Most students using the Common App are aware that they’ll have to write a personal statement. But that’s not the only essay you’ll need to write! Many schools on the Common App will require (or strongly encourage) you to write supplemental essays that are specific to their application. It’s crucial that you give these essays the same time and attention as the personal statement — don’t treat them as an afterthought.
Get an early start by finding the supplemental essay questions asked by the schools on your list. When you add a school to your colleges on the Common App, the supplemental essay questions will be included. But do note that they don’t always appear clearly in a separate section called “Writing Supplement.” Sometimes, you’ll find substantive essay prompts in other sections like “Academics.” This is especially common if you are applying to a particular school or major within the college you’re applying to. Going through each school on your list in advance will help you avoid any unpleasant last-minute surprises!
Some types of supplemental essay questions show up frequently, and you can often talk about the same idea or experience while tailoring it to slightly different prompts. The prompts will vary in the way they’re phrased and in word length. Once you know what the supplemental essay prompts are for your chosen colleges, you can begin to think about how to respond most effectively to each one.
Here are the three most common supplemental essay topics and some advice about how to approach them:
Why this college?
There are several different ways colleges can ask students a version of the “Why this college?” question. So, the first thing you’ll need to do is read the prompt! Some versions are very open-ended, while others ask you to focus on one area like academics. You need to make sure you’re answering the specific question being asked; if they want to know why you chose your major, don’t tell them how excited you are to cheer for the football team. Take a look at some of these different ways of asking “Why this college?”
- Why Bard? (250 words)
- Many students apply to the College of Charleston based on our location, size, reputation, and the beauty of our campus (temperate year-round weather also comes up frequently). While these are all important considerations in choosing a college, why is the College of Charleston a particularly good match for you? (750 words)
- We would like to know more about your interest in NYU. What motivated you to apply to NYU? Why have you applied or expressed interest in a particular campus, school, college, program, and or area of study? If you have applied to more than one, please also tell us why you are interested in these additional areas of study or campuses. We want to understand — Why NYU? (400 words)
- Why do you want to study your chosen major specifically at Georgia Tech? (300 words)
In terms of helpful advice for addressing the “why this college?” prompt, look back at the second on the list, from the College of Charleston. Notice that they have already told you the kind of information that’s less likely to be helpful in your response — size of the school, weather, geography, etc. That’s because none of those factors really distinguish the College of Charleston from schools of similar size and location. When you approach a “why this college” question, you should really be asking yourself, “why this college and not another?”
This is where your own research into the school becomes essential. You need specific information about each school’s resources (beyond what’s found on the landing page of the website). Once you know what the school has to offer, connect their resources to your interests and make it personal. The colleges already know what resources they have, so it’s not enough to list them; you need to tell them why they matter to you.
Another common supplemental essay prompt asks you to reflect on an extracurricular activity you’re involved in. While many schools will ask a similar question, the level of detail and reflection they call for can vary dramatically. Take a look at these prompts from Tulane and Vanderbilt:
- Tulane: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (Minimum 20/Maximum 250)
- Vanderbilt: Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (200-400 words)
These prompts are exactly the same, but Vanderbilt’s maximum word limit is nearly twice as long as Tulane’s. This might signal that Vanderbilt wants a bit more depth and detail in your response.
When you’re composing your response, think beyond the activity itself. What did you do when you were involved with this activity? What problems did you solve, what impact did you have on the community participating in this activity with you? What skills did you learn, and how have you applied those skills in other areas of your life? Use the response as a space to give the admissions committee more information about what’s important to you. No matter the length of the response, avoid merely describing the activity (most likely, you will have already done this in either your Activities section, your resumé, or both). Make the best use of the space and give your reader some new insight into who you are.
The last type of supplemental essay prompt we want to highlight is about community. Like the others, this topic can be given a few different spins. In its most general form, the community essay looks like this:
- Yale: Reflect on your membership in a community. Why is your involvement important to you? How has it shaped you? You may define community however you like. (250 words)
- 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’s 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. (200-250 words)
When thinking about how to answer this question, it helps to start by simply making a list of communities you’re a part of. There are many ways to define “community,” and you may find you can give a deeper and more thoughtful response by not going for the most obvious choices. Your school or home communities might come immediately to mind, but remember that communities can also be forged around a common place, activity, shared experience, or interest.
As with the other questions, keep the focus on yourself when you respond to this prompt. How has your community influenced you (think values, interests, goals, personality)? How have you contributed to your community (think helping a friend, having a difficult but important conversation, stepping up as a leader, bringing a new perspective)? It’s important that the reader come away with a sense of who you are in the context of this community and not just a description of the community.
Sometimes you’ll see a more pointed version of the community essay that asks you to describe how you handle conflict. Examples of this kind of question include:
- UVermont: Communities and organizations are stronger when they value diversity of thought. How do you create meaningful connections or conversations with others when they express opinions that differ from your own? (500 words)
- At Princeton, we value diverse perspectives and the ability to have respectful dialogue about difficult issues. Share a time when you had a conversation with a person or a group of people about a difficult topic. What insight did you gain, and how would you incorporate that knowledge into your thinking in the future? (250 words)
These types of questions present yet another opportunity to demonstrate to the school the kind of person you are. When generating ideas for this kind of prompt, think of instances of conflict or difference you’ve encountered, and be honest about how you dealt with them. There’s no need to fabricate a happy outcome (although it’s fine if your conflict ended well!). The important thing is that you articulate how the conflict changed you: what you learned from the experience, and how it will shape your thinking going forward.
As you work through your supplemental essays, remember that there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. You most likely already have all of the information, reflection, and insight needed to write effective supplements—it’s just a matter of writing them down. If you can craft a few clear, compelling essays, you can adjust those essays to fit specific prompts and move through this section of your application process with confidence.