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How to Answer the Most Common Essay Prompts for College Supplements

The biggest thing my Application Nation members are worried about RIGHT NOW is how their kids approach the daunting task of SUPPLEMENTAL ESSAYS. My members are a good barometer for what other families are facing. If you're like them, they are concerned about what colleges are really looking for in these essays.

Here is how you can approach the most popular essay prompts found on supplements:

The "Why Us" Essay
This is the most common prompt. The student must discuss why they are applying to that particular institution and usually the specific major, school, or program at the institution. I recommend that the student skip the cursory review of the website and brochures, and dig deep for this one. Think back to your visit about all the things that are not part of the tour guide or admissions officer's script, and remind yourself of the little moments that stood out to you. Like overhearing a professor give a lecture as you walked by the classroom or chatting up a student advertising for an upcoming cultural event. And if you don't remember these small, yet powerful moments, ask your mom or dad. I promise, they will remember!
When writing this essay, focus on the academic fit between you and the institution/program you are applying to. Give concrete evidence to back it up! For example, if you want to get admitted to a university's business school, provide clear examples of what you have done that prepare you for a business education and that business education in particular. The more unexpected the example is, the more interesting your essay will be. In other words, you don't have to have a business internship to impress an admissions committee for undergraduate business schools. Be creative with your examples!
Here are a few more tips for this type of essay:
  • Mentioning extracurricular activities that you want to get involved with is usually acceptable to do as long as the word count permits it. If words are limited, focus first on academics.
  • Frame your essay at the beginning (and at least one more time at the end) with a unique anecdote that only you can write. An experience on campus. A chance conversation with a professor or alumnus. A discovery that happened on campus that inspires you. It should connect you to the institution in a personal and moving way.  
  • Listing classes, professors, study abroad programs, or clubs is one way to show knowledge about a college. But the students who really engage and internalize the culture, educational philosophy, and ethos of the institution will impress the admissions officers much more with their writing!
The Diversity Essay
This prompt is worded differently depending on the supplement, but it typically is asking the student to reflect on their own distinctive background or how their mind has been expanded by someone else's. This is when race, culture, traditions, physical differences, sexual identity, geography (where you come from!) and even religion are fair game. The student can think about something macro like being a part of a large racial group or they can drill down to their own neighborhood.
For majority students, this essay can be a struggle. They don't want to be disingenuous, but what do they do if they haven't had an experience that allows them to see another perspective? I would say that they need to circle back and do more brainstorming because diversity interfaces with us as Americans every single day—in the grocery store line, school cafeteria, social media, and the wondrous world of art.

"For majority students, a thorough brainstorm on diversity in everyday life will uncover a solid topic for the supplemental diversity essay." TWEET THIS

The Extracurricular Activity Essay
This is exactly why I tell my Application Nation members to encourage their kids NOT to write about an extracurricular activity for their main college essay! Almost always, a student applying to selective colleges will need to write a supplemental essay on exactly this topic. Instead of having two essays about activities, I encourage students to write about something else for their main essay—this adds dimension to a student's application. This approach allows them to share and expand on an activity so meaningful to them that it needs its own essay—supplemental essay that is! Just make sure that you pick an activity that needs some explaining either because the activity is highly unusual or the impact you've made has been highly unusual.
There will be plenty more variations of supplemental essays to explore, but these three prompts are often the most widely used. Once a student writes a strong supplemental essay on one of these topics, they can use ideas and sometimes even sentences for other supplements. Just be careful that each supplemental essay is written with the college's philosophy in mind. These essays might be "supplemental" to the application, but they are just as influential as the main college essay is for the student and their admissions outcomes.