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Never Underestimate the Importance of Supplemental Essays

This week I will be giving a special hour-long lesson to my Application Nation - Class of 2020 group on supplemental essays. The questions have already begun to roll in from the members. 

Is it better to write about the college or the program you are applying to? Should you mention an activity if it directly relates to your intended major? How important are supplemental essays anyway?

This tends to be one of the hardest aspects of the college application process. I often hear students say that they just figured out how to write a personal essay, and now they are expected to try their hand at a completely different type of writing. That is correct. Supplemental essays have a different feel to them.

If you are beginning to wonder how much time to devote and soul searching you will need to do to write these essays, here are some tips to help you through this next stage of the process:

1. Most of the more selective colleges will require at least one additional essay.

But don't be surprised if there are more essays required. Stanford has a notoriously long list of extra essay prompts. While the essays are shorter in word count, you want to make sure to map out ideas for each one so that you don't get repetitive.

2. Supplemental essays are usually found on a college's supplement.

They are updated every year over the summertime. Most years, the prompts don't change much. But there is no way of knowing whether a college changed its prompts until they are announced.

3. Speaking of announcements, most colleges have not yet publicly shared their 2019-2020 supplemental essays.

If they do, it would be on their admissions website. The University of Chicago has graciously announced its new prompts, but very few other colleges have. 

4. Most of us won't find out about the new prompts until August 1st when the Common Application and the Coalition Application are updated.

5. While you wait to hear about the new prompts, glance over the old college supplement prompts on the Common Application and the Coalition Application.

You could begin to map out ideas for each essay or simply just get a better sense of what is expected.  

6. Call the individual admissions offices for the colleges on your list and ask if the prompts will stay the same or change.

I always have better luck when I speak to someone on the admissions staff when I can't find out an answer on the website.

7. The most popular supplemental essay prompt is a "Why Us?" question.

Translation: Why is the student applying to this institution and why have they listed a specific major/program? The best way to approach this question is to consider your visit (yes, that's why the college visit is so important!), do more research, and find an angle that no one will use to capture how differently you see yourself and that specific college.

8. Avoid using themes mentioned during the tour/information session and well-known traditions.

The admissions officers have read way too many essays on the popular anecdotes mentioned by tour guides and staff members. 

9. Try to avoid a dangling reference.

Many students list classes they want to take, professors they want to have, and other opportunities on campus they want to do. While this is a way to show that you've done your research on a particular college, anyone can go on their website and find this out. Try to use this as a jumping off point, rather than a crutch to explain how you view that academic option or extracurricular opportunity apart from how the university or college explains it.

10. Many colleges will have a prompt asking the student to write about an extracurricular or job-related experience.

This is why I tell all students not to write their main essay about an extracurricular activity. Save it for these supplemental essays!

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Understanding the demands of these supplemental essays can help a student figure out how many and which colleges to include on their final list. Sometimes a student can recycle ideas or even sentences on multiple supplemental essays. But each essay written needs to have its own feel and it must honor the ethos of that college or university. If not, the admissions officer can sometimes pick up on the fact that the essay was originally written for another college.
With many students starting the school year well before Labor Day, that doesn't leave much time to finish these off before senior year begins. Therefore, try to get as many supplemental essays done for your Early Decision and Early Action applications this summer to make your fall a little easier.