Supplemental essay tips (plus the COVID question on the CA)

Here are some tips for making supplemental essays easier:

The topic is actually the student. Find SPECIFIC details about the school and relate them back to you.

It is important to note that for the most selective colleges, you need to show an understanding of what a college looks for in its applicants beyond the surface level.

For “Why Us” essays:
Spend time on their website. Go to pages that are not obvious. Always look at the college Mission Statement. Try to show those buzzwords in your essay. Find classes of interest specific to your intended major. A professor whose work interests you. Particular clubs or community groups you’d like to be involved with. Special programs that are unique to that school. These essays are about gauging fit, showing how you will be active on campus, and, often, showing genuine interest. Use every word wisely because these are often extremely short.

The more competitive the college, the more you need to show that you understand what the college is looking for, and how you offer that. Spending ten minutes on the website is probably not going to suffice, so dig deeper.

There is a goldmine of stuff to bring into your essay under the Research tab, or Community, or Career Center, or Civic Engagement, or Academics. Start clicking around all the tabs on the home page, and dig deeper into the website. Look at stuff that might not immediately seem obvious. Example: I just now randomly typed in an Ivy college, clicked on community, clicked on arts and culture, clicked on events, and saw a cool “master class” on how to write for tv shows. I plan on majoring in media studies and/or creative writing, so maybe I could work that class into my essay because it aligns with my interests.

Your own experiences can be brought into these essays. Did you do Science Research at school, for example? Maybe you researched salmon migration and you want to major in environmental science. Find a way to show how your research might align with the work of a professor in the environmental science department, or how a cluster of courses on offer is related to what you did and is relevant to what you intend to study. Perhaps your poetry was published, or you received an award for a poem you wrote. You could relate that the the Modern Poets of the 2000’s course and discuss how your poetry will improve by taking a course like that. These are just examples, of course.

For Community essays:
Another common supplemental essay topic might be along the lines of “tell us about a community you’re involved with and what your role in that community is. What have you learned from that community?” Many students can use this question to elaborate on a club they are very involved with, or the neighborhood they live in, or their cultural affiliations, or their volunteer work, or even a job.

These essays serve to reveal more about you and how your involvement in a community manifests itself. Maybe they can see you doing something similar on campus, and get more insight into your personality. It can be helpful to show some of the Mission Statement buzzwords in these essays.

For Involvement essays:
Similar to the why us or community essays might be the “tell us how you’ll be involved in Super Duper College life if you are accepted.” Know something about the clubs on offer, volunteer opportunities, the athletics culture (games, participation, etc…), live performances, lecture series, special programs, etc… You may well see that there is a fair bit of overlap with prompts, or that different colleges have similar prompts.

For Diversity essays:
This type of prompt is commonly phrased something like “Diversity and inclusion are integral to our community. How will you contribute to these qualities on campus?” For some, this will be relatively simple. If you feel that there is nothing diverse about you, think outside the box. You could discuss your own actions to promote diversity, a family tradition from the ancestral land, a time you spoke up for someone being marginalized, an enlightening conversation you had with someone from a very different background, or how you’ve come to appreciate the culture of the immigrant community in your town. These essays help the AO gauge the perspective you bring to campus.

If an AO can swap out the name of their college for another, your essay is not specific enough. And again, the more selective the college is, the more this matters.

I can’t stress how important it is to answer the prompt. If the supplemental questions ask you to explain how you’re going to be involved on campus, don’t instead say “Super Duper College is my top choice and I’d be honored to attend.” Firstly, those are wasted words, and you can’t afford to waste when you only have 100-250 words to play with. Secondly, your essay should be able to show your enthusiasm without you having to state the obvious.

Saving time:
Yes, you can reuse essays and it can save you a ton of time. My students do this often. Just be sure you adjust them to fit the prompt and word count.

“Optional or Recommended” essays:
Supplemental essays are often not really “optional,” even if the college says they are. If you think they are not worth the hassle, consider who you are, where you live, and the selectivity of the college you are applying to. Maybe you don’t need to write them, but in my experience, it’s always in your best interest to do so.

Prioritize your top choice colleges. The more colleges you apply to, the more essays you will likely do. Devote your writing energy to your top choices (preferably including at least a couple of schools within the realm of possibility) because many students run out of steam. You really don’t want to submit substandard writing.

In a nutshell, these essays are meant to help AO’s decide if they can see you on campus. Give them a reason to say yes. Feel free to add your tips.

Edit: Sept. '22, in regards to the COVID question on the Common App—
Literally every single student has been affected by the pandemic in some way. Jeff Selingo, author of “Who Gets In and Why: A Year Inside College Admissions,” advises that AO’s he has talked with would rather you leave it blank unless there was a real impact (death, loss of job, serious illness, etc…) In other words, avoid using the space to explain why you got a C in a class, or how it was hard to focus using Zoom. If you think it might sound like an excuse, you are probably right.


Just wanted to say thank you. These are awesome tips!

Remember also: Word count matters! You MUST stay within word count.

Amazing tips- thank you @Lindagaf ! I have one graduated from college and one a sophomore in college but have bookmarked this for my sophomore in high school. It seems like the process with her is far away, but in actuality it is not!

@Lindagaf… Amen! Make this a sticky.

@knowstuff , it already is:-)

Lol… Would like to add not only mission statement but also the school moto in some cases. Some are strong on volunteering, some on leadership… Probably a good idea to align with those per college applying to. I usually say the essay should be personal, unique and interesting. I think what you outlined helps the student to accomplish that.

A word of caution. There is no one formula and adcoms know the mission, motto, and what profs teach in what depts.

For a tippy top, the Why Us is less about “fit” and more about the effort you made to actually know Why X? Not a recitation, not their status, not what words their marketing dept puts out, but a more effective understanding, a show that you “get it.”

Don’t leave them thinking you’re applying to ten colleges, ranked them by prestige, and you just sat yourself down and looked at the mission statements, who teaches in the dept you want, and…really don’t know.

And the supp essays can be a Why Us, as well. If you do know the college, you should know which answers work better. But lots of kids just take the outside view.


“The more competitive the college, the more you need to show that you understand what the college is looking for. Spending ten minutes on the website is probably not going to suffice, so dig deeper.”

Yes, exactly why I said that.

This post is a general “how to”, but for the most selective colleges, you need to “get it”, as @lookingforward says.

To shed more light @lookingforward 's point, courtesy of @MYOS1634 :

“You need to show you understand their values and match them to something you’ve done or regularly do. Think of it as a way to convince someone you like to date you. If all you do is say “You’re awesome” “you’re my dream person”… why would they go out with you? I mean, I’m sure they’d be flattered, but you’re not giving them any reason to think you are awesome AND a great match for them…”

Especially if you are applying to tippy tops, your supplements need to show, not just tell.

I wrote a supplemental essay about having an existential crisis, but solving it. Basically I had one in middle school, but I overcame it by deciding life doesn’t need a universal meaning. I tak about how I decided my meaning is to help others, specifically by involving myself in the global health initiative by working for Doctors Without Borders and eventually the WHO/a similar organization. I connect this to a story of my grandfather, whose sister died of dysentery because of a lack of Access to medical care. The essay prompt was about picking a quote and taking about how it applies to an experience that changed the way you approached life.

Very useful podcast about supplemental essays.

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@Lindagaf. These podcasts are excellent. Something to listen to when I am stuck in traffic. They should sticky this. Some excellent points. @lookingforward should enjoy these as well. Lots what he is preaching is told here.

Those podcasts are really beneficial to finding what you want in something and relating it to your supplemental essays.

Very useful video with a segment about supplements and essays in general. Watch from about the 9:50 to 13:30 minute marks. 73 Questions With A Former IVY LEAGUE ADMISSIONS OFFICER | New York Times Published Author - YouTube

Excellent post by a former Tulane AO on how to write the Why Us essay!

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