The University Network

How To Write Great Supplemental Essays for College — Interview With Sylvia Vukosavljevic, College Admissions Consultant With Veritas Prep

TUN sits down with Sylvia Vukosavljevic, a college admissions consultant with Veritas Prep, who offers some tips on how to write great supplemental essays.

TUN: Sylvia, thanks so much for joining us.

VUKOSAVLJEVIC: Thank you!

TUN: There are so many terms to keep track of in college admissions. Can you explain what a supplemental essay is? 

VUKOSAVLJEVIC: Most students are going to submit many different kinds of essays in the college admissions process. Different schools want to see different things. 

There’s not really a national standard in the United States for college applications like there is in some other countries. Every school gets to actually ask you different kinds of questions.

College applications are usually submitted through one of two platforms. It’s the Common App or the Coalition App. Some state schools like the University of California schools, the University of Illinois and Texas all have their own state versions of the application. 

That’s also true for independent schools that have independent applications like MIT and Georgetown. They all ask different questions on those applications. 

Most students are going to submit a Common App or Coalition App. Those applications have one standard essay, which most people call the “personal statement.” 

However, there are many, many extra “supplements” or “extra essays” besides that. Schools have unique sets of essays that they assign to students. That’s what people call “supplemental essays.” 

Some schools almost never have extra questions. That’s really nice because you can actually just submit those applications with one essay and you’re done. Drexel is a school like that. Cal Poly doesn’t even ask you for essays. 

But most schools, especially the selective ones, really want to see many extra answers. If you’re applying to Harvard, Princeton or Stanford, for example, you’re going to have to write two, three, four or five extra essays. Those range in length from 100 words all the way to 500 and 650 words. 

TUN: How important are supplemental essays in the college admissions process? Can a supplemental essay make or break applicants’ chances of being admitted to their choice schools? 

VUKOSAVLJEVIC: For some schools, it really does matter a lot what you have to say in the supplemental essays. Other schools are looking for more raw data. 

But, for the schools that care about your supplemental essay, they can definitely make or break your chance of admittance. 

They’re basically your opportunity to show the school that you did a lot of research and that you really care about coming. Schools care about your research and about the fact that you want to come. 

If you can make your essay align with the school’s priorities and what the school’s looking for in a student, that can be really helpful to you. It’s a kind of aggressive way of approaching the application if you can really tailor your supplemental essays to schools.

TUN: I know they come in many forms, but are there any common prompts that you could kind of run us through that students should be aware of?

VUKOSAVLJEVIC: There are two or three prompts that every school asks. 

One is, “Why are you interested in your chosen field or your major?” That’s huge.

The second one is, “Why our school?” 

A lot of students will answer that in a boilerplate, templated way and send the same response to all schools. Universities can sniff those out from a mile away. 

If you actually do your research, you’re going to be in a much better place. You’ll stand out, and schools will like you. Admissions officers are also looking to see that you’re going to come if they give you an offer. They care about something called “yield.” If they think you’re going to yield, that’s a huge benefit to you.

The third one is, “Tell us about an extracurricular you’re passionate about.”

You really want to show some kind of expertise that aligns with what the school is looking for. Again, research will get you everywhere in that process. The more research you can do for these essays, the better off you’re going to be. The school is going to feel that you are a fit and that you will yield. 

That’s what they really care about. 

TUN: You touched on this a little bit, but what makes a good supplemental essay? What boxes should students check off when writing their supplemental messages?

VUKOSAVLJEVIC: That’s a really good question. Supplemental essays are completely different from the Common App essay (or other personal statements). 

When you’re writing the Common App essay, it’s in the personal narrative style and you’re like, “Yeah! Everyone wants to know the real me.” It’s so touchy-feely.

Supplemental essays are totally the opposite of that. Colleges still want to know the real you, but supplemental essays should be much more technical. Writing a supplemental essay should be an opportunity to highlight an expertise that you have in a specific subject. 

For students building model bridges at home because they want to be civil engineers or doing high-level science research in a lab, it’s going to be important to drill down on some of those experiences in the supplementals. Taking it a step further, it’s important for applicants to relay how their experiences will transfer to the school(s) they’re applying to. 

TUN: Do you have any other additional information, maybe tips or tricks that we didn’t go over yet, that you think students should know? 

VUKOSAVLJEVIC: I think the biggest tip or trick is to research the school. So many times, students want to say, “Oh, I really love that campus. Or it’s beautiful at Dartmouth, I want to go and run on the green. Or things like that.” 

But really knowing about the school’s academic offerings is very important to the university. So, students want to do a lot of research on the academic offerings and the departments that they’re going to be in. 

They want to think about the kind of student that each school is looking for. So, if you’re applying to Harvard, they like a humanities student. If you’re applying to Princeton, STEM is more of a focus. 

You want to really think about how the school thinks. What do they value? What resources can you really take advantage of during the four years?

College is one of the most resource-rich times in the life of any person. It’s very interesting because a lot of students are just thinking about the fun they’re going to have or the campus, but schools want to know that you’re going to use those resources. So, research. 

The other thing I would say is, if you have something that’s a little different to share and it’s idiosyncratic, share it. 

If your family is like the “My Big, Fat Greek Wedding” family and you learned how to do something interesting because of that, share that. If you like to rock climb on the weekends and you’ve climbed 46 peaks of the Appalachians, you want to put that out there and differentiate yourself so that they also can remember you. Memorability has a value too. 

TUN: Thanks, Sylvia, for joining us today. 

VUKOSAVLJEVIC: Thank you so much, Jackson.

This interview has been edited for clarity. Watch the full video here.