How Important Are Supplemental Essays for College?
This article was written based on the information and opinions presented by college admissions advisor Christopher Kilner in a CollegeVine livestream. You can watch the full livestream for more info.
- The Function of Supplemental Essays
- How to Answer Supplementals
- Showing vs. Telling
- Supplementals and the Common App
In college applications, supplemental essays can become an afterthought, with some students scrambling to write them at the last minute. But supplemental essays are a crucial part of the application process and should be given plenty of time and attention.
The Function of Supplemental Essays
How do supplementals fit into your application? Above all, they function as supporting characters in your story. In your main essay, you’re writing a story about yourself―you’re the main character, and you’re pitching the narrative to each school. If your main essay is a movie, the supplemental essays are spin-offs that clarify your back story.
How to Answer Supplementals
A common supplemental essay question will ask why you’re interested in a specific college. For example, Duke University will likely ask, “Why Duke?” In answering this question, a common mistake that applicants make is listing all the activities and programs that they like at Duke. Unfortunately, this approach says nothing about why you belong at the university. Your essay should pitch you to the school, but if you answer a supplemental question with a list of what you like, you end up pitching the school to yourself.
This is why it’s important to tie your supplemental answers into the main narrative of your story. Even if the subject of your main essay and the subject of a supplemental essay don’t necessarily relate to each other, you can usually find a way to connect the two ideas. For example, if you’re a math lover but also a jazz musician, you can connect those two subjects through what they have in common: finding patterns. Your personal statement should present a narrative about you, and your supplemental essays should circumscribe the story that you’re telling.
Showing vs. Telling
In addition to the story that you’re telling, you also want your supplemental essays to demonstrate your skills. Your essays should be grammatically sound and well-structured, demonstrating your mastery of the English language.
There’s a fine line between telling your story and showing your story. If you tell your story, the admissions reader will come away from your essay thinking, “Wow, that was a great summary of this person. I think I know everything about them.” But if you show your story, the admissions reader will come away thinking, “That was an interesting exposé of this person. I’d love to meet with them so we can talk more about this or that.” Ideally, your essay should give the impression that a sequel is on the way. An essay that shows rather than tells will use emotion, detail, and vivid language to paint a picture rather than rattle off facts.
Supplementals and the Common App
Everyone has a story to tell, and there are common ingredients in admissions essays, but it’s how you put those ingredients together that will make you stand apart from other applicants. While your main personal statement will convey who you are, your supplemental essays should add supporting details and points of interest. Since supplemental essays are tailored specifically to each school, you have a chance to show why you belong there.
Many students think of supplemental essays and the main essay as two separate pieces, but they’re part of the same application, and they function more as one package. What you can’t fit in your Common App essay, you can explore more deeply in your supplementals, creating a fuller picture of you as a person and prospective student.