When it comes to college applications, you likely know that you will need to write an essay.
Luckily, most schools accept the Common Application, which means you can write a single essay and submit it to the majority of schools.
However, many schools also require supplemental essays. These essay topics are specific to individual schools and can range from the fairly mundane to the downright unexpected. The supplemental essay is not to be taken lightly as it is weighed by admission officers just as much, if not more, than your Common App essay.
Despite apparent differences, there are certain common topics that have emerged among schools’ supplemental essay requirements.
That’s why we’re sharing the 4 most common types of supplemental essays and giving you our best tips on how to effectively approach them!
Type #1: “Why Our School” Essay
The actual supplemental essay prompt may look a little different, but ultimately it comes down to the college asking you to explain why you are applying to a specific university or program.
Here is a typical example from the University of Michigan:
“Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests? (Required for all applicants)”
Here are a few quick tips to help you write a great response:
1. READ THE QUESTION CLOSELY
For each school, the question may differ a little. Some schools ask “why our school?”, while others ask “why our community?” or “why our curriculum?” Tailor your answer to the specific question for a more thoughtful, specific response.
2. DO YOUR RESEARCH
Colleges want to know that you are truly interested in attending their school. Research the college through their website or campus visits and mention their specific courses, professors, research projects, organizations, or values in your response. For more insight into researching colleges, check out this blog.
3. SHOW HOW YOU WILL FIT IN
Talk specifically about why you are a good fit for the school because of their curriculum, campus life, or values. Even if you bring something unique to the table, show how that will contribute to their university.
Type #2: Extracurricular Activities and Academic Interests Essay
The schools you apply to will have your resume. However, they often use the supplemental essay to learn more about an activity or interest of yours by asking you to go into more detail.
Here’s a common example from Princeton University:
“Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (Response required in about 150 words.)”
Here are quick tips to help you write a great response:
1. GET TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER
This type of supplemental essay usually includes a short word count (about 150 words). So include what matters: the activity, why it matters to you, and how it reflects your character or future goals.
2. SHOW A DIFFERENT SIDE OF YOURSELF
If you’ve already talked about this activity or project in another essay, don’t repeat yourself! Pick another activity. This blog provides more guidance on what to do (and not to do) when writing about an extracurricular activity.
3. BE CREATIVE
Just because the essay is short, this doesn’t mean it needs to be boring! Use figurative language, vivid details, and active verbs to illustrate your story.
Type #3: Community Contributions and Solving of Global Problems
This type of supplemental essay gauges whether you are a person who gets involved in your community, thinks critically about societal issues, and works effectively with others to solve problems.
Here’s an example from the University of Virginia:
“UVA students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge and why is this your message?”
On the surface, some of these prompts will seem very different from one another. For instance, Stanford has a prompt that inquires about society’s problems; Brown’s prompt asks students about “a place you call home”; while the above example uses the example of a local bridge to talk about messages.
However, these questions all share one key similarity: they are determining your values.
Whether your answer focuses on racism, global warming, a community you care about, or a message you want to share, this supplemental essay explores an idea or cause that you value – something you think is important.
Here are quick tips to help you write a great response:
1. ROOT YOUR ANSWER IN AN EXPERIENCE
Some schools will ask you to focus on a past experience; others, a future opportunity. However, no matter the way the question is framed, you should ground your answer in your own experiences if you want it to be interesting and authentic.
2. BE SPECIFIC
Here are good and bad examples of how to answer a question that focuses on societal problems:
Bad: “I’m very passionate about combating racism. Racism is a problem our country has faced for far too long and our policy makers need to do more about it so that everyone can enjoy equal opportunities.”
Good: “I have had the privilege of going to a top tier magnet school in my state. But in order to do so, I had to leave my community and go to a school in which neither my teachers, counselors, nor classmates resembled me. And while I am grateful for the education I received, I want to use that education to go back to my own community so that in the future, other African-American students won’t need to venture outside of their own neighborhood schools to receive a quality education.”
These answers are not complete but notice that the first response is generic, impersonal, and not memorable. The second answer is personal, specific, and interesting.
Furthermore, the second answer makes the student sound knowledgeable about this topic. The first answer makes the student sound at best unfocused and at worst disingenuous. This difference shows how powerful “showing” can be compared to “telling”. Learn more about how to “show” in your writing.
Type #4: What are you Reading? Watching? Listening to?
Many colleges will ask you a version of the above question.
Here’s an example from Emory:
“What is your favorite fiction or non-fiction work (film, book, TV show, album, poem, or play)? Why?”
These tend to be more lighthearted, quirky questions. However, you should still take them seriously.
Here are quick tips for giving a great response:
1. CONSIDER IF THE SCHOOL GIVES YOU A CHANCE TO EXPLAIN
Some schools will only give a word limit of 50, giving you no opportunity to explain your choices. This means your choice or list must be all the more thoughtful and strategic.
2. BE GENUINE IN YOUR RESPONSE
Don’t just tell colleges what you think they want to hear. Your books don’t need to be by Dostoevsky or Proust. The movies don’t need to be either documentaries or classical cinema.
They are asking you these short questions to get a further glimpse into your personality and interests. So it’s okay to list what you genuinely find interesting or entertaining.
3. BE SMART ABOUT YOUR RESPONSE.
Okay, we just told you to be honest and genuine but let’s not be naïve about this either. If your favorite television show is Keeping Up with the Kardashians, maybe keep it off your list.
In general, you want to pick television shows, movies, or books, that either show your interest in an academic subject or have some literary or cinematic merit.
These are just a few of the many different types of supplemental essays that you may need to write.
But remember 3 key things for writing any of your college essays:
- Be Yourself – These essays should meaningfully communicate something important about yourself.
- Don’t Repeat – Use every opportunity to show a different facet of your personality, interests and values.
- Be Specific – The best essays are specific. They don’t sound as thoughtless and generic as the hundreds of other essays this admissions officer will read.
For more expert guidance on crafting a memorable essay, check out our Application Essay Writing Program. This special program takes students step-by-step through the college essay writing process.
We can’t wait to hear from you!