As summer approaches each year, rising seniors across the United States have college applications on their mind. The college admission process can be stressful and complex, but understanding each step inside and out will help you put together an amazing application and get into the school of your choice.
Supplemental essays are one of the last steps of the application process. Not to be confused with the Common App or Coalition App personal statement that students send out to all of the schools they apply to, supplemental essays are school-specific essays that may vary from short 150-word responses to 500-word essays. Colleges often ask students to reflect on their favorite subjects or address why they are applying to their institution, but they can be about anything. Prompts may be simple or elaborate, serious or silly, but they are always an important step of the admissions process that gives schools a chance to hone in on the qualities they seek out in students.
In this article, we’ll address the various types of supplemental essay prompts that colleges might provide students, as well as strategies for approaching these essays.
What do colleges want to see in your supplemental essays?
Generally speaking, colleges ask for supplemental essays in order to learn more about your academic interests, your hobbies, and your personality. Take this opportunity to bring attention to some of your accomplishments and ambitions. Show the colleges why you are a great fit for their program and their campus community.
You should always give your supplemental essays a personal touch. Injecting just a smidge of humor or informality into your supplemental essays can be a great way to showcase your personality. However, this approach can fall flat if it isn’t done well. You should always have a second set of eyes look over your work to make sure your tone is not inappropriate.
You should answer these questions honestly. However, it can also be beneficial to tailor your responses to individual colleges. Do some research on the schools that you are applying to. What programs are they known for? What is their campus culture like? Do they have a history of activism or leadership in a specific area?
Most importantly, your essays should be tightly edited and should include no grammatical errors. Make sure to have a teacher, guidance counselor, or parent look over your work before you submit your work.
Common Supplemental Essay Questions
Supplemental essay questions vary from straightforward to downright goofy, and while there’s now way to predict exactly what you might be asked, there are a few types of questions that tend to come up frequently, with advice on how to approach them.
Why do you want to attend this school?
This is perhaps the most common supplemental essay question, and it’s easy to see why. This is your opportunity to flatter the college admissions committee and demonstrate why you are a perfect candidate for their program.
Be specific in answering this question and highlight particular programs or features of the school that appeal to you. Consider researching and identifying professors you are interested in working with, courses you find particularly interesting, extracurricular programs and organizations you want to participate in, or even study abroad programs that appeal to you. Colleges want students who are eager and excited about their program, so go ahead and show them why you would thrive on their campus.
Example from Duke University — Please share with us why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something in particular about Duke’s academic or other offerings that attract you? (200 words maximum)
Who is a historical/fictional figure you admire and why?
This question is an opportunity to highlight your interests and aspirations while demonstrating a little bit about your personality.
When you are choosing who you want to write about, think outside the box. While it can be tempting to choose a prominent figure like a president or a popular book character like Harry Potter, your answer may not stand out among a crowd. Think about lesser-known historical figures who perhaps don’t get their due, people in the field you want to work in or study, or fictional characters who aren’t traditional heros. Choose someone with admirable qualities and a tendency for leadership. How do you see yourself in this person?
Sometimes colleges will frame this question as, “Who is a person you admire and why?” In this case, you can also opt to choose someone from your personal life who has inspired you and motivated you in a unique way. However, if you choose to go this route, keep in mind that the admissions officer doesn’t know the person, so you will need to be detailed and specific in how they’ve influenced you. Consider briefly telling a story how this person has affected who you are and who you aspire to be.
In any case, remember that the admissions officer wants to learn about who you are, not about the person you are writing about, so make sure that your personality and aspirations shine through loud and clear.
Example from Barnard College — Pick one woman in history or fiction to converse with for an hour and explain your choice. What would you talk about?
What do you enjoy doing outside the classroom and why?
A question like this is asking you to expand on your hobbies or the extracurricular activities that you participate in. Use this question as an opportunity to give colleges a sense of your active interests and to demonstrate how you will add to their community. Focus on how your extracurricular activities reflect your personal ambitions as well as your ability to add to the campus culture.
It can be tempting to talk about your participation in sports or common student organizations like Model UN. While there’s nothing wrong with that, you should also know that many students participate in activities like these. Think about activities that are unique to your experience: a non-profit that you volunteer for that you are passionate about or a hobby that you love but your friends find unusual. Be creative and don’t be afraid to showcase your personality!
Example from Brown University — At Brown, you will learn as much from your peers outside the classroom as in academic spaces. How will you contribute to the Brown community?
How would you design a major or class?
Many liberal arts schools have open curricula that allow students to build their own program around their interests. This prompt allows you to imagine yourself in this kind of academic environment and show how excited you are to participate in a program where you can explore a variety of interests.
This is an opportunity to show colleges your intellectual curiosity and creativity, so have fun with it. Don’t be afraid to explore non-traditional subjects. Are you an avid gamer? Design a class or program around the history of video game culture and technology. A psych major who loves movies? Design a course where you explore the psychology of film protagonists. The point is, you can do virtually anything you want. Colleges want to know how you would take advantage of the academic freedom that they grant their students, so take the bull by the horns and show them that you are a creative and free thinker.
Example from Boston College — Boston College strives to provide an undergraduate learning experience emphasizing the liberal arts, quality teaching, personal formation, and engagement of critical issues. If you had the opportunity to create your own college course, what enduring question or contemporary problem would you address and why?
What is your favorite subject of study?
When a prompt asks you to reflect on your favorite subject, it is really asking you to identify a field that you are considering studying in college. Sometimes they will even frame this more directly, as “What major do you want to pursue and why?”
Think about your career goals and what you ultimately think you want to study. Reflect on the courses you took where you learned a lot and were inspired to pursue a future career in. Which topics motivate you? What do you get excited about learning? Tell a story about how you came to be interested in your major of choice.
This question is also implicitly asking you to explain why their institution is the perfect place for you to study this subject. Do some research into the school’s program and identify professors you want to study with and courses you want to take.
Example from Rice University — Please explain why you wish to study in the academic areas you selected.
What is a book you love?
This is a common supplemental essay question that offers you the opportunity to reflect on a work of literature that has been meaningful to you. Many students make the mistake of writing about classics or books they may have been assigned in their English class, but this question is asking you to dig a little deeper. Out of every 100 students who write an essay on this topic, 15 might write about “The Great Gatsby” and 15 others might write about George Orwell’s “1984” — i.e., admissions officers have read that essay, or an approximation of it, countless times. Likewise, don’t feel pressure to choose an overly academic text — your academic rigor will come through in other parts of your application. Be honest about your interests.
Think about some books you read that may pertain to the field you’re going into. If you are studying history or political science, you might consider a nonfiction or political theory text. If you want to study to be a doctor, consider books about medicine — “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks” by Rebecca Skloot is a great example. Approaching this question through this lens gives you an opportunity to use it to further highlight your interests and discuss how you became passionate about them.
If you aren’t a big reader, you can even think back to children’s or young adult books that sparked your imagination when you were young. Discuss how this book inspired you and how it helped make you into the person you are today.
This question is generally fairly open-ended, but as the writer, the goal is to show the college what inspires you and sparks your imagination and interest.
Example from St. John’s College — Discuss a book that you consider great. We want to learn both about the ideas in the book and about you. What makes this book great in your view? What effect has it had on what you think or how you think?
And then, there are the unusual and creative prompts
Admissions officers love to give students quirky prompts that allow students to flex their creative muscles. These can be some of the toughest questions to answer, but they can also be a lot of fun to work on. There are no wrong answers, so let your imagination run wild.
Example from University of Chicago — Joan of Arkansas. Queen Elizabeth Cady Stanton. Babe Ruth Bader Ginsberg. Mash up a historical figure with a new time period, environment, location, or occupation, and tell us their story.
Example from Stanford University — Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate — and us — get to know you better.
Example from Emory University — If you could witness a historic event first-hand, what would it be, and why?
The Optional COVID-19 Statement
For the 2020-21 application cycle, the College Board has added an optional question about COVID-19 to the Common Application. The question, intended to give students an opportunity to explain how COVID-19 has affected their application, reads as follows:
Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts. If you need it, this space is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, future plans, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.
- Do you wish to share anything on this topic? Y/N
- Please use this space to describe how these events have impacted you.
While this question is optional, if the pandemic has had an effect on your life, education, and academic record, this question allows you to contextualize your application materials and discuss plans for volunteer work, internships, or extracurricular activities that were canceled due to the pandemic.
However, do not view this an opportunity to make excuses for yourself. While admissions officers are understanding of the effects that the pandemic may have had on your application materials, all students are facing similar challenges, harping on your own circumstances may come across to colleges as complaining and could send the wrong message.
Rather, focus on what you were able to achieve despite the circumstances and provide a matter-of-fact explanation of how your life was impacted by the pandemic.
Supplemental essays are your opportunity to speak directly to college admissions officers and show why you are a perfect fit for their program and community. Get started over the summer to reduce your workload in the fall and give you as much time as possible to rework, revise, and edit.
Sam Benezra is a graduate of Ohio University with a B.A. in History from the Honors Tutorial College. He is a native of Brooklyn, New York. Sam enjoys writing on a variety of subjects, including science, music, politics, film. In his spare time, he enjoys traveling, playing guitar, and writing songs.