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What You Need to Know About College Application Supplements

Oh, how I wish applying to college was as easy as it once was. Once you think you are done...surprise! There's more.

And that's what happens when students realize they aren't just filling out the Common Application and calling it a day. Every member college of Common App has its own "supplement," and there is more to fill out than one might expect. 

The supplement is a way for each individual college to ask questions that are specific to its admissions process. And, surprise! Colleges often change their questions and prompts every single year. We have to wait until August 1st when Common App and all the supplements are updated to be sure we are using the most up-to-date version. 
But if you want to take a peek at what to expect on a supplement, add a college to your "Dashboard" on Common App and this is what you will often see:
  • Start Term: This is when you plan to begin college as a freshman. Most students will select "Fall" and the most up-to-date year. For the rising high school seniors who plan to go immediately to college after graduating from high school as opposed to taking a gap year, you would select Fall of 2023. Remember, this is not available on any supplements until after the August 1st update, though. Some colleges offer "Spring" or "Summer" start dates, and selecting one of these alternative start dates can increase a student's chances of admission.
  • Admissions Plan: If a college has multiple deadlines like Early Decision 1, Early Decision 2, Early Action, or Regular Decision, you will select which plan you want to be evaluated in. You can only select one. If you change your mind after submitting your Common App and supplement, you will have to contact the college's admissions office to find out how a change can be made. 
  • Financial Aid: Even for a college that has a need blind admissions policy, it will ask the student whether they are applying for need based financial aid. A need blind college may block the answer to this question so that its admissions officers are reading the application without knowing the answer to this question. If a student indicates that they plan to apply for need based financial aid, they will be expected to submit all of the required forms in order to get a financial aid award at the time of admission.
RELATED READING: 3 Financial Aid Terms Every Family Should Know
  • Academics: For a university, you will often be asked not only which undergraduate program you would like to be considered for, but the specific major as well. For small liberal arts colleges, you usually only list the major choice. Admissions officers evaluate applications based on the undergraduate school and major listed on the supplement. And the program/major listed first should be the one you have the most evidence to support.
  • Disciplinary/Criminal Involvement: As of last year, Common App eliminated the questions related to whether a student had been involved with a disciplinary issue at their high school or had pending charges or a conviction of a misdemeanor or felony. However, most colleges added these questions to their supplements so there is often no way to avoid this. If a student answers yes to this question, they will be required to provide an explanation.
  • Test-Optional Consideration: For colleges with a test-optional policy, students will be asked directly whether they want their scores (which can be self-reported on the Common Application) evaluated in the admissions process. This question allows a test-optional college to block the test scores from the admissions officers' views in case a student forgot to remove their scores from Common App and plans to apply test-optional.
  • Family: For colleges that value alumni and legacy admissions, oftentimes, a student will be asked to list family members who attend or attended the institution. Children of undergraduate alumni (versus graduate alumni, grandparents, siblings, or other family members) tend to be the most valued (if legacy admissions is still considered by the individual college). 
  • Short Answer Responses: Some colleges with more extensive supplements will have prompts with shorter word counts. For example, Yale's 2021-2022 supplement includes "Short Takes" which require the student to respond to four prompts in 35 words (or less) each. 
  • Supplemental Essay Prompts: Most of the highly selective and very selective colleges will require longer essays. Yale's supplement from last year included four additional essays (in addition to the "Short Takes") ranging in word counts from 125 to 250 words. In contrast, Tulane's supplement had three supplemental essays, with word counts ranging from 250 to 800 words. Tulane's supplemental essays were technically "optional." However, most of the time a highly selective college expects a student to not only write these essays, but write extraordinary ones at that.
RELATED READING: Never Underestimate the Importance of Supplemental Essays
Applying to college isn't as simple as filling out the Common App and submitting as many applications as possible. The more colleges on your list, the more supplements you will have to fill out. And if you have a lot of highly or very selective colleges on your list, you could end up writing dozens of supplemental essays. I cannot stress enough how important those supplemental essays are in the admissions process and how hard they are to write for most students. For this reason and many other reasons, make sure your college list is truly well-balanced. If not, you will spend your entire summer and fall of senior year writing and editing essays, at the expense of your senior year classes and mental health. 


FREE DOWNLOAD: 10 Important Things to Know When Filling Out the Common App



Don't be fooled by how straightforward and streamlined the Common App is. The colleges' supplements are the opposite. And most students cannot start working on supplements until they are updated on August 1st. This is another reminder of how students are at the mercy of this college process. If I had it my way, supplemental essays would be eliminated!