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Last updated April 23, 2024

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Choosing Supplemental Essay Topics

Key Takeaway

Supplemental essays are an opportunity to showcase why you're a great fit for a specific school. To brainstorm effectively, understand the prompt, research the school, and choose topics that align with your overall application narrative.

You’ll probably be writing a lot of supplemental essays during your application process. Some schools even require three, four, or more essays, so it’s important to know how to brainstorm them quickly.

In this post, I’ll walk you through some quick strategies for finding supplemental essay topics that stand out.

What’s the purpose of a supplemental essay?

Before we get into how to brainstorm a supplemental essay, I want to review what the purpose of supplemental essays is to begin with.

Supplemental essays are the essays you submit in addition to your personal statement. While your personal statement goes to all schools you apply to, your supplemental essays are school-specific.

Not all schools have supplemental essays. When they do, they tend to be shorter than your personal statement and more specific in their prompts. They're basically the school's chance to ask you more detailed questions and get to know you better.

These essays are really valuable because they give admissions officers more reasons to say “yes” to your application.

When you write your supplemental essays, think about your job as building a case for why you and the school are the perfect match.

Now, let’s go step-by-step through the supplemental brainstorming process.

Step 1: Read the Prompt

Every supplemental essay is based on a prompt. They usually fit into broad categories like "why us," diversity, community, academic interest, or "why this major." The first thing you need to do when brainstorming any supplemental essay is to figure out which type of prompt you're dealing with.

Take a look at this USC supplemental essay prompt: "Describe how you plan to pursue your academic interests and why you want to explore them at USC specifically. Please feel free to address your first- and second-choice major selections." It's clear that this prompt is about an academic interest. It also asks you to talk about your chosen majors and why USC is the best place for you to study them.

As you can probably tell, prompts are really important to supplemental essays. If you misunderstand or overlook parts of the prompt, you can send admissions officers the wrong message—that you haven’t taken the time to read and respond to the prompt carefully.

Step 2: Do School Research

Next on your brainstorming to-do list is focused school research. Since your goal is to show a strong fit between the school and the school, you need to know information about why the school is a good match for you. To do this effectively, you'll need to refer to specific characteristics of the school you're applying to.

Avoid surface-level comments like "I like USC because of the weather." Instead, research details like resources in the department, faculty, courses, programs, philosophical approaches, etc., that show real alignment between your interests and the school’s offerings.

As you’re researching, also keep in mind the concept of demonstrated interest. Many colleges track demonstrated interest, so engaging in activities like virtual or in-person campus visits, attending college fairs, and opening their emails can show that you're excited about the school. This commitment to understanding the college can not only show admissions officers that you’re serious about the school, but the activities can also give you valuable material to include in your supplemental essays.

Step 3: Find Your Topic Using Your Cohesive Narrative

The final step is deciding on your essay topic. But to do that, you need to consider your overall application narrative.

The trick to finding a good topic is to balance your narrative. What's your personal statement about? Your supplemental essays shouldn't just repeat what you've already said in your personal statement. They need to add more depth or a different perspective to your overall story.

Example: Let’s say that you’re interested in linguistics and want to become a pediatric speech and language pathologist. Here’s what your essay breakdown might look like:

Personal Statement: An essay related to your experiences as someone with a stutter. The strength your personal statement shows is resilience and creativity.

Supplemental Essay #1 (extracurricular prompt): To balance out your narrative, you decide to write about your work organizing a tutoring program for local elementary school kids. Your strengths are community-building and problem-solving.

Supplemental Essay #2 (academic interest prompt): Since your other essays have been related to personal and extracurricular experiences, it’s time to sprinkle in some academics. For this essay, you write about your research on bilingual children with a local college. Your strength is intellectual vitality.

As you can see, this narrative covers the writer’s story in a deep and balanced way. That’s exactly what you’re aiming for.

While you’re brainstorming, think about which strength, accomplishment, value, or trait you want this supplemental essay to highlight. How does it fit in with the rest of your application?

Bonus Tip: Use Your Resume

The example above also shows that many of your supplemental essays will revolve around activities or interests on your resume. When in doubt, scan your activities list and see if there’s a way to connect one of your resume items to the supplemental essay prompt. Writing about your activities shows your strengths and allows you to explain your most meaningful extracurriculars in more depth.

Wrapping Up

I know that the thought of writing multiple supplemental essays can feel a bit intimidating. But taking clear steps—identifying the prompt type, conducting focused school research, and deciding on a topic that adds to your application story—will help you find the right topics in no time.


Supplemental essays help you showcase why you're a great fit for a specific school. To brainstorm effectively, you need to understand the prompt type, do some research specific to the school, and decide on a topic that aligns with your overall application narrative. Your goal isn't just to fill space but to make a persuasive argument about why you belong at that particular school.

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