Last updated March 7, 2023
How to Write Supplemental Essays that Will Impress Admissions Officers
Welcome to the wonderful world of supplemental essays.
If you’ve made it this far, there’s a good chance that you’ve completed (or at least have begun thinking about) your Common Application personal statement.
But believe it or not, you’re not done once you’ve sorted out your personal statement.
That’s right—many colleges require you to write even more essays as part of your application. These essays are called supplemental essays, and you’ll usually write 0-4 per school you apply to.
Hopefully you’re starting to do the math…If I apply to 10 schools that require an average of 2.3 supplemental essays, then that’s 20+ essays I have to write on top of my personal statement!
And, to make matters more dire, supplemental essays are really important to your application. Schools only require them because they play a critical role in admissions decisions.
That’s why having good supplemental essay strategy matters. There’s no time to waste, and they need to be good.
But thankfully you’ve found yourself here, at the ultimate guide to supplemental essays. We—Alex, Ben, and Kylie—have compiled our years of admissions and essay-writing knowledge to tell you everything you need to know about writing supplemental essays. (And, as you’ll see, we also have more specific guides for the most common supplemental essay prompts.)
In this guide-to-end-all-guides, we start out with supplemental essay basics and then break down the supplemental essay strategies that have worked for our clients again and again. Once you reach the end, you’ll be able to download a free essay tracker to keep you organized and on track.
Ready? Here we go.
What are supplemental essays?
Supplemental essays are a kind of college essay.
As a refresher, recall that there are three main kinds of college essays:
Personal Statement: A personal statement is a singular essay that is the keystone of your entire application. It goes to all the schools you apply to, and it covers a topic that is deeply meaningful to you. Personal statements are typically around 650 words. (For more about personal statements, see our college essay writing guide.)
Supplemental Essays: Supplemental essays are essays required by specific schools. They typically have different prompts than the personal statement and are usually shorter in length.
UC Essays: UC essays are their own beast in the college essay-writing world. Their purpose is a blend of personal statement and supplemental essay. (For more about UC Essays, see our UC guide.)
Supplemental essays serve a unique purpose. The reality is that the majority of your college application has to be written with several colleges in mind, especially if you’re applying to schools through application systems like the Common Application or Coalition.
That means that the majority of the information admissions officers base their decisions on is relatively generic information that doesn’t address why you’re a good fit for their school in particular.
That’s where supplemental essays come in.
Supplemental essays give you the opportunity to tell an admissions officer why you belong at their school specifically. They also allow colleges to ask you questions based on what they’re looking for in applicants.
Imagine that you’re interested in adopting a new dog. You browse your shelter’s online photo gallery, see the statistics about the age and weight of each dog, and read the brief descriptions of their temperament. The online profiles give you quite a bit to go on, but you still can’t quite picture how each one would fit into your family. You need just a little more information. So you drive to the shelter, meet the animals, and ask the shelter staff more questions about the animals you’re interested in.
Okay, college admissions are obviously a lot different than adopting a dog. But you get the metaphor. Sometimes the information on the Common App alone isn’t enough. Admissions officers need more information about which students are going to be the best fit for their college communities. And the one tool universities have to get that specific information are supplemental essays.
In short, some schools require supplemental essays because they want to get more information about how well your academics, extracurriculars, values, or otherwise align with their institution.
What’s the difference between a supplemental essay and a personal statement?
We can look at the differences between personal statements and supplemental essays across three categories: purpose, length, and research.
Supplemental essays serve a very different purpose than personal statements. While personal statements are deeply meaningful reflections that go to all the colleges a student applies to, supplemental essays are school-specific. Your personal statement is a place for you to write about something related to one of your core strengths. Supplementals are opportunities for you to show how your core strengths make you a good fit for a particular institution. Since they have different purposes, you’ll need different writing strategies to approach each kind of essay with.
Essay lengths vary by school and type, but supplemental essays are generally shorter. The Common App personal statement, for example, is maximum 650 words. Supplemental essays, on the other hand, typically range from 100 to 400 words (although occasionally some will be longer). When added together, you’ll likely be writing at least a couple thousand words for your college applications.
Finally, personal statements and supplementals also require different levels of research. Whereas personal statements typically require no research, supplementals require a lot. Because supplemental essays are school-specific, you’ll need to do research about every single school you write a supplemental essay for. We’ll get into that more in a second.
So personal statements give admissions officers a deep insight into who you are, while supplemental essays build on that narrative and sometimes include school research.
How important are supplemental essays?
Supplemental essays are important. At schools with sub-20% acceptance rates especially, they alone can be the difference between a deny and an admit.
Take this story from Ben’s time at Vanderbilt as a cautionary tale:
A prospective engineering student has an unweighted 4.0, near-perfect test scores, and extracurriculars that show both reach and impact. But none of their essays says anything about why they want to study engineering or why they want to go to Vanderbilt. Because they can’t communicate why they are a good fit, they get denied.
Unfortunately, Ben saw this situation time and again.
Sure, you could write your personal statement about how much you love engineering or what a good problem-solver you are. But doing so still doesn’t allow you to talk about why you align with the engineering options at a particular school.
Supplementals are your one chance to communicate this information with admissions officers, so use it wisely.
Types of Supplemental Essay Prompts
Are you feeling overwhelmed yet? Don’t fret. While you’ll be writing a lot of supplementals throughout your application process, you won’t necessarily have to come up with unique ideas for each of them. That’s because most supplemental essay prompts can be broken down into seven common categories: “why us,” diversity, community, academic interest, “why this major,” personal challenge, and extracurricular activities. Because there are similarities between prompts, you can reuse some of your essay ideas and content from school to school—and we have a whole post about how recycle your essays effectively. For now, let’s take a quick look at the prompt types. If you’re interested in any in particular, you can click through to our more in-depth post about each.
These prompts ask students to write an essay that explains why they want to attend a particular institution, school, or program.
Some diversity prompts ask students to write about some aspect of their background or identity that makes them diverse. Other diversity prompts ask students to write about a time they engaged with diverse perspectives.
Community prompts ask students to write about some aspect of the community they come from. Other community prompts ask how a student will contribute to the college community they’re applying to join.
These prompts ask students to demonstrate intellectual curiosity by elaborating on a particular academic interest.
These prompts allow students to make a case for why they want to study a particular major at a particular school.
Personal challenge prompts ask students to write about a moment or period when they encountered a personal challenge. Often personal challenge prompts will encourage students to think about how they grew as a result.
Extracurricular activities essays ask students to discuss one of their resume items.
Okay, so there’s lots of prompt types that ask you to do different things. But no matter the supplemental prompt type you’re responding to, your supplemental essays will have some commonalities in form and function. We’ll dive into those commonalities in the coming sections.
What should a supplemental essay look like?
Because supplemental essay prompts can be more direct than personal statement prompts, students often get confused about what a supplemental essay should look like.
Let’s use a simple example prompt: “Why do you want to attend X school?”
Since the prompt is formatted in the style of a straightforward question, many students (logically) begin their essays like this:
“I want to go to X school because it is a great academic fit for me. I love the location, and the weather can’t be beat. I know I would be happy there because there are lots of things to do. I would be so excited to work with Professor Y because their research is exactly what I want to do in the future. I love the traditions on campus and can envision myself joining in them, especially the annual puppy days before finals. Overall, I think I am a good fit”
While that essay directly answers the question, it doesn’t have an engaging hook or storyline. When you write a supplemental essay that explicitly addresses the question without paying attention to style and form, it reads more as a short answer question than an actual essay.
Like a personal statement, a supplemental essay should still be an essay. Even for supplemental essays under 150 words, there should still be some kind of essay structure. The essay should begin with a hook, build up a story, and offer a brief conclusion that ties everything together.
So now that you know that your supplemental essays should still be essays rather than short answers, let’s get to the juicy stuff: strategy.
The 3 best supplemental essay strategies
As with any part of the college application process, you should consider approaching your supplemental essays with an explicit strategy from the start.
Since supplemental essays are the main way for you to signal school and academic fit, your strategy will likely revolve around deciding when and how to demonstrate your academic, social, and value-based alignment with the school in question.
Strategic supplemental writing also means balancing your narrative across your personal statement and supplementals. Planning ahead to determine what information will go where can save you a lot of trouble later on in the application process.
Strategy #1: Do strategic school research.
The first step in writing good supplemental essays is knowing how to do school research. It’s also about knowing how to use your school research effectively. In the case of supplemental essays, “school research” means a lot more than simply googling a school and pulling out a few facts and figures. Unlike the research you did when building your school list, your supplemental essay school research is a lot more intentional and targeted.
Think of supplemental school research like the final stages before buying a car. Your initial research—the school list-building research—helped you narrow down all your options to find cars with the right facts and figures for your needs. But now you need to think in terms of specifics. Looking at Car A, you see that the infotainment is perfectly suited for your music-loving needs and the 4-wheel drive will let you drive to your favorite remote hiking destinations. Car B has all the safety features you could ever ask for and has enough cargo space to go on long road trips. For each car, you can explain exactly why you and the car are a good match.
In the same way, your supplemental essays will draw attention to the specific points of connection you have with a school. After reading your supplemental essay, you want your admissions officer to say, “Wow, they really belong here.”
But the mistake most students make when doing supplemental school research is that they look up a few professors or programs that align with their interests, and they plop those brief references into their supplemental essays without actually making it clear why they’re important.
While this method does show some effort and may impress admissions officers at schools with lower acceptance rates, it won’t cut it at schools where the majority of applicants get rejected.
Let’s go over how to do supplemental school research the right way.
How to do school research
This kind of school research may seem a bit elusive. There are so many places on a school website to look that it can be overwhelming. But the key to doing successful school research isn’t about finding those little nuggets of information.
It’s about creating a cohesive story that makes it seem only logical that you be admitted.
And how do you do that?
By looking at the values the institution holds dearly and positioning yourself in clear alignment with them.
It’s easy to find an institution’s values if you know where to look. Most often, they appear in the following places:
a) The school’s motto
We’ll use Lewis and Clark College’s motto as an example. A quick Google search of “Lewis and Clark College motto” informed me that their motto, in English, is “to explore, to learn, to work together.” Right off the bat, that tells us a ton about what Lewis and Clark College values and looks for in students.
If I were to write a supplemental essay (and—surprise!—one of their supplemental essays is actually about the motto), then it’d be easy to draw from areas of my own life that represent the values of exploration, education, and teamwork.
b) The school’s 5-year plan
Schools are future-minded institutions, so they always have plans that discuss where they want to be five or ten years down the road. These plans are written by university leadership and lay out values, goals, and strategic initiatives that the institution will be devoting resources to. They can tell you a lot in a short amount of time.
c) Departmental websites
Don’t just find an interesting professor and call it quits. Take the time to go through and actually read the website for your department of interest. Look at the kinds of research professors and students are doing. Departments often have a list of where students tend to end up after they graduate, so take note. Find anything you can about what the department looks like and values.
For instance, take this press release from the College of Engineering at Georgia Tech. The headline says, “The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is investing nearly $12 million in four College of Engineering faculty members this fall through its prestigious program for outside-the-box thinkers.” There you go. Without even reading on, you can tell that out-of-the-box thinking is a popular characteristic among these Georgia Tech faculty members. You could then craft your supplemental essay around a time you showed out-of-the-box thinking yourself.
The beauty of this strategy is that it works no matter the kind of supplemental essay prompt you’re responding to. It is as applicable to a “diversity” or “why us” prompt as it is to an “extracurricular” one.
Setting your supplementals apart using school research
Take this example, which we sent out recently in our newsletter.
Say you’re interested in attending Johns Hopkins University to study business.
You set out to answer their supplemental prompt: Founded on a spirit of exploration and discovery, Johns Hopkins University encourages students to share their perspectives, develop their interests and pursue new experiences. Use this space to share something you’d like the admissions committee to know about you (your interests, your background, your identity or your community) and how it has shaped what you want to get out of your college experience at Hopkins. (300-400 words)
You could talk about how devoted you’ve been to DECA and mention a JHU business faculty member whom you admire. But that essay wouldn’t be memorable at all. Admissions officers have likely read hundreds of similar essays.
Instead, using your newfound school research knowledge, you start by googling JHU’s strategic plan. You keep diving deeper. You find that they have a specific initiative to engage more with their local community in Baltimore. You dive even deeper and see that part of that initiative revolves around encouraging the JHU community to shop locally.
Ah ha! You actually created a holiday market at your school and invited local vendors to participate. You brought your community together, and you helped them make the decision to buy from local businesses.
You now have a story that shows your business interests and connects seamlessly with the values at Johns Hopkins University. And it’ll lead to a supplemental essay admissions officers haven’t read before.
Okay, that is a very specific example. Remember, school research needs to be specific to you and your interests. When you are clear about your strengths and keep your own activities in mind, you can point your research towards what the school does that most clearly relates to you.
Strategy #2: Make a case for school or academic fit.
Each supplemental essay should have a specific purpose. We’ve already established this fact in this guide, but it’s worth restating. One of your application essays needs to make a case for school or academic fit. There’s no other way to slice it.
Institutions are like people. They have unique personalities, values, and preferences that attract students and community members to them. A single school will not be the right fit for every student. That’s why it’s so important to take academic and school fit into account when building your school list, and that’s why institutions factor these considerations into their admissions decisions.
What is “academic fit”?
“Academic fit” is particularly important when you’re applying to a specific major (like computer science, engineering, music, etc.). The concept is fairly straightforward.
It measures how well your academic background and interests meet the standards of a particular school or program. While academic fit includes measurements like your weighted and unweighted GPA, the level of rigor you’ve taken throughout high school, and your standardized test scores, it isn’t just about your statistics. It is also relevant to how you talk about your intellectual vitality in your essays.
This could look like showing disciplinary alignment. If you’re dead set on studying business but you’re applying to a school without a business program, for example, then you won’t have good academic fit, no matter how solid your academic record is.
It could also look like showcasing your intellectual curiosity or an academic passion. These kinds of academic values can signal to an admissions committee that you are a good fit for the program.
What is “school fit”?
“School fit” is a way to categorize how well you align with the overall vibe and intellectual community of a school. Academic fit is part of school fit, but school fit encompasses more. It’s like a friendship test. Do your personalities mesh well? Do you have similar values? Can they meet your needs and vice versa? Do your extracurricular activities align? Do you envision yourselves having a future together?
School fit is important because you don’t want to end up at a school that doesn’t align with your wants and needs across these categories. Transferring is always an option, but being mindful of school fit from the start can help you get it right the first time.
When it comes to your supplementals, signaling those intangible measures of school fit can also be one of the best tools in your application toolbox. Because they’re intangible, they’re harder to communicate. But communicating them correctly can help set you apart.
Overall, academic and school fit are application essentials. If your academic background hasn’t prepared you for a particular college environment, or if you can’t clearly communicate why you’re a good academic fit, then an admissions officer might believe that you’d be better off elsewhere. Similarly, there’s no point in applying to a school that you’d be miserable at, and there’s no point in admitting you to a school that you’d likely transfer from anyway. Keeping the concepts of “academic fit” and “school fit” front and center meets student and institutional needs.
How to show academic fit
We’ve written on Reddit about the importance of academic score in college admissions. While each institution has its own process, academic scores are usually some kind of measurement of a student’s academic success in high school, calculated based on statistics like GPA, number of rigorous classes, and standardized test scores.
Since academic scores are based on things that have already happened, you have very little control over them as you put together your application.
To a certain extent, there’s nothing you can do to overcome a low academic score. That’s why it’s important to put the right schools on your school list.
But what you do have control over is how you communicate academic fit.
Remember that your entire application should cohere to form a unique personal narrative. Your academic alignment with the programs you’re applying to is part of that narrative, and supplemental essays are a fantastic place for you to drive home why you belong in a particular program.
It’s often easiest to show academic alignment in “why us,” “why this major,” and “academic interest” supplemental essay prompts. But it is possible to accomplish with other prompts, too.
No matter the supplemental you’re writing, consider applying these tips to show academic fit.
a) Think about the academic values the admissions committee will be looking for.
You’ve already done your school research and have probably learned something about the values a school is looking for. Now you can think more specifically about what kinds of values admissions committees will be looking for in their applicants. Make a list of these values.
Here are a few values we’ve looked for as admissions officers to get you started: teamwork, creative thinking, resilience, leadership, communication, intellectual curiosity, real-world applications.
Once you have your list of values, start circling the ones that apply to you and your experiences the most. Then you’ll be able to incorporate those values into your supplemental essays.
b) Consider how your previous experiences relate to your future goals.
Another approach to showing academic fit is thinking linearly about how what you’ve done in high school relates to your future academic and career goals.
Especially with prompts that ask you to reflect on concrete experiences, taking this approach can be a great way to bridge the gap between your resume and academics. Showing an admissions officer why your background experiences make you a natural fit for a specific program can be an effective supplemental essay strategy.
Overall, remember: schools want students. When in doubt, show academic fit.
How to show school fit
How you show school fit will depend on the type of school you’re applying to. There are three main levels: the institution as a whole, individual schools or colleges, and particular majors or programs. Each level requires a different school fit focus. Let’s start by going through the types:
Level 1: The Institution
For some schools, you apply to the institution as a whole. Think liberal arts colleges or other schools that don’t require you to declare a major upon application.
Level 2: Schools & Colleges
Other schools have you apply to a college or school. Think of applications that have you choose a “college of arts and sciences” or “a school of engineering.” These are institutions within an institution, so the dynamics are a little different.
Level 3: Major
Finally, others yet will have you apply directly to the major you want to study. If you indicate the major you want to apply to, or if you’re asked to respond to a “why this major” supplemental essay prompt, then you’re likely applying directly to a major.
For each of these levels, school fit will look different because the community you’re applying to join has a different makeup. So bear those differences in mind as you consider the two following tips about aligning with school fit:
a) Write supplemental essays that connect your extracurricular activities to major or program fit.
One way to demonstrate school fit is by showing that you’ve already been doing what students at that institution do. We’ll pretend that for one of your extracurriculars, you participate in hack-a-thons.
Let’s also say that during your school research, you found that your top-choice computer science major values technical skills and diverse perspectives. Finally, we’ll also pretend that the first hack-a-thon you did was a special event intended to introduce more girls to computer science, and you found it a really empowering experience.
Using what you know about school fit, you can craft a supplemental essay about one of your hack-a-thon experiences that shows the technical skills and diverse perspective that you bring to the table. Writing your essay in a way that highlights a convergence of your background with their offerings is exactly what your supplementals need to do.
b) Write supplemental essays around community values.
Especially if you’re applying to an institution as a whole, you can also consider incorporating institutional values into your supplementals. These values, taken from your school research, don’t necessarily have to be about academics.
Let’s return to our Johns Hopkins example about organizing a holiday market to encourage students to shop at local businesses. That example seamlessly demonstrates school fit because it hinges on values the student shares with the institution. While the example may gesture towards academic fit because a holiday market is inherently related to business, it doesn’t do so explicitly. The focus is more on the underlying community values.
All this talk about fit is also to say that none of your applications will look exactly the same. Because institutions have different makeups and expectations, the shape your application narrative takes will vary from institution to institution.
Strategy #3: Highlight your strengths.
Every college essay you write should be rooted in a strength.
We say it again and again because it’s true. And very important.
Admissions officers don’t admit students at random. They admit students who will be good additions to their community. All communities need a range of people and personalities—strengths, if you will.
To help admissions officers know how you’ll add to their campus, it’s critical that you tell them what your strengths are.
That doesn’t mean literally writing, “I am a strong critical thinker.”
What it does mean is writing essays that demonstrate positive characteristics about yourself.
Recall that application strengths can include things like critical thinking, open-mindedness, problem-solving skills, a passion for justice, artistry, and more. These kinds of traits are what you want your admissions officer to learn about you from any piece of writing you submit with your application.
We’ve already covered how to write strengths-based personal statements in our college essay writing guide.
But when you’re juggling a personal statement and several supplemental essays, it can be tricky to balance your strengths in an authentic way.
Juggling Your Strengths
You don’t want all your essays to talk about the same strength. You also don’t want your strengths to seem disparate or unrelated. And you really don’t want to come across as braggadocious.
It’s therefore important that your essays all tie together to form a cohesive application narrative.
So writing strengths-based supplementals requires a certain kind of balancing act.
Picture your college application narrative as a seesaw (stick with me for a second—I promise this is going somewhere). Imagine that your personal statement is the base of the seesaw. Without anything else on the seesaw, it is you in your most genuine, balanced form. It is the fulcrum upon which your entire application narrative rests. But it’s not yet complete. It’s limited in how much information it actually reveals about you.
Now imagine that you add in all your application data—your transcript, test scores, activities list, and letters of recommendation. We get more information, but the application data are heavy, weighing it down on one side. Your application narrative becomes slightly off-kilter. We see the strengths you describe in your personal statement, but they’ve become filtered through the lens of your application data.
Finally, we add your supplemental essays to the other side. They stitch together your personal statement and data to create a roundedness to your application narrative. They restore balance.
That means that the strengths you write about in your supplemental essays have to complement those in your personal statement. And the strengths in both have to make sense alongside your application data.
While your personal statement should be about a core strength, your supplemental essays should be about different strengths that support and cohere with your personal statement. It’s all about how you disperse your strengths across your essays. You want to show depth AND diversity.
Here’s an example breakdown of strengths:
a) Personal statement: problem-solving skills
b) Supplemental 1: passion for justice
c) Supplemental 2: teamwork
Without even reading the corresponding essays, we get a sense of who this person is by their strengths alone. We can envision them primarily as a problem-solver, but we also see that they use their skills to pursue justice. And we understand that they are someone who does all these things alongside others rather than as a lone wolf.
Just one of these strengths alone wouldn’t give the whole picture. It’s about finding the right mix of breadth, depth, and balance.
How to organize your supplemental essays
There are countless spreadsheets out there that can help you track and organize your applications and supplemental essays. It’s a good idea to browse through a few of them and see what format works best for you.
But we believe that one of the most efficient ways to organize your supplemental essays is to categorize them by prompt type.
Sorting your essays by prompt will allow you to group similar prompts together. That means you’ll have an easier time seeing where there’s overlap between essays, which will allow you to reuse ideas or snippets across your applications to write them more efficiently. (Using the same material for multiple supplemental essays is allowed, but there’s a right and wrong way to do it. We have a whole post on recycling your supplemental essays.)
There you have it! Everything you need to know about writing a supplemental essay. If you haven’t already, check out our mini-guides that cover the most popular supplemental essay prompts. You’ll find even more specific strategies and examples to guide you on your supplemental essay writing journey.
If you want to see some outstanding supplemental essay examples before you get started, head on over to our college essay examples.
When you're ready, grab your essay tracker and give your supplementals a go. If you need any more guidance, our Essay Academy program is chock-full of more strategies, insights, and examples from our team of admissions professionals.
Interested in more admissions insights? Read our next post, where we go behind the admissions curtain to reveal how admissions offices actually process tens of thousands of applications.
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