No doubt about it.
Supplemental essays are the nasty little vexation of the college application process. (And you thought the Common App essay was a pain!)
I suggest students first tackle writing their core essay for The Common Application, or other applications that require a longer, personal-statement type of essay.
Get that out of the way first. It’s the hardest and most important.
But it’s never too early to start knocking off those pesky shorter essays, known as supplemental essays.
Many colleges and universities have already released the prompts for their required supplemental essays for 2016-17.
First, collect a list of all the supplemental essays you need to answer in one place (find the prompts for the supplemental essays required by each of your target schools on their web sites or on The Common Application.).
Look for ones that ask for common topics or themes, even though the actual questions might vary.
Generally, supplemental essays fall into three categories:
- The prompts that are asked the most often by many schools. These include those that ask:
a. Why are you a fit for our college or university?
b. Tell us about your intended major or field of study.
c. Write about one of your extracurricular interests, or an academic interest, or a talent/accomplishment/passion/goal, etc.
d. Tell us about your “world,” or cultural background, family, community, neighborhood, etc.
- The other common type of supps ask more specific questions, and often provide a famous quote or statement and ask you to respond to it.
Here’s an example from Tufts University 2016-17 supps:
“There is a Quaker saying: ‘Let your life speak.’ Describe the environment in which you were raised – your family, home, neighborhood, or community – and how it influenced the person you are today. (200–250 words)
- The new kid on the supp block are the prompts that are “out-of-the-box” and are trying to get students to showcase their imagination, personality and creativity.
Some examples: a. Where’s Waldo? b. Create a class c. What’s your favorite word? d. What is square one?
If you want to get super organized, sort your list of supplemental essays into these 3 categories to help identify commonalities and overlapping questions.
This should help you see how you can use similar ideas, experiences, details, topics and answers for your short essay responses.
You will likely find the most crossover in supps in the category No. 1 since those are the most common supp questions.
But you might be surprised how you can reuse from all three categories. (Notice how the Tufts prompts about that Quaker quote actually is asking you about your “world” or community. This topic also is one of the most common prompts for supplemental essays from the first No. 1 group. See how they overlap?)
The idea is that you make your life easier by recycling your best ideas in these supps. It’s totally kosher to repeat answers and themes because each college or university has their own separate supplemental essays and does not see or care about what you send to the others.
For example, if you had a unique experience where you learned something important, chances are you can mine that experience to help answer more than one supplemental essay.
The key is to identify what lessons you gleaned from that experience, and zero in on specific examples that you can share in your supplemental essay about it.
It wouldn’t hurt to take time to brainstorm and collect ideas and experiences on a piece of paper or computer file that you can develop and refer back to when working on these supplemental essays. Maybe pull out your resume or any other list of your activities and accomplishments to spark ideas.
You will start to see how certain experiences and activities line up with the different supplemental essay prompts.
HAVE SOME IDEA OF YOUR FUTURE MAJOR?
Say, for example, you are interested in science, and at this point, think you might want to study marine biology.
Great! This self-knowledge should help you answer questions from No. 1, such as what you intend to study and why you are a fit at a certain school.
The trick is to identify details from past, related experiences that first inspired your interest in this subject, as well as research details from your target schools that would help you develop that interest further.
Also, if you are asked to write about an extracurricular or academic activity or interest or talent or accomplishment, start by brainstorming any experiences related to your interest in science and specifically marine biology.
NO IDEA WHAT YOU WANT TO STUDY?
If you are a student who still has no clue really what you want to major in or study in college, don’t worry! You are in the majority of college-bound kids.
What I recommend for you is to focus more on your defining qualities and core values and brainstorm related experiences to help you find details to help answer those same prompts in No. 1. (Find your defining qualities HERE.)
Instead of lining up your responses based on a specific interest, you will use a quality or value to identify related moments or experiences that illustrate them.
For example, if you are telling a college why it’s perfect for you, talk about one specific core value you hold and explain how and why you developed it (using specific details from your past), and how and why (also using details) that target school has programs, course, facilities, etc. that would help you continue to develop it.
A more specific example of this?
Say one of your defining qualities is being innovative. Think of “times” and experiences from your past when you have used this quality, such as the time you helped run a fundraiser for orphaned iguanas at your school, or the time you interned at a hospital and helped adapt a wheelchair for a blind patient.
You can then talk about these specific experiences to answer all sorts of prompts, including the Why You at Our School? (because your target school also encourages innovation…) to talk about an accomplishment (recount one of these “times” you did something innovative) to tell us about your “world” (talk about the wheelchair in that hospital “world” or community).
I know this is a lot to take in. (Keep breathing! This will make more sense once you get started.)
To simplify, brainstorm two lists to spur ideas for these supplemental essays:
1. list of interesting activities/experiences/moments…
2. shorts list of core values and defining personal qualities
From there, start to dig up those KEY details and specific experiences that will give you something interesting and original to include in your supplemental essays other than the typical, over-general dribble.
All you need is one juicy detail to make all the difference. Why? They are so short!! (And most students don’t do this.)
ONE MORE BRAINSTORM TIP FOR SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAYS
Okay, I have one more nifty tip for you on these supplemental essays.
For almost any of these prompts, even the most “crazy” ones, this works wonders:
- Read the prompt and think of what you general answer would be. Then think some more to find something specific that happened to you that was related in some way to your general answer.
- Chances are that thing that happened involved some type of problem (challenge, obstacle, change, failure, setback, accident, etc.). It doesn’t have to be a huge crises. Any little, related problem will do.
- Think about what you learned from handling that problem.
See if you can use that life lesson in your supplemental essay. Chances are that incident or experience can work as a specific example of a larger point you make about yourself in that essay. And it will make your essay more personal, which you want!
The big secret to bumping up a generic supplemental essay is to include details and specific examples. Of course, you will probably have to include some broad, sweeping statements, but make sure to pop in those smaller details to prove or support your points.
NEED AN EXAMPLE?
The “Why Do You Fit?” Supplemental Essay Prompt: Don’t just say how you love the team spirit at your target school. Tell them how you have a collection of over 30 over their sports team’s hats, including a vintage one that you only take off at church.
The Extracurricular Supplemental Essay Prompt: Don’t tell them how you are a talented piano player and have won many awards. Talk about the time you slipped off the bench during a competition, but jumped right back without losing a beat (and what you learned from that experience.)
The “What’s Your Major?” Supplemental Essay Prompt: Don’t just tell them you want to study marine biology because you love dolphins and are worried about global warming. Describe the time during your summer job at the community pool where you practiced holding your breath so you could earn your deep sea diving certificate and someday work for Green Peace.
I bet you have even better real-life example and moments than those I shared here. And remember, be on alert for ways you can re-use these “times” and details to answer different prompts.
You will be surprised how this overwhelming task can be contained with this type of brainstorming for specific moments and experiences.
Not only will you get your arms around these annoying little supplemental essays, you will nail them!
Just give it a try.
Still confused? That’s ok. Just let me know you questions in the comments. (There are NO dumb questions!)
Here’s another post on How to Write Short Essays that you might find helpful as well!