergraduate Admissions, High Point University

A good way to see if you've responded to the prompt well is to swap out the name of the college you're applying to with the name of any other college. If the essay still makes sense once you do a global replace of the school name, you haven't written a good supplemental essay.

A Critique of the Supplemental Essay

The sample essay certainly succeeds on this front. If we were to substitute "Kenyon College" for "Oberlin College" in the essay, the essay would not make sense. The details in the essay are unique to Oberlin. Demonstrated interest can play a meaningful role in the admissions process, and this applicant has clearly demonstrated that she knows Oberlin well and her interest in the school is sincere.

Let's look at some of the essay's strengths:

  • The first paragraph makes several important points. First of all, we learn that the applicant has visited Oberlin. This may not seem like a big deal, but you'd be surprised how many students apply to a large number of colleges based on nothing but the schools' reputations. Also, the student notes that she wants to go to a  liberal arts college , not a larger  university . This information isn't really specific to Oberlin, but it does show that she has thought about the options available to her. The final point in this first paragraph gets more specific—the applicant is familiar with Oberlin and knows the school's socially progressive history.
  • The second paragraph is really the heart of this essay—the applicant wants to major in Environmental Studies, and she is clearly impressed with the program at Oberlin. She has visited the Environmental Studies building, and she knows of some of the unique opportunities offered at Oberlin. She has even talked with Oberlin students. This paragraph can't help but make a favorable impression on the admissions folks—the applicant is drawn to Oberlin, and she clearly knows exactly  why  she likes Oberlin.
  • The final paragraph adds another important dimension to the application. Not only does the student find the Environmental Studies program attractive, but her love of music makes Oberlin an even better match. Oberlin has a top-rated music conservatory, so the applicant's dual love of music and Environmental Studies makes Oberlin a natural match for her.

Admissions officers can't help but feel that Oberlin is a great match for this applicant. She knows the school well, and her interests and goals line up perfectly with Oberlin's strengths. This short essay will certainly be a positive piece of her application.

A Final Word About Supplemental Essays

The content of your supplemental essay is extremely important, and poor decisions on this front can lead to a weak supplemental essay . But content isn't everything. You also need to focus on the presentation of your ideas. Make sure your essay is entirely free of any grammatical errors, and be sure to avoid common stylistic problems . The admissions officers need to conclude that you are sincerely interested in attending their school and that you are an excellent writer.

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Your Definitive Guide to Supplemental College Application Essays

Including supplemental essay examples to inspire your own.

Supplemental College Application Essays

Supplemental college application essays come in a vast range of topics and sizes and are often the biggest challenge for students after getting through the grueling initial application stages. These essays are crucial in the admissions process, as they provide a more personal and detailed context of your candidacy. They allow you to speak about more specific topics than the more general and broadly-structured personal statement or Common App essay that you submit in your primary application.

In this blog, our college essay advisors go over the general categories and purposes for the various supplemental essays you may have to navigate, and offer examples of short, medium, and lengthy supplemental essays.

>> Want us to help you get accepted? Schedule a free strategy call here . <<

Article Contents 25 min read

Why are supplemental college application essays so important.

Supplemental essay prompts are usually provided directly by colleges as part of the secondary application, after you’ve submitted your primary application. Some colleges ask for multiple essays of varying lengths while others may ask for just one long-form supplemental essay. The specific prompts and word count requirements vary widely between schools. Every admissions committee creates their own supplemental requirements, including secondary essay prompts, to help them form a holistic picture of the applicant and judge how well-suited they would be for their school.

At the outset, it’s vital to understand that the term “supplemental” does not mean optional or second in importance. A supplement fills or makes up for an absence or imbalance, and that’s precisely the role these essays play in your application. Think of it a bit like adding colored paint to a black and white drawing. Your high school resume , transcripts, and test scores have given admissions committees an initial sense of what your candidacy. Supplemental essays, when correctly attuned to the personal statement, create a more nuanced portrait of your as an applicant.

Supplemental essays present a unique challenge as they have to be written in a short period of time, typically in 2 weeks or a month. Colleges send out secondary applications only after receiving your primary application and they provide strict submission deadlines. Additionally, unlike your personal statement, it’s not always possible to write supplemental college essays in advance since colleges frequently change their exact prompts from one year to the next and secondary essays need to always be tailored in response to specific prompts. However, that doesn’t mean you have to wait till you actually receive your specific prompts to start work on the essays.

A good strategy to tackle advance work on supplemental college essays is to spend 2 to 3 weeks writing rough drafts of the most common supplemental college essay types. Depending on the colleges you’re applying to, you can focus on specific prompts they’ve frequently asked in previous years. You can also check out college essay examples to get a better idea of what kind of content you need to come up with.

As you’re working on your primary application in the summer before senior year of high school or in September/October of your senior year, you can spend a few minutes each day brainstorming ideas for the previous year’s secondary essay prompts from colleges you’re applying to and creating a few rough drafts. For instance, most colleges ask for the “why us” essay, so you should definitely brainstorm your answer to that question in advance for all the colleges you’re applying to.

The advantage of following this strategy is that you will probably be wrapping up your primary application, including your personal statement or Common App essay, just as you begin work on your secondaries. Writing an effective personal statement requires a lot of brainstorming, journaling, introspection, free writing, rough drafts, and revisions. In the process, you’re sure to have spent plenty of time identifying key experiences, events, incidents, and people in your life, and also thinking about your own strengths, weaknesses, motivations, ambitions, and failures. Not all of this would have made it into your personal statement, and you can re-use a lot of this rough material as inspiration for your supplemental essay content. Moreover, you would have already honed your structuring and writing skills working on your personal statement, and the basic written communication skills required for the secondary essays are the same.

The goal of this advanced writing process is to have ideas and inspiration ready for when you actually receive your specific essay prompts. All your pre-writing and brainstorming will give you plenty of base material to work with, and rather than starting from scratch, you can spend the critical time before your supplemental deadline tailoring your essays to respond to the specific prompts and word counts. Remember, this is going to be a very busy period for you: while different colleges have different supplemental application dates and timelines, they generally occur within a similar period of time, typically between October and November for early decision programs and December and January for regular applications. So, you’re bound to have some overlap between the secondary essay deadlines for different colleges you’re applying to. You might end up having to work on secondary essays for multiple colleges within the same 1 month period. That’s why it’s all the more important that you complete your brainstorming in advance and create a few rough drafts of essays in response to the most commonly expected prompts.

Now, let’s discuss some general trends and categories frequently used for supplemental college application essays.

How to Tackle Different Supplemental Essays Prompts

While these categories cover the general focus of most supplemental essays, it’s important to note that schools change their secondary and supplemental essay prompts regularly, sometimes every year, and as a result, topics and categories evolve over time. Nonetheless, these are the most common categories both historically and currently.

Here are some helpful tips to keep in mind while working on any essay type:

The School-Specific Supplemental Essay

What is it?

As we mentioned previously, this is one of the most frequently used supplemental college prompts. These are typically between 250-350 words in length, although this varies widely from school to school. This is actually one of the easiest types of secondary college prompts to answer. Students don’t usually choose their undergraduate institutions randomly, rather, they make their choice after careful deliberation and research. To answer the school-specific essays, use that research! Schools want to know you’re engaged with their overall mission and clearly understand their place in the world, as well as what you specifically hope to get out of the campus experience aside from a Bachelor’s degree.

Sample essay prompts

Dartmouth : While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: \"It is, sir,\u2026a small college, and yet there are those who love it!\" As you seek admission to the Class of 2026, what aspects of the College's program, community, or campus environment attract your interest? (maximum 100 words) ","label":"Dartmouth","title":"Dartmouth"}]" code="tab1" template="BlogArticle">

How to write this type of essay

  • Provide specific details that tie to an overarching theme : It’s very important to set up the connection between your academic ambitions and what the college has to offer. Think deeply about what you hope to achieve and why you’ve identified this specific college. Back up your thesis with specific details about the college. It’s not enough to say – “I love XYZ college, and I’d love to pursue ABC major there.” The why is crucial. Remember, in this essay, colleges don’t want to see you simply discuss you and your journey; they want to know how that journey led you to them. Back up your claims with details about what attracts you to them, which could be anything from the campus and famous alumni, to the college’s unique values, or their innovative curriculum.
  • Go beyond the obvious : This type of essay is, crucially, asking you to do your research and go beyond the obvious. Don’t just talk about a school’s generally known reputation or what’s on their homepage. Instead, try to identify specific projects, academic opportunities, research avenues, extracurriculars, or faculty that interest you, and relate them to your goals.
  • Consider what you can do for them : Think not only about why this college is a great choice for you, but why you are a great choice for them. Why do you think you’ll fit into their campus? Are there college traditions you would be proud to continue? Can you contribute to any on-going projects or initiatives on campus? Demonstrate why they should choose you by using a concrete example.

The Extracurricular Essay

In this essay, you may be asked to talk about a particularly meaningful extracurricular activity. You might have already covered the basic details of this activity in the activities section of your application, but supplemental essays dealing with your extracurricular activities get into more overtly personal territory. Remember, the intent here is not to simply get a rehash of your activities section or transcript; rather, in these essays, schools want you to get into the deeper aspects and psychological nuances of your involvement in those activities.

It’s important to keep in mind that most prompts will not directly reference extracurriculars, but the most likely answer to these kinds of prompt will include a discussion of an extracurricular activity. For instance, some colleges ask you to elaborate on an activity where you demonstrated leadership or what helps you explore your creative side.

University of California: Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side. (maximum 350 words) ","label":"University of California 2","title":"University of California 2"}]" code="tab2" template="BlogArticle">

  • Pick the right activity : It’s important to pick the right activities to talk about in your supplemental essays. Research the school’s website and social media to see their mission, values, and what kind of qualities they value in their matriculants, and choose an activity that reflects these. While you obviously want to remain genuine in your essays, it does not mean you cannot be strategic. Choose an activity you know will resonate with the college you’re applying to. Another tip: If you’ve already discussed one activity in detail in your personal statement, avoid repeating that here. Additionally, don’t pick achievement-oriented activities just because you think this might impress the admissions committee. You’ve already communicated your achievements in the activities section – in this essay, you have a chance to share another side of your personality and show the admissions committee more of what makes you unique. So, you can either focus on activities you are passionate about but haven’t mentioned elsewhere, such as cooking, woodworking, non-competitive chess playing, and so on. Or pick a compelling angle for activities you’ve already mentioned. For instance, if you’ve noted being a musician in your application elsewhere, this essay would be an opportunity to discuss why and how it’s been meaningful in your life, and potentially the lives of others.
  • Do not be repetitive : Think of the personal circumstances, feelings, failures, and learnings surrounding your extracurriculars and write an essay that elaborates on one of these aspects. For example, even if you do end up picking your top activity from your primary application to write about, make sure the essay you write covers a unique aspect of your experience that you haven’t discussed elsewhere in your application before. Continuing our previous example, don’t just cover the obvious aspects of musical performance, but get into the psychological impact of performing, and of what specific types or music have impacted you through immersive practice or playing. 

Check out this infographic:

This type of essay is often the hardest for students to navigate, and also comes with the longest minimum word count requirement, often 500 or more words. If you’ve had your head down in the grind of coursework and achievement-oriented activities for most of your time in high school, odds are, you haven’t had a lot of time to engage in community service or collective projects outside of school. In a sense, this is a supplemental essay that requires some advanced planning: volunteer or community service work is a widely-understood key to getting admitted to competitive universities, so you will need something to refer to in this regard. Moreover, in this essay more than any other, colleges want to see an account of meaningful experience rather than a mere description of activities performed. They’re looking for long-term involvement, thoughtful self-reflection, and a clear personal growth journey. It’s a lot to ask from a high school student writing a 500 word essay!

However, part of the brilliance of this type of essay is its flexibility. You don’t need to have built a new community center with your bare hands to have impacted your community. Maybe you’ve participated in a group project that benefitted other students, or maybe you took part in planning a school event. Even a part-time job likely had some impact on your neighbors and fellow citizens. You could also discuss “informal” activities, such as helping your elderly neighbor with her grocery shopping, helping your family with a cultural project, your background as a member of a minority group, and so on. Think creatively about the ways you’ve acted in the world, and from that, determine how those actions have impacted others.

MIT : At MIT, we bring people together to better the lives of others. MIT students work to improve their communities in different ways, from tackling the world\u2019s biggest challenges to being a good friend. Describe one way in which you have contributed to your community, whether in your family, the classroom, your neighborhood, etc. (200\u2013250 words) ","label":"MIT","title":"MIT"}]" code="tab3" template="BlogArticle">

  • Find what makes you unique : If you’re having trouble identifying which communities you’ve been a part of, or which part of your identity to focus on, try the “what makes me unique?” angle. This is definitely something you would have brainstormed for your personal statement, so bring those notes out! We are all a part of various communities, whether we realize it or not, and we all contribute to them in our own unique way. You might have a unique skill or talent, or maybe it’s a personal quality that helped you deal with an issue in the community. Alternatively, maybe your background and identity are a key part of your life’s journey, and you have many experiences related to that. There’s no “wrong” community you could discuss, whether it’s a Dungeons and Dragons club you created with your friends, the ethnic community you’re a part of, or the neighborhood where you grew up. The key is to identify what makes you unique.
  • Focus on your growth journey: The easiest way to discuss community engagement in a “meaningful” way is to focus on how you, individually, found growth and learning through your participation in a larger community, and how you simultaneously impacted them. No matter what the community is, the growth narrative is important. There has to be a clear two-way impact that demonstrates how your engagement and contributions affected those around you.

Create Your Own Class Essay

One of the more creative type of essays, these prompts ask students to come up with their own class, reimagine a whole department, conceptualize their ideal lecture series, and so on. This essay is your chance to show your creative and out-of-the-box thinking, while also expanding upon your academic interests and sharing your passions with the admissions committee. This essay is essentially a more creative alternative to the “why this major” essay.

Boston College : Boston College strives to provide an undergraduate learning experience emphasizing the liberal arts, quality teaching, personal formation, and engagement of critical issues. If you had the opportunity to create your own college course, what enduring question or contemporary problem would you address and why. (maximum 400 words) ","label":"Boston College","title":"Boston College"}]" code="tab4" template="BlogArticle">

  • Get creative : You can really use this essay topic to stand out from the crowd. Come up with a creative answer and expand upon it with fun, yet thoughtful details that show your intellectual curiosity and unique perspective on the world.
  • Align your answer with the college : Remember, you’re being asked to come up with a course for the specific college you’re applying to. What’s their mission? What kind of curriculum do they have? What type of learning do they value? Find out the answer to these questions and incorporate these details in your essay. For example, if the college you’re applying to values an interdisciplinary learning environment, try to come up with a course that incorporates both science and humanities concepts.
  • Use your experience : This prompt is also the school’s way to learn more about your personal goals and experiences. Try to ground your motivation for creating this course in your own life. For example, if you want to create a curriculum that covers the influence of fashion on punk rock culture, try to connect it to your own interests or skills, such as a sewing hobby or your love of underground culture.

The Major or Field of Study Essay

This can be a tricky essay type to handle for college students who are still undecided about their major, which is very natural for high school students. Luckily, not all colleges ask for this type of essay. You can expect this essay mostly from colleges focused on a specific stream of study, who want to know why you’re attracted to that field. Some elite universities, like Ivy League schools , also ask this question because they want to see the applicants’ long-term academic ambitions and how well these fit in with their own mission.

Interested in learning more about how to gain acceptance to an Ivy League School? Check out this video!

Sample essay prompt

MIT: Pick what field of study at MIT appeals to you the most right now, and tell us more about why this field of study appeals to you. (maximum 100 words) ","label":"MIT","title":"MIT"}]" code="tab5" template="BlogArticle">

  • Include personal as well as college-specific details : Similar to the “why us” essay, you need to refer to specific details of the college program, faculty, academic curriculum, research opportunities, and campus life. Connect these details with your own experiences and passions and explain why this college or program aligns with your academic or professional interests. Think about key formative events and personal motivators for your interest. For example, if you’re applying to a top science, technology, engineering, or medicine (STEM) college such as MIT, you obviously have a specific passion for one of these subjects. While you can and should expand on your personal ambitions, don’t forget to explain why MIT is the best option to help you achieve them.
  • Focus on the long-term : In a way, this type of essay is analogous to the “where do you see yourself in 5 years?” interview question. If you do have a clear plan of how you see your future academic and professional life developing, this essay is where you share it. However, you need to make sure you don’t just spin a beautiful story that isn’t based in reality. Your ambitions should be supported by thorough research, real-world industry knowledge, and a careful consideration of your own strengths and weaknesses. Additionally, don’t just include grand ambitions for the sake of sounding impressive – back them up with personal motivations, or better yet, include concrete, achievable goals. For instance, if you’re applying to the best undergrad business schools , your supplemental essay shouldn’t simply say “I want to be youngest CEO in the USA” or “I want to feature in a 30 under 30 article” – instead, it should focus on specific business interests and goals, for example – “I want to use my leadership skills, business training, and community engagement experience to eventually pay it forward by expanding the economic and business opportunities in my own community.”

The Quirky Essay

This type of essay is meant to catch you off-guard or ask you to write about something not often discussed in the context of admissions. These essays are often among the shortest in terms of length, and generally hope to evince some humor and self-awareness from the writers. Topics for these essays include odd talents, strange experiences, or hyper-specific situational questions like what superpower you’d choose if given the chance. They can also be quite general: Princeton, for instance, includes a prompt asking, simply, “what brings you joy?”.

Princeton: What brings you joy? (maximum 50 words) ","label":"Princeton","title":"Princeton"}]" code="tab6" template="BlogArticle">

  • Keep the tone light : When responding to such prompts, don’t get too caught up in trying to be ultra-intellectual, serious, or different from the crowd. Be creative, have fun, and try and show a lighter side of your personality to the admissions committee. Match the tone of the question and don’t overthink this one too much!
  • Be genuine : The tricky part about responding to these random and creative prompts is to make your answer humorous while also being as honest and genuine as possible. Sincerity is key – make sure you don’t pick an answer you think sounds funny, or impressive, but that isn’t strictly true and backed up by the rest of your application. For instance, if asked “what kind of bird are you”, if you respond with something like “eagle” and talk generically about your leadership qualities without any specific details, admissions committees will be able to tell you aren’t being genuine. You can give any answer you like here! The important thing is to justify it with real aspects of your personality that add some interesting color to your application.

Now, let’s look at how to structure essays depending on the length. We’ll also go over an example for each essay type. 

Short Supplemental Essay (250 Words or Fewer) Examples

According to our college admissions consulting experts, these can be quite dangerous for some students, so don’t make the mistake of thinking that just because an essay has a short word count, you don’t need to spend much time on it. This can actually be one of the toughest types of essays, since you have very limited space in which to capture the admission committee’s attention and make your point. When you start writing, you might find that by the time you’ve set up your premise, you’re already done with 80% of the available word count! The key here is to include crisp, well-structured sentences to directly address the question being asked. There’s not really any space for a “hook” here, such as a quote, story, or layered personal experience. Only include a story or a personal experience if the question explicitly asks you too. In just 250 words or less, you won’t be able to describe too complex an event or activity, so just cut straight to the point.

Recommended Structure

  • Direct opening sentence : Your first sentence should clearly address the essay prompt and set up the topic. Don’t worry about this being a boring or straightforward strategy – that’s what you need here!
  • Specific details to support the topic : Add personal details and self-reflections suitable for the prompt to support your opening sentence. Remember, every word is crucial here so leave out any unnecessary facts and descriptions – stick to what’s relevant. Try and focus on a single experience, reflection, opinion, or topic, as you really won’t be able to do justice to any more. At the same time, make sure you don’t sacrifice flow to brevity. Each sentence should connect smoothly to the next, setting up a logical pathway from your opening thesis to your conclusion.
  • Conclusion : Add the key takeaway or reflection and tie it back to the prompt.

To see how a short essay should be structured, let’s take a look at this prompt from Brandeis :

“Justice Brandeis once said, ‘If we would guide by the light of reason, we must let our minds be bold.’ Tell us about something bold that you’ve recently done.”

Here’s a sample answer:

Although painting isn't itself an especially wild or bold activity, showing my art for the first time felt very bold indeed. As someone with a motor impairment, I've never been able to draw well, and found art classes throughout elementary school incredibly frustrating and embarrassing. However, discovering the wide and extremely varied world of abstract art a few years ago, I was finally bitten by the art bug, and began experimenting with acrylic paint. At first, I just learned how to operate the varying dilutions and textures of paint, but over time I became obsessed with the idea of color gradients and shading, and how the paint itself can do a lot of work that doesn't depend on a completely steady hand. I amassed a small stack of canvasses, and this past year asked around at the two art galleries in town to see if anyone was interested in putting some of my pieces up. Fortunately, and to my surprise, one independent gallery offered to show my entire collected work for a month. Not only did I receive a tonne of really positive and encouraging messages from visitors to the gallery, but I even sold 3 pieces! I was honestly terrified at every step of the way, but that first sale was about the most confidence-building event I've ever experienced. It felt bold, but also made me hungry to continue making art and sharing it with others. (237 words) 

Medium Supplemental Essay (250-500 Words) Examples

Shorter than your personal statement, longer than a short answer, these essays require you to balance a logical flow with a crisp central narrative.

While the basic structure of this essay can be similar to the long-form 650 word essay, you’ll need to make a few adjustments to suit the shorter length.

  • Opening paragraph : You can choose to add an “anchor experience” for these essays, or you can write it in a more direct style, responding to the prompt and getting straight to the point. It depends on what you want to say and how you want to say it. For example, if your essay is focused on personal experiences, then an evocatively described personal experience could be a great hook. However, if the prompt asks you to provide your opinion about a specific issue or creatively imagine a specific scenario, then getting right to the point is a better idea.
  • Main body : Here, you describe your central thesis and add further details to support it. You have to be very efficient with your choice of experiences and even with the details of any experience you chose to include. Each sentence should be in service of the essay prompt. Review this section with the questions “Is this related to the essay prompt? Does this help to answer the question being asked?”.
  • Conclusion : The key to an efficient, memorable conclusion of a medium length supplemental essay is economy of words. In a single sentence, you should address the question being asked and also communicate your own central thesis, with a focus on what makes you special. Crafting this conclusion will take you time! First, identify the points you want to make, and then figure out a way to compress them into as few words as possible, without sacrificing clarity.

Let’s check out an example of this type of essay.

University of California: Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement? (maximum 350 words)

Growing up as the precocious daughter of hard-working immigrant parents, academic excellence and achievements were always the two key cornerstones of my life. My parents inculcated the importance of doing well in school in me from a young age. After all, it was education that had enabled my parents to escape the poverty and trauma of their homeland and find refuge in this country. With a natural penchant for academics and a love for learning, I never had cause to question this life-long commitment – not until junior year of high school.

That was the year when my parents’ restaurant business took a huge hit, and from a regular middle-class American immigrant success story, we were brought to the brink of bleak poverty. It was a shock to our family that took us through some of the toughest times I’ve ever experienced. We all had to make sacrifices, and one of the most profound changes I experienced in that period was a total shift in my priorities, as I had to work at my parents’ restaurant every day after school to help keep the business afloat. From being a grade-A student, I became a struggling straggler who could barely keep up with tests and exams, much less take on extra credit projects. At one point, I even considered quitting school! The worst part was watching the pain in my parents’ eyes, knowing they couldn’t provide the ideal home environment they had envisioned for me, which they themselves had never received.

However, looking back, I consider that period one of the most significant learning experiences of my life. It tested my commitment to my academic interests, which had previously always been so easy to pursue, and I came through with a system that allowed me to contribute at home and also excel at school. It made me further appreciate the struggles my parents had gone through as immigrants juggling family, work, education, and a major cultural adjustment. And finally, it made me appreciate what a gift and privilege education truly is, and vow never to take it for granted. (347 words)

Want to know a surprising fact? You might actually find the long-form supplemental essays easier to write than their shorter counterparts! These essays are typically 500 to 650 words long, which means you have plenty of space to build a coherent narrative, expand on your thesis, and support it with relevant details. When writing a longer supplemental essay, you can actually re-use many of the same strategies you employed for your Common App essay or personal statement. The basic structure (which we’ll explain in a moment) will be similar, and you can even recycle some of your rejected personal statement ideas to write an exemplary supplemental essay.

You can go for the commonly used 3 to 5 paragraph essay structure here. Include the following:

  • Introduction : For longer essays, it’s critical to have a strong opening that hooks the reader and draws them into your narrative immediately. Admissions committees are reading thousands of essays, so you want to shake them out of their “reading fatigue” by capturing their attention with story, personal experience, unique quote, etc. In this paragraph, you should also clearly set up the central thesis of your essay. Critically for supplemental essays, ensure that your central thesis directly addresses or answers the prompt. Tie the “hook” of your opening paragraph in with this central thesis.
  • Body paragraphs 1/2/3 : While the 5-paragraph structure is the most commonly used essay format for long-form essays, you can include more or fewer, as per the requirements of your specific narrative. Remember to be selective when you choose the experiences to support your thesis. In these paragraphs, you build on the central narrative you set up in introduction, supported with your self-reflections and personal examples. Include only the necessary details that help to build the central theme of the essay. Your essay should be written in a natural, direct style, but you can try and include evocative details and personal reflections to help communicate your point.
  • Conclusion : As with all other supplemental essays, the conclusion is critical. You must include a key takeaway, learning, or crisp one-liner to sum up your answer to the question being asked.

Harvard : An intellectual experience (course, project, book, discussion, paper, poetry, or research topic in engineering, mathematics, science, or other modes of inquiry) that has meant the most to you. (maximum 650 words)

“It is the sandbox of men who care not where they are going; they merely want to know where everyone else has been.”

It’s a hot summer’s day, I’m red-faced, sweaty, and out-of-breath, hunched over a pile of earth, delicately brushing away tiny amounts of ancient mud, and John Bishop’s words suddenly pop into my mind. Our project director, Professor Saltzman, had led a brief session that morning concluding with this memorable quote, and it stayed with me for one clear reason: I felt it perfectly encapsulated my own journey, from a guy who cared too much about where he was going, to someone who now primarily cared about the business of these long, long, dead ancient women and their kitchen tools. The irony of the realization made me chuckle a little, disturbing the earth around the little kitchen mound I was excavating, and then I went back to my gentle brushing, once again fully absorbed.

It was simply not a picture of myself I could have believed merely months prior. From a very young age, I had a vision of myself as a lawyer. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of my father and grandfather, carving an illustrious career that would begin, like theirs, at Harvard, and end with me on the Supreme Court. This dream hit a minor snag when, due to a medical absence is junior year, I missed my AP History exam. Mr. Griffin, my history teacher, suggested that I complete a summer archeology program he was affiliated with to make up the credit. And that was how this “minor snag” actually ended up diverting my passions, interests, and ambitions away from law and firmly into the field of archeology.

It wasn’t exactly love at first sight. I was resistant to what I perceived was a distraction from my true interest, the practice of law – I thought then I’d much rather be shadowing my father in a cushy air conditioned office than sweating it out in a desert, digging for broken bits of ancient pottery. But within a couple of days, I found to my surprise that I loved every second of it. The director of the program, Professor Saltzman, liked to walk us through our findings, however minor, at the end of each day. For the benefit of the younger students present, he often delivered lectures expanding upon the critical contextual history of that period. I was amazed at how these small, faded pieces of pottery could tell us so much about the socio-cultural norms of 8000 years ago; from which countries they traded with to what they ate, from their dominant gender roles to the kinds of currency they used.

Most amazing of all, at least to me, was how archeology could actually help envision the lived reality of these people from long ago. Our key findings in that dig were the kitchen utensils of a woman we nicknamed “Leda”, a widowed fisherwoman with two children. Every day, we would discover a new piece of evidence and spend hours classifying, dissecting, and contextualizing it to discover all it could tell us about how Leda lived her life. I realized that all the physical discomforts were worth the thrill of bringing these tiny pieces of history back to life.

In those 4 weeks, I experienced a kind of wonder, and joy in learning, and intrinsically motivated intellectual curiosity, that I had never experienced before in my life. With law, I was primarily attracted to all the perceived prestige and privileges that accrued to the profession; with archeology, the subject matter itself drew me onwards to push past my prejudices and discomforts. Today, I hope to continue to pursue my passion for archeology by continuing my work under Professor Saltzman as an undergraduate at Harvard, and hopefully discover the secret lives of many more Ledas in the future. (643)

The personal statement is a more general essay with a broader scope, typically submitted as part of your primary application, whereas supplemental essays respond to specific prompts and are submitted with your secondary application directly to each school. You only need to write one personal statement (such as the Common App essay) which goes out to all your colleges, and it should therefore never include any college-specific details. On the other hand, each college asks for their own set of supplemental essays, and they may often ask you to expand upon your interest in the specific college, program, or major you are applying to. A personal statement is a single long-form essay of 650 words or more, whereas colleges can ask for multiple supplemental essays that can range in length from 35 to 650 words.

The most commonly used supplemental college essay prompts are:

  • The “why us” essay that asks you to discuss why you want go to a specific college
  • The extracurricular essay that asks you to discuss your activities, talents, or skills
  • The community essay that asks you to expand upon your identity, diversity, community engagement, and so on
  • The “why this major” essay that asks you to discuss your specific academic interests
  • The “create a class” essay that asks you to creatively design a major or come up with your own class
  • The “quirky” essay that can include creative, zany, out-of-the-box, informal prompts

Supplemental college essays can range in length from 35 words to 650 words. Every college has their own prompts and requirements, so you should check the admissions website of your colleges to learn more.

The “why this school” college essay is one of the most common supplemental college essay types. It’s very important to be college-specific in this essay, and to include details of your special interest in the concerned college supported by your knowledge of their unique offerings. You will have to do some research on the college so you can make your essay as specific and unique as possible.

Yes, supplemental essays are a critical part of your application. They help to personalize and flesh out your application, building on your achievements, transcripts, and scores, to show the admissions committee a well-rounded, unique individual. Crucially, supplemental essays are a chance for you to show how well your thinking and experiences align with the college’s missions and values and why you would be an excellent candidate for their program.

A word count of 250 words or less can pose a significant challenge for students. To write an effective short answer, you need to be concise and direct, addressing the question asked while building a logical flow from introduction to conclusion. There’s no space in such questions for fancy opening hooks and elaborate narratives – just stick to the relevant experiences and reflections and always connect back to the prompt itself.

It depends on the topic! It’s not a good idea to copy paste the essay content for college-specific prompts such as “why us” or “why this major”, where the expectation is that you will talk in detail about the unique features of that college which attract you. However, for more generic topics like “what inspires you” or “how did you serve your community”, you can certainly re-use topics and themes between essays. Just make sure you edit each essay to meet the specific word count and include college specific details wherever possible. Additionally, you should always read and understand the prompt thoroughly before drafting your essay. Respond to the spirit as well as the letter of the prompts in your opening and concluding sentences, even if you’ve re-used most of the main body content from another similar essay.

Supplemental college essays certainly afford you greater room to be creative and informal than your personal statement. However, the extent to which this style of writing would be appropriate depends on the prompts. The short answer, zany, creative prompts, are the perfect place to show a lighter side of your personality and introduce a little humor in your application. But an essay about significant obstacles you’re overcome, or your long-term academic goals, might not be an ideal place to get overtly casual and humorous.

You will receive your secondary application directly from the college after you submit your primary application. The deadline to complete secondary applications varies from college to college. Most colleges ask you to submit your completed supplemental application, including essays, within 2 weeks or a month of receiving the prompts. This isn’t a lot of time, especially considering most colleges will be sending out secondary applications in the same rough time period and you’ll have to work on multiple applications at once. However, you can prepare in advance for your supplemental essays by brainstorming ideas and writing rough drafts in response to previous years’ prompts.

Every college has their own unique secondary application requirements. You should check the admissions websites of your colleges to learn more about their specific requirements. Some colleges may ask for just a single 650-word essay, while others may provide 5 or 6 prompts of varying lengths. Generally speaking, most colleges don’t ask for more than 1 or 2 long supplemental essays (500+ words), along with 2 or 3 shorter essays.

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Can extracurricular activities contain sth like assisting family ,and socal activities that doesn't encounter certificate?

BeMo Academic Consulting

Hello Phoebe! Thanks for your question. Yes, you can definitely consider these extracurriculars, depending on the activity you did. For example, if you assisted a family member after an illness or organized social activities like fund raisers.

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college supplemental essay samples

college supplemental essay samples

Supplemental Essays Guide: How to Write, Tips & Examples

Student writing in on paper

Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 9/11/23

Writing stand-out supplemental essays may be your ticket into your dream school. Follow along for our complete guide on writing perfect supplemental essays for college.

A student writing a supplemental essay

If you’re working on supplemental essays, you’ve already spent countless hours perfecting your application. However, even the perfect application must be followed by stellar supplementals to get you into your dream school. That’s right, supplementals are a highly important piece of the application process - so how can you perfect yours? 

In this complete guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about writing excellent supplemental essays, including examples from well-written essays , tips for common essay prompts, and each possible length. To top it all off, we’ve also included answers to the most frequently asked questions about writing stand-out supplemental essays.

Let’s get started!

What are Supplemental Essays? 

Supplemental essays are additional writing samples that you submit along with the rest of your college application. Many high-ranking schools ask for these essays, as they are intended to be more specific than your personal statement. It’s a chance for you to further demonstrate why you are a good fit for the school you’re applying to.

How Important are Supplemental Essays?

Two students talking

In short, supplemental essays are an extremely valuable part of your application. Your application allows schools to see the base of your work ethic through numbers (grades, extracurriculars, awards, and more), but it doesn’t give any indication of your personality. 

These essays are your first opportunity to give your university an idea of who you are and what you are passionate about. 

Excellent essays can tip the scales in your favor, especially for highly competitive schools where most candidates have excellent grades. An in-depth, well-written essay can set your application apart from others.

What are Colleges Looking For in Supplemental Essays? 

In supplemental essays, colleges look for honesty, specificity, and the ability to answer the prompt accurately and succinctly. We will look at several common prompts that colleges often use: 

  • “Why This Major?”
  • Community/diversity
  • Extracurricular

Using these prompts helps college admissions get a better idea of who you are as an applicant.

How to Write Different Supplemental Essay Prompts

Every college has a unique set of prompts they distribute to their applicants each year. However, most prompts follow core formats. Here are some of the most common types of supplemental essays and how to write them.

The “Why Us?” Essay

The “Why Us?” or "Why This School?” essay is one of the most common prompts in circulation. Top schools such as Brown, Columbia, and Cornell have all been known to ask applicants to answer this prompt as part of their application. So, how do you write the “Why Us?” essay? Let’s talk about it. 

When a college asks you why you want to go there, the admissions committee wants to know a few things:

  • The specific things about this school that appeal to you (have you done your research?)
  • How you will contribute to this school’s college life
  • How attending this school will help you achieve short and long-term goals

With this prompt, avoid listing reasons you want to go to the school unless you are directly instructed to do so. This is an opportunity to show the admissions committee how much their school matters to you, what programs and courses most interest you, and how the school will help you develop your passion and achieve your goals. 

You should do thorough research on the school and consider what sets it apart from other colleges on your list . Avoid providing general reasons that could be said about any other college. 

Writing this essay is your chance to showcase why you are passionate about attending this specific school and why it matters to you. Finally, conclude your essay by explaining how and why attending this school will help your long-term goals. 

‍ “Why Us?” Essay Sample from Columbia University:

“Computer science is at the core of my academic passions and my life ambitions. What I value in life is being around brilliant technologists. At Columbia, I have worked with and befriended the most driven and gifted programmers I’ve ever met. In January, I formed a team with three Columbia freshmen for MIT’s annual strategy-game-playing artificial intelligence competition. Ben, Ryan, Koh and I spent the month reviewing matches, debating approaches and tweaking our models. More than once we coded through the night. Their caliber was clear in the subtle insights that their multi-disciplinary backgrounds gave them and they gave me something to aspire to.
I have many interests that lie outside of my intended major but that I want to continue to pursue, and Columbia provides an environment for those diverse passions. Recently, while at a Columbia math club meeting with Ben, I ran into a political science major, Mathieu. He was elated to point out the insights that a love of math granted him in his courses and his conviction encouraged me to explore the peculiar intersection of the two fields.
I love teachers who love to teach. At Columbia, I’ve seen faculty who have a love for what they do and who care about students. While touring, I sat in on a quantum mechanics lecture. Professor Norman Christ strode into the room at eight on-the-dot and jumped into a discussion of WKB complex value approximation. For three straight hours, he guided us through the intricate world of QM without any notes. His enthusiasm brightened that drizzling Monday morning. That I could follow the lecture at all is a testament to his lucid explanations and extraordinary knowledge. When I came to him with questions afterward, he helped me truly understand a topic that initially felt years out of reach.”

Why this is a successful essay: In this essay , the writer starts by talking about their major and how Columbia provides an excellent program. They continue to add how they could positively impact Columbia if accepted. Take note of how the writer lists their key topic at the beginning of each paragraph and then connects Columbia to each topic. 

This student also mentioned that they enjoyed a Columbia professor's lecture, which is an excellent way of showing their deep interest in the school. Showing in your essay that you are passionate about the program and that you’ve done your research can be a point in your favor. 

The “Why This Major?” Essay

Although this prompt is very similar to the “Why Us?” essay, your answer should focus entirely on why you’re passionate about your degree. Think of this essay as an opportunity to tell the story of how you developed your passion. Try creating a timeline before you start writing to help organize your ideas. It should look something like this:

1. The first time I thought about pursuing this major was: __________________                              

2. I started to get more serious about pursuing this passion when:___________________

3. I’m now applying to this program so that in the future, I can: ___________________

Creating a timeline can help you easily convey how important your major is to you and the journey you’ve taken to build upon your passion. 

You can also include, if it applies, what specific things about your school’s program that drew you to your current selection. However, the main focus of this essay should be how you developed your passion for the subject and what you want to do in this field later on.

"Why This Major" Essay Sample from Yale:

“Literature and anthropology are telescopes into the past; philosophy, a prism into the mind. I want to ask the hard questions: Do I have free will? Is meaning lost in translation? Is there eternal truth? What is an “I”? Am I my mind, body or something more? Literature is an empathetic account of the past, anthropology a scientific documentation of human lives. I want to find commonality in lives separated by time and space, find meaning within them, partake in the collective memory of humanity, and interrogate what it means to be human.”

Why this essay works: 

In this short essay example from a Literature and Anthropology student from Yale, the student gets straight to the point. Demonstrating the questions they have that they hope to answer throughout their education is an excellent way to show that you’ve given your major a lot of thought. 

They’ve also captured the true essence of their major in the last sentence by stating they want to “partake in the collective memory of humanity” and “interrogate what it means to be human.” Whatever major you choose, write honestly about what calls you to the subject and demonstrate that you have a thorough understanding of the genre of material you’ll be studying. 

The Adversity Essay

As one of the most challenging essay prompts, the adversity essay presents students with the uncomfortable task of recalling a difficult life experience and explaining how they overcame it. 

For some, choosing an instance of adversity can be the most challenging part of this prompt. Keep in mind that adversity looks different to everyone. Your story doesn’t have to be overly tragic to write a good adversity essay; you simply need to approach your issue from a place of growth. 

One of the main mistakes applicants make when writing the adversity essay is thinking that their adversity story needs to be overly tragic or complex. Instead of focusing on the actual adversity, your essay should mainly focus on the steps you took to overcome the adversity and learn valuable lessons moving forward. 

If a school asks you to write an adversity essay, the admissions committee wants to know how you handle a challenge. If you buckle under pressure, you may not be able to handle the intensity of a heavy workload. 

Therefore, schools want to know that you are capable of facing challenges head-on and have the capacity to learn from your mistakes. 

Adversity Essay Sample from Harvard University:

“When I was a freshman in high school, I didn't care about school or my education. I couldn't see a future where it mattered whether I knew how to say 'how are you' in Spanish or how to use the Pythagorean theorem. Because I couldn't see the point of these classes, I found myself disconnected from the high school experience as a whole, which resulted in low grades. My parents expressed their disappointment in me, but I still couldn't bring myself to care; I was feeling disconnected from my family, too.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I was depressed. I stopped spending time with my friends and stopped enjoying the things I used to enjoy. I was feeling hopeless. How could I get through three and a half more years of high school if I couldn't even get through a semester? I couldn't stand the thought of feeling this way for so long – at least it felt so long at the time.
After a few failed tests, one of my teachers approached me after class one day. She said she also noticed a difference in my demeanor in the last few weeks and asked if I was okay. At that moment, I realized that no one had asked me that in a long time. I didn't feel okay, so I told her that. She asked me what was wrong, and I told her that I was feeling disconnected from school and classes and just about everything at that point.
My teacher suggested I visit my guidance counselor. So the next day, during study hall, I got a pass to visit with my guidance counselor and told her I was feeling disconnected from classes and school. She asked me what my interests were and suggested that I take an elective like art or music or a vocational tech class like culinary arts or computer coding. I told her that I wasn't sure what I was interested in at this point and she told me to take a couple of classes to see what I like. At her persistence, I signed up for art and computer coding.
It turns out art was not my thing. But it also turns out that computer coding is my thing, and I am not sure I would have realized that had I not gone to see my guidance counselor at my teacher's recommendation. After taking computer coding and other similar classes, I had something to look forward to during school. So even when I still dreaded taking Spanish and Geometry, I knew I could look forward to an enjoyable class later in the day. Having something to look forward to really helped me raise my grades because I started caring about my future and the possibility of applying for college to study computer science.
The best thing that I took away from this experience is that I can't always control what happens to me, especially as a minor, but I can control how I handle things. In full transparency: there were still bad days and bad grades, but by taking action and adding a couple of classes into my schedule that I felt passionate about, I started feeling connected to school again. From there, my overall experience with school – and life in general – improved 100%."

Why this is a good essay: In this essay , the applicant focuses on personal development. They begin by addressing their low grades and poor mental health at a younger age and how the experience affected them. The main focus of the essay, however, is how they found the motivation to get back on track and improve their grades. 

The student has taken this essay opportunity to not only explain the poor grades that Harvard will see from freshman year but has also proven that they have the ability to pull through when times get tough. Remember, the adversity essay should focus mainly on how you’ve learned and grown from a negative experience rather than focusing on the experience itself. 

Community/Diversity Essay

Essay prompts that ask about your experiences in your community help colleges to better understand your unique perspective. Many schools aim to cultivate a diverse environment to enrich the student experience and make sure students from all different backgrounds feel welcome on campus. 

Diversity can relate to your ethnicity, culture, birthplace, health, socioeconomic status, interests, talents, values, and many other things. There is no “correct experience” when it comes to choosing a topic here. In this essay, you have the opportunity to celebrate your unique perspective.

Think about experiences that are important to your identity. For example, you could write about your hometown, a family tradition, a community event, a generational story, or whatever feels most authentic to you. 

Keep this essay authentic; avoid fabricating a story or using someone else's experience. This story needs to come completely from you and let your school get some more information on who you are.

Community/Diversity Essay Sample from Duke University:

“The pitter patter of droplets, the sweet smell that permeates throughout the air, the dark grey clouds that fill the sky, shielding me from the otherwise intense gaze of the sun, create a landscape unparalleled by any natural beauty. I have gazed upon the towering cliffs of Yosemite, stood next to Niagara Falls as the water roars, succumbing to the power of gravity, and seen the beaches of Mexico basked in moonlight, yet none of these wonders compares to the simple beauty of an Arizona rainstorm. To me, our rain represents more than humidity and darkness; its rarity gives it beauty. The uncertainty of when the next day of rain will come compels me to slow down, and enjoy the moment.
Out of the three realms of time; past, present, and future, the present is the only one we can experience, and I take advantage of every moment I have. When I pause my running to enjoy a sunset that dazzles the sky with brilliant colors of purple and orange, when I touch my brush to a canvas and focus on my movements in the present, when I drive home after a long day of improving our robot, and decide to drive around my neighborhood to finish “Garota de Ipanema”, which just popped up from my playlist of 700 songs, I am taking advantage of the moment.
So next time it rains, step outside. Close your eyes. Hear the symphony of millions of water droplets. And enjoy the moment.”

Why this is a successful essay: This essay is an excellent example of pulling a unique experience from your life and expressing its importance. The applicant tells a compelling story about their unique perspective on rain in Arizona and does an excellent job of expressing how special the seemingly mundane event is to them. 

The language used here is visually descriptive, which makes the reader feel as if we are experiencing the event with the writer. This is an excellent way to get the admissions committee to feel connected to your story and get a better understanding of who you are and what you enjoy doing in life. 

The Extracurricular Essay

Many schools are interested in how you spend your time outside of the classroom. Extracurricular essays are quite common as supplemental essays, although students often struggle with how to make an entire essay out of their extracurricular activities. That’s why it’s important to brainstorm and create a story.

Think of a problem that arose while you were participating in one of your extracurricular activities, such as:

  • Your sports team lost an important player
  • You were injured during a dance recital
  • Your music group needed funding 
  • Your local soup kitchen was at risk of being shut down, etc.

The problem you choose can be big or small as long as it lends itself to a story. Think about the problem and how you took steps to solve it with your team or other members of your community. 

Use your extracurricular essay to show how your passion and motivation extend beyond the classroom. You can choose any activity to write about, as long as it was not during regular school hours or related to a specific course. 

Extracurricular Essay Sample from Yale:

“ Haunted romanticism, ravaged gaze, desperation bordering on lunacy, Saturn Devouring His Son first caught my attention as a bored nine-year-old wandering around a museum, and once again as a high-school student, after catching a glimpse of it in a textbook. 
Because after looking at angelic frescos after more Church frescos, I could not stop myself from flipping back to the tiny printing of this unholy piece. I sought to discover the story behind it—what caused this artist to create something so raw and naked, in the age of staid royal family portraits?
I became immersed in unraveling each bit of the story, how Goya had long transitioned from a royal painter, to a harsh, but veiled critic of society, the desolation that occurred during the French occupation of Spain, the corruption of Charles IV— who was really only a puppet ruler to Godoy. I learned how kingdoms rose and fell—and rose again, how art is unafraid to capture the seditious attitudes of the common people, and how it has endured to teach us of past mistakes.
I fell in love with dissecting the messages from the past, and discovering how we still have not listened to them.”

Why this essay is successful: 

The prompt for this Yale extracurricular essay was “Write about something that you love to do,” and the writer has certainly delivered. Here, the writer goes into detail about why they enjoy going to art museums outside of school. They’ve kept their essay focused on the meanings behind the paintings, giving the reader a deeper understanding of not only what fascinates them - but why it does.

The real key to an extracurricular essay is showing your passions outside of school. There is no right answer; you should simply focus on what interests you and explain why. Try to make the reader feel as if they are there with you. Think about the smells, the sights, and the feelings that surround your extracurricular interest and include them in your essay. 

College Supplemental Essay Length 

college supplemental essay samples

All of the essay types above come in different lengths. Some essays will ask only 150 words or less, while some have no word limit at all. Here, we’ll go over how to adjust your writing depending on your word count. 

Short Essay

college supplemental essay samples

There is a broad misconception that writing a short essay is “less work,” which we are unfortunately here to squash. Writing shorter-form essays (150 to 500 words) can be more challenging because you have less room to make your point, and your writing must be concise. 

To write an excellent short-form essay, start by brainstorming your ideas and move on to writing once you have a solid idea of the main points you want to include. Avoid fluff, repeating the question, reciting your resume, and run-on sentences. The best short essays are honest and to the point. 

If your essay is too long when you’ve finished writing, go through each sentence and ask yourself: “Could I tell this story without this sentence?” If yes, cut it completely. If you answered no, find ways to subtract unnecessary words. Having a friend help you edit is a great way to find out which parts are making the text longer without lending anything to the story. 

Medium Essay 

college supplemental essay samples

A medium essay is a sweet spot. Typically, a length of one to three pages flows easily and allows the writer to include all necessary information without repeating themselves or taking anything away. 

Because of this, make sure not to go over or under the word count. Most students do not struggle to keep their writing within these parameters, so it’s important to respect them. 

Although you have more room in a medium-length essay, your writing should still be concise and flow well without including excess information. It’s always a good idea to have a teacher, friend, or family member look over your story. 

Make sure that when they edit, they are looking for things like grammatical errors, run-on sentences, and unnecessary information. They shouldn’t take too much out of your essay because you don’t want the voice of the essay to change. 

Long Essay 

college supplemental essay samples

When tasked with writing a long essay (three pages or more), it can be challenging to continuously provide fresh information and avoid repetition. However, repetition and dragging sentences is the main thing you’ll want to avoid in a long-form essay. To do this, you should rely heavily on planning and your thesis statement.

Your thesis statement sets up your article, allowing you to break the information into parts and tackle each step individually. Brainstorming before you start writing is critical as it ensures you have enough relevant information to fill out the full length of your paper. 

How to Write School-Specific Supplemental Essays? 

It’s a good idea to tailor your supplemental essays to match the expectations of the school you’re applying to. Here are some guides on how to write outstanding essays for specific schools: 

  • How to Write the Harvard Supplemental Essays
  • How to Write the Vanderbilt Supplemental Essays
  • How to Write the University of Michigan Supplemental Essays
  • How to Write the Duke Supplemental Essays
  • How to Write the Princeton Supplemental Essays
  • How to Write the Northwestern University Supplemental Essays
  • How to Write the UPenn Supplemental Essays
  • How to Write the University of Washington Supplemental Essays
  • How to Write the Boston College Supplemental Essays
  • How to Write the Cornell Supplemental Essays
  • How to Write the Bowdoin Supplemental Essays ‍
  • How to Write the Pepperdine Supplemental Essays

These guides will help you write stellar essays!

FAQs: Supplemental Essays

Here are our answers to some frequently asked questions about supplemental essays.

1. Do Colleges Care About Supplemental Essays?

Yes, colleges care about supplemental essays. Your writing gives colleges extra insight into who you are as a person beyond your grades. Strong essays can give you an advantage in your application to many different schools. 

2. What to Include in Supplemental Essays?

Stick to the prompt. Your response should approach each aspect of the prompt while providing genuine information about your life experience. 

Each essay prompt is different, but admissions committees always love to hear a good story. Use descriptive yet concise language to get your points across while transporting the reader into your world.

3. When Should I Start My Supplemental Essays?

You should start planning your essays as soon as you receive the prompts for each. Once you’re confident in your plan, begin writing your essay as soon as you can to give yourself plenty of time to edit before submitting. 

4. Are Supplemental Essays Hard?

For students who are not strong writers, it can be challenging to get started on your essays. However, the most important part of your essay is to remain genuine, tell your story, and be concise. 

5. How Do I Start Writing My Supplemental Essay?

Before you start writing, brainstorm and create a solid plan for what you want to include. This will help you write with ease and remain on track while you’re writing your paper. You can also look at good essay examples for inspiration. 

6. Where Do You Submit Supplemental Essays? 

If using the Common Application, you can submit your essays in the Writing Supplements section. Generally, you will submit your essays along with the rest of your application.

Final Thoughts

Your supplemental essays are an important part of your application and should be given plenty of time and attention. No matter what essay prompts you are given, ensure that you are consistently speaking from the heart and telling a compelling story. 

Keep in mind that your experiences are what make you unique, and you do not have to exaggerate or fabricate anything to craft an excellent supplemental essay.

If you are still struggling with writing compelling essays, you can always seek professional help to get assistance with writing, editing, brainstorming, and overall crafting stellar supplementals. 

Good luck with your essays!

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How to Write the Most Common Supplemental College Essays: A Complete Guide

Note: This post focuses on supplemental essays. If you want advice on the Common App prompts, check out our guide to the Common App essays .

Your grades are in, your test scores have been sent, and recommendation letters have been uploaded…but there’s one last component of your college applications left: the essays. For many students, essays are the final and most daunting hurdle to clear before hitting submit.

Your essays, however, are your opportunity to tell admissions officers how you want them to remember you. Maybe you didn’t do so well on the SAT, or maybe you got a lower grade than you hoped for in Honors Chemistry, but you can’t change your grades or scores.

The essays, however, are entirely in your control. There is so much freedom to tell your story and what makes you unique. Our mission at CollegeVine is to make the essay-writing as stress-free as possible. Read on for our tips and tricks on writing a college essay that will give you the best chance at getting that thick envelope!

Content overview:

  • Why this college?
  • Why this major?
  • Elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience.
  • Discuss a community you belong to that has impacted who you are today.
  • Crafting the essay
  • Avoiding pitfalls

Want to learn more about Supplemental Essays? Check out one of our popular recorded live streams on this topic.

Common Types of College Essays

Colleges will find a hundred different ways to ask a question, but most of the time, the prompt boils down to one of the following common essay themes.

Common Essay #1: Why this college?

Students’ most common mistake on a “Why this college?” essay is lack of specificity; in particular, some students will list attributes that can apply to multiple schools, which is what you want to avoid at all costs.

When it comes to a “Why this college?” essay, you need to discuss qualities and programs specific to that school. It is not enough to merely list or name-drop, however. Instead, talk about why this item is important to you. Here’s how this plays out:

What not to do:

I want to go to the University of Southern California because it is a highly ranked school in Los Angeles. In addition, I like its Cosmic Writers Club, as well as the Incubate USC program. I am especially excited about the abundant film resources.

Why the previous response doesn’t work:

There are many reasons you want to avoid a response like this. Let’s start with the first sentence: replace the school’s name with UCLA and the accuracy doesn’t suffer. What this means is that the sentence is not specific enough to USC. In addition, you never want to state, or even imply, that you’re applying to a school due to prestige or ranking.

The exception for the previous rule is if a school is ranked highly for a specific program of interest. For example, if you want to pursue creative writing and a school has the number one creative writing program in the country, you can mention this because it is a quality specific to that school. A school’s overall prestige, however, should not be mentioned in your essay.

Why else doesn’t this response work? Let’s look at the second sentence. The writer does well to mention specific programs within USC. However, the response fails to discuss why they liked these programs or how they would benefit from having access to them.

What to write instead:

As someone with a lasting love for writing and a blossoming passion for entrepreneurship, I was so excited to find a large urban school like the University of Southern California that would give me the resources to pursue both. From classes with award-winning authors—amongst them Professor T. Boyle, whose environmental fiction works are similar to those I hope to someday publish—to clubs like the Cosmic Writers Club, which unites author hopefuls, USC offers more resources than I could ever exhaust in my journey to publish my first book.

On the business side, USC is known for fostering the type of creativity and innovation needed in pursuing start-ups. In particular, I was so excited to learn of the Incubate USC program, a unique mothership of ideas that nurtures the creativity of students. With the help of this program, I would be able to pursue my growing interest in the world of start-up ventures.

Why the previous response works:

This response not only mentions programs and resources specific to USC, but it shows how the student would take advantage of these opportunities. In addition, this response portrays passion and ambition, infusing elements of the student’s personality while still staying focused on answering the prompt.

Other things to keep in mind:

  • The first time you say the school’s name, you should write it out. After that, you can abbreviate.
  • Avoid writing what every other applicant is going to write. For example, every NYU applicant is going to mention NYU’s location in New York City. Unless you have a unique twist on this, you should skip it.
  • Don’t mention frivolous things like dorms or dining halls. Your reasons for liking a school should be more substantial.
  • Do your research. For example, don’t say you’ve always wanted to go to a city if you’re writing an essay for a rural school.
  • Do not copy and paste your “Why this college?” essay and simply change the school name. Many non-Harvard admissions officers have received essays from students about why they want to go to Harvard. If your “Why this college?” essay is so general that you can copy and paste it, your reasoning will not impress admissions officers.

For more tips on writing this essay, see our complete guide to the “Why this college?” essay , including a real sample essay.

Common Essay #2: Why this major? 

One of the most important things to remember is that admissions officers are not looking for a résumé. This is not to say you can’t discuss your activities and how they culminated a passion for a specific major. The challenge, however, is to use these activities to tell a story rather than a mere list of achievements.

How do you do this? Share your thought processes. Many times it is the thoughts surrounding an activity more than the activity itself that will show the reader your journey to choosing a major.

Other tips:

  • Don’t ever say that your reason for choosing a major is money-making potential. If you want to mention life beyond college, then talk about how this major will help you achieve your dreams. If your dream is to produce a feature-length film and a film major will help you get there, say that. But don’t say your dream is to be a rich film producer.
  • Undeclared? That’s totally okay. Just be sure to list a couple potential majors, and explain your interest in those. Under no circumstances should you say you have absolutely no idea, as that will make you look like you don’t care. For more tips, see our post on how to write the “Why this major?” essay if you’re undecided .

For more tips on writing this essay, see our complete guide to the “Why this major?” essay , including a real sample essay.

Common Essay 3: Elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience.

Is there an activity or work experience in your application that you have more to say about? Maybe there’s a story behind it that you want to tell. Some questions to consider are:

  • How did you become interested in this extracurricular?
  • What is your role in the activity or work experience?
  • Why do you do it?
  • Have you experienced growth within the activity over time?

There are endless angles you can pursue here, but your essay should, in short, show your motivation behind participating in a certain activity or job.

What you don’t want to do, however, is simply restate something that’s been said elsewhere. If you have already spotlighted an activity in another essay for a given college, don’t write about the same activity. Your goal here is to share new information and your breadth of experiences.

As with the “Why Major?” prompt, it is more powerful to share a story with the reader rather than to detail the activity itself.

For more tips on writing this essay, see our complete guide to the Extracurricular Activity essay , including a real sample essay.

Common Essay 4: Discuss a community you belong to that has impacted who you are today.

“Community” can mean many things, so there are many possible approaches to this prompt. Some applicants respond with a community they’re linked to through culture, and others through sports or a club.

One thing you can emphasize is personal growth—or other aspects of who you are as a person—that has come from belonging to this community. The majority of the essay should, in fact, center around how being part of this group has changed or impacted who you are as a person.

What to avoid:

  • Do not discriminate against other communities in your response.
  • Try not to talk about your community in broad terms, but instead focus on your place within this community.
  • Avoid using the essay as a chance to complain. If you choose to talk about challenges in a certain community, find a way to give your essay a sense of resolution. This can consist even of talking about how you’ve grown as a person or learned how to confront these obstacles in a productive way.

Writing the Essay

Phase 1: ideation.

Highlights of this section:

  • Thinking of an idea
  • Portraying individuality
  • Staying true to yourself
  • General tips and tricks

Now that you’re familiar with some of the most common types of essay prompts, let’s dive into the ideation process. Here are some questions that it’s good to ask yourself when you’re just starting out, particularly when the prompt deviates from the more straightforward archetypes above:

  • What makes you unique?
  • What is your story?
  • Is there something you weren’t able to say in your application that you think admissions officers should know?
  • Did you mention something earlier in your application that you want to elaborate on?

Remember that your essays, and application in general, should read like a portfolio in which all components are complementary without being redundant. If the application is like a drawing, then the essays should contribute to creating one coherent image without sketching the same line more than once or leaving gaps in the drawing.

Don’t shy away from being quirky! The more you present yourself as your own unique person, the more likely the admissions officer is to remember you. Take the following cases, for instance:

  • A football player who scores a winning touchdown in the last five seconds of the game.
  • A football player who knits scarves for residents of a retirement home in his free time.

In the first case, telling this story doesn’t do anything to differentiate this football player from others. However, the second story portrays a unique student with two interests the reader might not otherwise have paired together. Individuality is the goal here.

Of course, don’t exaggerate , lie, or pretend to be someone you’re not. In particular, don’t write something just because you think the admissions officer wants to hear it. They have read enough applications to separate the genuine voices from the insincere. As such, your only job is to put your true self on the page!

Here are some other things to keep in mind while brainstorming college essay topics:

  • Narratives will always be more successful because they engage the reader emotionally. They are also an easy way to demonstrate how you’ve changed and grown over time.
  • If you have already emphasized something in your application, don’t dedicate an essay to it unless can share an entirely new perspective. When in doubt, choose a new topic.
  • Your essay doesn’t have to be about something rare and incredible. You don’t have to have started a company or traveled the world to write a solid essay. In fact, some of the strongest essays have taken a simple, perhaps even everyday occurrence, and portrayed it in a beautiful way that shows a unique way of thinking.
  • Be sure to answer all aspects of the prompt while still giving the reader insight into who you are. It’s very easy to speak about some topics in third-person or broad terms (example: “What is your idea of success?”). Don’t do this. Instead, find a way to link the prompt to your own life.

Overall, think of the essays as a way to let the admissions officer get to know you on a personal level. Humanize yourself.

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Phase 2: Crafting the Essay

  • Show, don’t tell.
  • Perfecting the first and last sentence
  • What does the essay say about me?

You have likely heard this next tip a hundred times throughout high school, but it’s vital to writing a strong essay: show, don’t tell . The whole point of essays is to give insight into who you are and how you think. Can you effectively do that if you’re merely listing off things that happened? Nope. Let’s take a lot at two examples:

  • An example of telling: The cat ran out the door, and I got scared.
  • An example of showing: The doorbell rang, accompanied by the creak of the mailbox as the mailman slipped the day’s envelopes inside. I ran downstairs and threw the door open, knowing today was the day I was going to hear back. My excitement made me oblivious, though, and it wasn’t until I saw a blur of dark fur dash through the open door that I realized my mistake.

The second example takes the facts and turns it into a story. It gives the reader a sense of anticipation as well as a character to identify with and root for. That’s what “show, don’t tell” does for your essay.

Now let’s talk about the two most important parts of your essay: the first sentence and the last sentence.

Your first sentence’s job is to hook the reader. Aim for a first sentence that surprises, even slightly jars, the reader to wake them up and get their full focus on your essay. Here are some examples:

  • It wasn’t supposed to be blue.
  • Was the car meant to sound like that?

In both cases, the writer has intentionally withheld information, providing just enough to leave the reader wanting to know the rest of the story. What isn’t supposed to be blue? What happens next?

As for the last sentence, its job is to resolve the essay, leaving the reader with a sense of peace and finality. Give the reader one last great impression to remember you by. Here’s an example:

“I’ve learned to hold my failures close; not so close that they burden me, per say, but just

close enough that they can guide me as I journey onward.”

This sentence works because it gives the reader a sense that, though the story continues on in the form of the narrator’s ongoing journey, the story on the page has been resolved. It feels peaceful.

Now then, after you’ve completed your first draft, the next thing you want to do is ask yourself the following question : What three things about me can the reader get from reading this essay? If you’re having trouble answering this question, then the essay needs to share more about you. Otherwise, you’re ready for revision!

Phase 3: Revision

  • Careless errors
  • Staying under the word limit
  • Getting a second opinion

You’ve done the hard work. You came up with a brilliant idea and poured your heart and soul into the writing. Now comes the tedious part: revision.

Most importantly, college essays need to be absolutely devoid of grammatical or spelling mistakes . You don’t want to give your admissions officer the impression that you didn’t care enough to proofread, especially after all of your hard work.

Another aspect that tends to frustrate students is the word limit. If you’ve made it under the word limit, great! If not, here are some methods of cutting down.

  • Example: In visiting your campus, it occurred to me that the method with which you schedule your classes is ideal because…
  • This can be cut down to: The way you schedule your classes is ideal because…
  • Most times phrases such as “I think,” “I believe,” “it seems,” and other similar wording is not necessary and simply takes up extra space. Use your judgement, but generally, these phrases get the boot.
  • Keep an eye out for the word “that.” This can almost always be cut.
  • If you use a long hyphen (—), no space is needed between words. This will bring your word count down. Don’t get too hyphen happy, though!

If the above tips are not enough to get you below the word limit,  you may need to remove entire paragraphs. If a paragraph does not drive the story forward, or is unnecessary in understanding the progression of the story, you may want to remove it.

Once your essay is mistake-free and below the word limit, your next task is to send it to at least three trusted individuals. Ask them the following questions to guide their suggestions:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Does it sound like me?
  • What does it say about me? (Check that this aligns with what you want it to say about you).

Take note of their responses and decide what changes you want to implement. Be receptive, but remember to stay true to yourself and your vision.

Avoiding Pitfalls:

  • Avoid discussion of taboo subjects or things that can be perceived as controversial. Everyone is entitled to their own views, but you don’t want to chance saying something controversial that your reader might disagree with.
  • Never appear discriminatory in any way. Colleges tend to be vastly left-wing and progressive.
  • Don’t turn in work that isn’t your own. When does accepting another person’s edits become plagiarism? If they are rewriting entire sentences in their own words, it is no longer your own work.
  • Avoid clichés! It is okay to write about a common experience (like a sports injury or service trip), but only if you have a unique take on them. Don’t write on a popular topic if you will simply describe the same lesson that everyone else learned.
  • Don’t write your essay directly into the application text box or it may not save your work. Write it in a separate document and copy and paste it later. Then, double check that the format is correct.

At the end of the day, your essays should just leave the reader thinking: I want to have a conversation with this student. You want to show that you’re an multifaceted, mature person with an interesting story to tell. At CollegeVine, we’re rooting for you all the way—go get writing!

Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

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How to Write Great Supplemental College Application Essays

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Check out our Just Admit It! Podcast

IvyWise counselors Eric  and Zach discuss what admissions officers are looking for in supplemental essays and what students can do to stand out on the Just Admit It! college admissions podcast , giving listeners expert insight from former admissions officers.

Aside from grades, standardized test scores, and your high school courses, one of the most important elements of the college application is the essay. Supplemental essays give admissions officers the chance to get to know students, and they’re also great gauges for demonstrated interest. So how can students master college admission essays?

What Is a Supplemental Essay? 

While the Common Application and the Coalition Application each have a required essay, many colleges include their own school-specific essays, known as writing supplements. These supplemental essays are designed to help the admissions committee gain a better understanding of who you are and how you will fit in on campus.

Tell Admissions Officers Something They Don’t Already Know

Admissions officers want to get to know applicants. There’s only so much that application readers can deduce from your extracurricular activities, transcripts, test scores, recommendation letters, and other application materials. Many times the best way to get a clear picture of a student’s goals, accomplishments, and character is to hear it directly from the student themself.

Instead of using the essay to regurgitate the information that’s already available, reveal something that can’t be found anywhere else in the application. For example, if captain of the school’s soccer team is on the activity list, don’t write an essay about the biggest game of the season. The admissions officers already know soccer is an interest, so choose a deeper topic that reveals something meaningful.

One example: A student’s top activity on her activity list was horseback riding. Instead of writing an essay about riding, she instead wrote about her faith and how she reconciled that with what she was learning in her advanced science courses.

Approaching “Quirky” Essay Prompts

It’s a college admissions trend that keeps growing in popularity: the quirky college application essay question . From questions about what advice a wisdom tooth would have to inquiries about how students would design their own courses, many colleges are asking applicants some strange questions. For many students, these wild and wacky application prompts can be extremely intimidating. Many struggle with the balance between writing creative, witty responses and sounding cheesy and forced.

When tackling these odd application essay prompts, remember the main goal of the admissions essay — to reveal something not obvious about yourself. These essays are about you, not what you think the college wants to hear, so keep your interests in mind! The same applies to the “short-take” supplement questions (those that seek a one-word or one-sentence response). Dig deep, but remember that your answer doesn’t have to be as strange as the prompt — it just needs to reflect your character and passions.

The Common “Why This College?” Essay

One of the most common supplemental essays that students will come across is the infamous “ Why This College? ” essay. Whether it’s simply “Why XX University?” or a more specific question about how a student plans to contribute to the campus, colleges are looking for detailed and well-researched responses.

It’s not enough to say, “I want to go to XX University because it’s a great school,” or “XX College is my favorite.” When evaluating these responses, colleges want to know that a student has done their homework on the institution and has really thought about how they will fit into the campus community. If supplemental essays are good gauges for demonstrated interest , this particular type of essay is the most important.

When answering this essay question, use specific details. Mention courses and professors of interest. Students should elaborate on campus organizations or programs that fit certain goals, and specific aspects of the campus community that make it a good social and academic fit. Be as detailed as possible, but be sure to relate these details to specific goals and interests. Don’t just rattle off some course names and expect to wow the admissions committee.

The best writing supplements will add great context and personality to a student’s application, and elevate their chances of admission. Often it can be the difference between the ‘no’ and the ‘maybe’ pile. Research and preparation are key to writing stand-out supplements, so don’t wait until the last minute! If you’re still unsure about how your essay could come across to admissions officers, it’s not too late for our team of expert counselors to review your supplements and give guidance on how to draft and revise your essays. Contact us to learn more.


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Home » IvyWise KnowledgeBase » IvyWise Resources » All Articles » How to Write Great Supplemental College Application Essays


  1. Sample Strong Supplemental Essay for College Admissions

    Don't make this mistake. Your "Why This College" essay must be specific, demonstrating a high level of interest in and commitment to this particular school. To better understand how to ace this supplemental essay prompt, let's analyze a sample essay written for Oberlin College.

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    Gain instant access to essay examples for every supplemental essay prompt from the top universities and BS/MD programs in the United States.

  3. Learn How to Write Great Supplemental College Essays ...

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  4. Supplemental College Application Essays: Your Definitive ...

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    The WHY US Essay asks students a simple question: Why do you want to go to THIS school and not THAT school? This is one of the most common supplemental essays, but to answer it effectively, you'll need to do significant research. EXAMPLE PROMPTS: Please tell us what you value most about Columbia and why. (300 words or less)

  6. How to Write the Cornell Supplemental Essay | College Essay Guy

    In this guide, learn about each of the Cornell supplemental essay prompts with exercises and essay examples to help you along the way.

  7. How to Write a Supplemental Essay for College Applications

    Some colleges ask for a supplemental essay, or several, as a way of getting to know an applicant better. Read on to discover tips on how to tackle these writing supplements and see a sample...

  8. Supplemental Essays Guide: How to Write, Tips & Examples

    Supplemental essays are additional writing samples that you submit along with the rest of your college application. Many high-ranking schools ask for these essays, as they are intended to be more specific than your personal statement. It’s a chance for you to further demonstrate why you are a good fit for the school you’re applying to.

  9. How to Write the Most Common Supplemental College Essays: A ...

    Common Essay #1: Why this college? Students’ most common mistake on a “Why this college?” essay is lack of specificity; in particular, some students will list attributes that can apply to multiple schools, which is what you want to avoid at all costs.

  10. How to Write Great Supplemental College Application Essays

    One of the most common supplemental essays that students will come across is the infamous “ Why This College? ” essay. Whether it’s simply “Why XX University?” or a more specific question about how a student plans to contribute to the campus, colleges are looking for detailed and well-researched responses.