Oops. Wrong SUP. We are talking college application essay supplements here. Haha.
I just gave a workshop on how to write college supplement essays to a group of college-bound students yesterday, and wanted to share some of the advice and tips on how to make them stand out. We talked mainly about the most common supplement prompt you will find this year: Why you at our college?
On applications, this prompt is stated in a variety of ways, from asking you to tell them why you are a fit, or what you will bring or contribute to their school, or just why you want to go there.
This prompt, though tiresome, is worth spending time on, especially for your top pick schools.
Of course, it will be different for each school, but chances are you can re-use many of your ideas. I wrote one post, How to Answer the Most Common Supplement Question: Why College X?, on how to match your goals with what the schools have to offer. In general, you need to identify how you connect with that school on a variety of fronts. Look for how what you want in your field lines up with what they have to offer. Take notes.
Here are some other tips:
1. Do your research. Scour the school’s Web site. Look for what they value in their messaging (key words: innovation; entrepreneurial; leadership, sustainability, etc.) and see if you can include experiences from you own background or interests that support these. I love college counselor Ethan Sawyer’s awesome list of resources, How to Write a “Why Us” Essay,” to research your target schools for these supps.
2. Dig for Ways to Make it Personal. (This is my favorite tip.) The best way to brighten a generic answer is to find personal connections. Mention something you saw while on a college tour–such as how a professor interacted with students or a specific moment with a student that impressed you (you could even gather details if you watch the online campus tour.). Mention how you had heard something about a college from a friend or family member who went there (a specific detail that you liked), and why you care about that, too. Or maybe someone you highly respect went there and that piqued your interest. You could even quote a college rep.
3. Get creative in your research. Go beyond the school’s Web site to learn what they are all about on many levels. Ask friends or family who go or went there for details. Follow the school’s Facebook, Twitter and other social media forums for insider info. Read forums on popular student sites, such as College Prowler and College Confidential–but also take what you read with a grain of salt. When your school holds their college fairs, show up and collect information on your target college by asking specific questions to the college reps. You can even call the admissions folks at your target colleges and ask questions. That’s their job!3. Collect information on what they value on many levels: academically, socially, environmentally, philosophically, lifestyle, etc. Are you a vegan and cafeteria food options matter a lot to you? Do you want a college that isn’t big on the Greek scene? Do you want a school with a rah-rah football team? Is an organic garden a must? Or a fencing club? Think hard about what you really care about, and feature that in your answer.
4. Look for specific examples and details of how what you want out of your college experience lines up with what they have to offer: internships, study abroad programs, exciting courses, stellar professors in your field of interest, unique learning opportunities, social activities, interesting locations, new facilities (Colleges will usually boast about these on their Web sites: libraries, media centers, training facilities, etc.).
5. If you mention something that intrigues you, make sure you know what you are talking about. If you say you live in the suburbs and want a big city experience, make sure your college actually is in a big city (eg. Columbia is not in downtown NY; and NYU is in Greenich Village and LMU is not in downtown Los Angeles.) It all goes back to doing your homework, which, with the Internet is EASY! If you mention the school mascot or colors, get them right!
6. Read samples. They might be harder to find, but search Google for “sample supplemental essay” for your target school. It doesn’t hurt to see what other student shave written. I know you are smart enough to not copy what they say, but get ideas for your own answers.
7. Know why you want to go there. Yes, this seems obvious. But my guess is that many students will have certain colleges on their list of target schools, but actually don’t know that much about them, other than their general reputation. This is your chance to do a little research, and learn more about what they have to offer. At the same time, you will have more to say if they require this “Why you?” supp.
8. Start with your best point. These supp essays are usually quite short–between 100 and 300 words. This usually amounts to a couple paragraphs. Although it’s not enough room to include anecdotes (mini, real-life stories), you can still “grab” the reader by starting with your most interesting point or idea. And these usually involve details or specific examples, which are natural “hooks.”
Spend a couple sentences on that one point–including more details. For example, if your main point is a specific program they offer, or that you fell in love with the friendly vibe on campus during a tour, or you have dreamed about using your 5 years of high school Spanish in a study abroad to Argentina (which they offer), talk about that first. Then (in your second paragraph) you can include other important points, maybe three to five, and speak about them in more general terms. The idea is that you use the color and description of that first juicy point to engage the reader. If you think college admissions officers get bored reading hundreds of Common App essays, just imagine reading these supplements!
9. Triple check your essays before sending them out: The last thing you want is for a supplement to hurt your chances. If you are re-using this prompt for multiple schools, make sure to proof each answer to make sure you don’t accidentally tell one school why you love another. Believe me, it’s happened before!
10. Make sure to meet or stay under the word count. If nothing else, show your schools that you know how to follow instructions.