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How to Write a Great Supplemental Essay

When it comes to your college application essay, there’s a good chance you’ll end up writing more than one. There’s your main personal statement, and then there’s supplemental essays. These are shorter essays required by some colleges and universities. To learn more about supplemental essays and the different types of prompts there are, keep reading. Or if you’d like to jump directly to our tips section, go right ahead!

Also see: How to write a 500 word essay

What is a supplemental essay? 

Also known as school-specific essays, supplemental essays are additional pieces of writing required by some universities. They’re designed to give admissions officers a better sense of who you are and why you want to attend their school. Supplemental essays are shorter in length than your main personal statement. Word counts can range anywhere from 25 – 600 words, but most of the time they’re 250 words or less. Some colleges ask for just one supplemental essay, while others require several. 

Related: How to format a college essay

The “why us?” question

Supplemental essays usually ask something along the lines of “why us?”, prompting students to describe why they want to attend a specific school. It’s a common question that you’ll see asked in various ways. Here’s a few examples from different schools: 

School  Essay Prompt 
American University  “Why are you interested in American University?” (150 words)
Barnard College “What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College and why do you think the College would be a good match for you?” (300 words)
Boston University  “What about being a student at Boston University most excites you?” (250 words)
University of Chicago  “How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.” (no word limit)
University of Michigan “Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests?” (550 words)
Syracuse University  “Why are you interested in Syracuse University and how do you see yourself contributing to a diverse, inclusive, accessible and respectful campus?” (250 words)

Other essay prompt examples

While the “why us?” question is a common prompt, there are many others out there. Prompts may ask about your favorite book, your biggest inspiration, or something as off-the-wall as pie (see UChicago). Here’s a few examples of supplemental essay prompts from various schools: 

School Essay Prompt
Yale University “What inspires you?” (200 characters or ~32 words)
University of Colorado – Boulder “At the University of Colorado Boulder, no two Buffs are alike. We value difference and support equity and inclusion of all students and their many intersecting identities. Pick one of your unique identities and describe its significance.” (250 words)
Vanderbilt University  “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.” (200-400 words)
University of Chicago  “What’s so easy about pie?” (no word limit)
Wake Forest University “Explain how a book you’ve read has helped you to understand the world’s complexity.” (150 words)
University of Georgia “The college admissions process can create anxiety. In an attempt to make it less stressful, please tell us an interesting or amusing story about yourself from your high school years that you have not already shared in your application.” (200 to 300 words)
UNC Chapel Hill “You’ll complete all four of the following fill-in-the-blank responses in 25 words each:

  • One family tradition I cherish:
  • This I believe:
  • The quality I most admire in myself:
  • The protagonist I most identify with:”

Tips for writing your supplemental essay(s)

1. Be prepared for anything

As you can tell by the examples above, supplemental essay prompts can ask you just about anything. That means you probably shouldn’t go in with any preconceived ideas of what you’re going to write about. Rather, be adaptable and willing to take on any question that comes your way. 

2. If you’re stuck, try freewriting 

If you get stumped by a certain prompt and you’re having trouble answering, do some freewriting exercises. Spend 10-15 minutes writing nonstop about whatever comes to mind when you think of the prompt. Don’t worry about grammar, spelling, or writing complete sentences. You can even use bullet points if that helps. When you’re done, review your writing and see if there’s anything you can elaborate on. You’re bound to find something that can be shaped into an essay.

3. Tailor your response to the school  

This one applies mostly to the “why us?” question. When answering this prompt, you should craft a response that touches on unique aspects of the specific school you’re applying to. Ask yourself what attracted you to the school in the first place. Was it a specific academic program? Was it the campus culture? What about the extracurricular activities? Whatever the case may be, make sure you clearly indicate why you’re interested in the school and why you’d be a great fit. 

4. Choose a narrow focus 

Most of the time, you’ll need to find an angle that can be covered in about 250 words or less. That means now’s not the time to take a deep dive into complex topics like politics or race relations. However, that doesn’t mean you can’t still write about something meaningful. You may not be able to tell your entire life story, but you can probably find a specific aspect to focus on. Even if you’re allowed just 50 words, you should find a way to reveal something positive about who you are. Figuring out how to do that is key to writing a solid essay. 

5. Be concise 

Adopting a narrow focus is easier when you’re intentional with your writing. Since the word limit on supplemental essays is usually pretty low, you need to make every word count to get your point across. If you’re struggling to comply with the word limit, comb through your essay and eliminate every sentence, phrase, and word that doesn’t serve a purpose. If it doesn’t add to the story, cut it. 

6. Don’t repeat yourself

The whole point of supplemental essays is to provide a space for colleges to get to know you better. That means you shouldn’t simply recycle content from your main essay or other parts of your application. It’s fine to briefly mention something again, but make sure you’re adding something new that can’t be found elsewhere in your application. If you can write about something completely different, even better!

7. Be yourself 

As cliché as it sounds, the best thing you can do when writing is to be yourself. Remember that these essays are meant to give insight into your character, so use your authentic voice and let your personality shine through. If it helps, write as if you’re having a chat with a close friend or family member

8. Ask for editing advice 

Before you turn in your essay, ask someone you trust to give it a read. Even if you’re 100% sure you’ve corrected all spelling and grammar mistakes, a second pair of eyes never hurts. Just try to limit the number of people who read your essay to one or two. Seeking feedback from too many sources may cause your essay to stray from the original focus.

Additional writing resources

Additional college admission resources

If you’re working on your college applications, you’ve probably got a lot on your plate. Luckily, we’ve got resources to help you through every step of the college process. Our resources include a guide of how many colleges to apply to, how to find safety, reach and match schools, and when to submit your applications. We can help you fill out the Common App activities and honors sections, and write a successful college application.

Once you hear back from schools, we can help you interpret your financial aid award letter, write a financial appeal, and apply for scholarships. And even once you’re in college, you can check out our resources on how to get involved on campushow to save money, get a work-study job, and create a budget. Finally, don’t forget to be proactive in paying for your education! Apply for as many scholarships as you qualify for while you are eligible!

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