College Supplemental Essays: Everything You Need to Know

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Your personal statement is one of the most important essays you will write for your college application. It shows a side of you that cannot be captured in your GPA, activities list, or anywhere else on your application. You can spend months crafting the perfect personal statement, honing each word and paragraph to convey exactly the right message.

So, why then do so many schools require that you write additional supplemental essays?

Colleges aren’t looking to overwhelm you with unnecessary extra work. Each supplemental prompt is meant to get a little more information about your interests, your knowledge about their school or programs, what kind of person you are, or any other number of specific subjects.

In this guide, we will review everything you need to know about supplemental essays and how to write the best essays possible.

College Supplemental Essays: Everything You Need to Know

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What are supplemental essays?

Many colleges find that they want more information about a certain aspect of your experience, knowledge, or personality than they might be able to find in your personal statement or the rest of your application.

If that’s the case, they will include special essay prompts that are unique to their school.

This could be one extra prompt or several—Stanford University has eight essay and short answer prompts.

These essay prompts can be found on each college’s website, and in most cases can be found through a simple Google search (i.e. “NYU supplemental essays,” “Upenn supplemental essays,” etc.). Our blog has plenty of essay guides for these prompts!

How many supplemental essays will I have to write?

Not every school has a supplemental essay requirement.

A good way to predict your potential workload, though, is to expect around one to three supplemental essays per school. Some schools may have more, some may not have any at all.

So, if you are applying to ten schools, then you could find yourself writing around 15-25 supplemental essays of varying lengths on top of writing your personal statement.

That may seem like a lot, and if you haven’t written a lot of essays in high school, it can feel like a daunting amount of writing.

Don’t fret—although it can be a lot of writing, if you start early (many colleges release their supplemental prompts during the summer), and work smart (more on that later), then you will knock them out before you know it.

How long will writing supplemental essays take?

One of the great things about supplemental essays is that only one school sees your work. They also tend to cover only a few types of questions or subjects.

As a result, you can often reuse large swaths of your work for different schools.

When you first start making your way through these prompts, the writing may take a little longer.  After all, you’re writing those first few essays from scratch.  Following those initial essays, the process should become a little easier.

You will get more familiar with the structure of the questions and answers, and you will be able to reuse the most important pieces from your previous essays.

Early on in the writing process, an essay may take you two or three weeks to write. By the end, you will be able to write several essays within a week.

The one type of prompt that you may need to spend a little more time on, though, are the “why this school” prompts. These prompts can come in many forms, but the gist of the question asks for things that you like about their school, program, or major.

Here is a sample of this type of prompt from Northwestern University:

  • In 300 words or less, help us understand how you might engage specific resources, opportunities, and/or communities here. We are curious about what these specifics are, as well as how they may enrich your time at Northwestern and beyond.

What they are asking for here is research–specific details about professors that you like, or classes you are looking forward to.

Researching these can take slightly longer, but again, once you are familiar with the structure and approach needed for these essays, they will become easier to write.

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Does every school have supplemental essays?

Short answer: No.

As you move from safety schools on up to reach schools, the likelihood of the school having at least one supplemental essay prompt increases.

With that said, several notable schools have chosen to forgo supplemental essays, including schools like Drexel University in Philadelphia, or Northeastern University in Boston. So, not having a supplemental essay isn’t always indicative of a school’s quality or reputation.

The number of required supplemental essays can also depend on the program or major to which you are applying.

For example, the University of Pennsylvania has two supplemental essays that every applicant must answer, but they also require additional essays for more specific programs.

Ultimately, you should look specifically at the website of every school to which you are applying and check if they have supplemental essay prompts.

Why are supplemental essays so important?

Supplemental essays represent an opportunity to speak directly to an individual school on your list.

In general, the essays are the only places on your application where you can control how you are presenting yourself. Everything else is simply a collection of accomplishments, experiences, or scores that likely paint a similar picture to several other applicants.

With the essays, you can finally give voice to those more intangible aspects of your personality, passions, and interests, and the supplemental essays help you hone that information one school at a time.

By necessity, your personal statement needs to be more general.  You can’t include details about a specific school in the personal statement because so many different schools will see that same essay.

With a supplemental essay, only one school will see your answer, which means you can tailor your answers specifically to that school, sprinkling in details about their unique programs, instructors, and more.

This is your chance to show each school why you are the perfect applicant for their program, and why they are the perfect school for you.

Why are supplemental essays more important post-COVID?

Supplemental essays have always been important to a school’s decision-making process, but recently, they have become more important than ever.

As you know, colleges use several sources of information to evaluate potential candidates, including standardized test scores, GPA, activities, essays, etc.

However, COVID disrupted this process quite a bit.

As a result of COVID restrictions, many schools opted to offer test-optional applications for the 2020-2021 and 2021-2022 application seasons. This means that they will accept applications that do not submit standardized test scores like the SAT or ACT.

Some schools and school systems were already looking at phasing out or lessening the importance of testing before COVID hit, and In several notable instances, test-optional has already become a permanent offering.

In theory, this gives applicants who were unable to take a test an equal chance at gaining acceptance.

In practice, the process doesn’t always equal the playing field. Sometimes, schools can place an increased emphasis on the other aspects of the application. For example, a test-optional application might now need a higher average GPA than applicants who have scored high on a standardized test, especially at higher-level schools.

With a shift away from standardized tests, and a larger emphasis being placed on other pieces of the application, supplemental essays have increased in importance.

How can I prepare to write my supplemental essays?

Essay writing can feel like a bit of a slog if you don’t prepare properly.

Follow these seven steps to make sure that you can write the best supplemental essays possible without doubling or tripling your work.

  • Look up all of the supplemental essays for each of the schools on your list.

These can usually be found with a simple Google search (i.e. “NYU supplemental essays,” “Harvard supplemental essays,” etc.).

  • Read through each prompt and categorize them by their similarities.

All “why this school” essays go in one category, all essays asking about your interest in your major go into another, etc. Keep in mind that some questions may straddle two or more categories.

  • Check each essay’s length. Write the longer essays first.

Some prompts require a short answer of 150 characters or 50 words, others might require 450-500 words long.

  • Research.

Supplemental prompts sometimes try to gauge your interest or excitement for the school or a specific program. Look up specific details and mention them in your essay. This can include professors whose work you admire, classes you are looking forward to, or specific programs and facilities that fall in line with your interest. The more pointed the detail, the more effective it will be in your essay.

  • Recycle. Recycle. Recycle.

Use the longer essays to help answer the shorter essays whenever possible. This likely won’t be a one-for-one fit. You will need to edit your essay to make it fit each individual prompt.

  • Make sure you are answering every aspect of a prompt.

One school’s prompt may be asking for a personal story of leadership, while another school may want a story of leadership that specifically illustrates your grasp of teamwork. The answers to these two prompts may be similar but not exactly the same. Additionally, some prompts may have more than one question. Answer every aspect of the prompt as completely as possible.

  • Be creative!

Sometimes, a school just wants you to flex your creativity. Don’t get stuck in a rut with each essay. Make sure you are writing the most interesting answer possible. If a school gives you a strange and esoteric prompt, then chances are they want a strange and esoteric response.

Using these steps, you will have what you need to complete any prompt a school throws at you.

Conclusion: Supplemental Essays for College

This guide should provide you with all the information you need to know about college supplemental essays.

Not every school has them, but when they do, they can be incredibly important for your application.

Check each school on your list for their requirements, and make sure you read each prompt closely and carefully.  Some of the most common mistakes in these essays can be boiled down to not answering the prompt fully or accidentally ignoring part of the question.

Ultimately, the supplemental essays will be one of the main components of your application. They will take more time to complete than any other piece, and answering them properly and creatively can make all the difference between two potential candidates with similar credentials.

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