How to Write the Most Common Supplemental College Essays: A Complete Guide
Note: This post focuses on supplemental essays. If you want advice on the Common App prompts, check out our guide to the Common App essays.
Your grades are in, your test scores have been sent, and recommendation letters have been uploaded…but there’s one last component of your college applications left: the essays. For many students, essays are the final and most daunting hurdle to clear before hitting submit.
Your essays, however, are your opportunity to tell admissions officers how you want them to remember you. Maybe you didn’t do so well on the SAT, or maybe you got a lower grade than you hoped for in Honors Chemistry, but you can’t change your grades or scores.
The essays, however, are entirely in your control. There is so much freedom to tell your story and what makes you unique. Our mission at CollegeVine is to make the essay-writing as stress-free as possible. Read on for our tips and tricks on writing a college essay that will give you the best chance at getting that thick envelope!
- Common Types of College Essays
- Why this school?
- Why this major?
- Elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience.
- Discuss a community you belong to that has impacted who you are today.
- The three phases of writing
- Crafting the essay
- Avoiding pitfalls
Common Types of College Essays
Colleges will find a hundred different ways to ask a question, but most of the time, the prompt boils down to one of the following common essay themes.
Common Essay #1: Why this school?
Students’ most common mistake on a “Why School?” essay is lack of specificity; in particular, some students will list attributes that can apply to multiple schools, which is what you want to avoid at all costs.
When it comes to a “Why School?” essay, you need to discuss qualities and programs specific to that school. It is not enough to merely list or name-drop, however. Instead, talk about why this item is important to you. Here’s how this plays out:
What not to do:
I want to go to the University of Southern California because it is a highly ranked school in Los Angeles. In addition, I like its Cosmic Writers Club, as well as the Incubate USC program. I am especially excited about the abundant film resources.
Why the previous response doesn’t work:
There are many reasons you want to avoid a response like this. Let’s start with the first sentence: replace the school’s name with UCLA and the accuracy doesn’t suffer. What this means is that the sentence is not specific enough to USC. In addition, you never want to state, or even imply, that you’re applying to a school due to prestige or ranking.
The exception for the previous rule is if a school is ranked highly for a specific program of interest. For example, if you want to pursue creative writing and a school has the number one creative writing program in the country, you can mention this because it is a quality specific to that school. A school’s overall prestige, however, should not be mentioned in your essay.
Why else doesn’t this response work? Let’s look at the second sentence. The writer does well to mention specific programs within USC. However, the response fails to discuss why they liked these programs or how they would benefit from having access to them.
What to write instead:
As someone with a lasting love for writing and a blossoming passion for entrepreneurship, I was so excited to find a large urban school like the University of Southern California that would give me the resources to pursue both. From classes with award-winning authors—amongst them Professor T. Boyle, whose environmental fiction works are similar to those I hope to someday publish—to clubs like the Cosmic Writers Club, which unites author hopefuls, USC offers more resources than I could ever exhaust in my journey to publish my first book.
On the business side, USC is known for fostering the type of creativity and innovation needed in pursuing start-ups. In particular, I was so excited to learn of the Incubate USC program, a unique mothership of ideas that nurtures the creativity of students. With the help of this program, I would be able to pursue my growing interest in the world of start-up ventures.
Why the previous response works:
This response not only mentions programs and resources specific to USC, but it shows how the student would take advantage of these opportunities. In addition, this response portrays passion and ambition, infusing elements of the student’s personality while still staying focused on answering the prompt.
Other things to keep in mind:
- The first time you say the school’s name, you should write it out. After that, you can abbreviate.
- Avoid writing what every other applicant is going to write. For example, every NYU applicant is going to mention NYU’s location in New York City. Unless you have a unique twist on this, you should skip it.
- Don’t mention frivolous things like dorms or dining halls. Your reasons for liking a school should be more substantial.
- Do your research. For example, don’t say you’ve always wanted to go to a city if you’re writing an essay for a rural school.
- Do not copy and paste your “Why School?” essay and simply change the school name. Many non-Harvard admissions officers have received essays from students about why they want to go to Harvard. If your “Why School?” essay is so general that you can copy and paste it, your reasoning will not impress admissions officers.
Common Essay #2: Why this major?
One of the most important things to remember is that admissions officers are not looking for a résumé. This is not to say you can’t discuss your activities and how they culminated a passion for a specific major. The challenge, however, is to use these activities to tell a story rather than a mere list of achievements.
How do you do this? Share your thought processes. Many times it is the thoughts surrounding an activity more than the activity itself that will show the reader your journey to choosing a major.
- Don’t ever say that your reason for choosing a major is money-making potential. If you want to mention life beyond college, then talk about how this major will help you achieve your dreams. If your dream is to produce a feature-length film and a film major will help you get there, say that. But don’t say your dream is to be a rich film producer.
- Undeclared? If you’re undecided, don’t feel like you need to fake an interest in a major. It is okay to be undecided about your major, and it is just as legitimate to tell the story of why you’re undecided as it is to share how you chose your intended major.
Common Essay 3: Elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience.
Is there an activity or work experience in your application that you have more to say about? Maybe there’s a story behind it that you want to tell. Some questions to consider are:
- How did you become interested in this extracurricular?
- What is your role in the activity or work experience?
- Why do you do it?
- Have you experienced growth within the activity over time?
There are endless angles you can pursue here, but your essay should, in short, show your motivation behind participating in a certain activity or job.
What you don’t want to do, however, is simply restate something that’s been said elsewhere. If you have already spotlighted an activity in another essay for a given college, don’t write about the same activity. Your goal here is to share new information and your breadth of experiences.
As with the “Why Major?” prompt, it is more powerful to share a story with the reader rather than to detail the activity itself.
Common Essay 4: Discuss a community you belong to that has impacted who you are today.
“Community” can mean many things, so there are many possible approaches to this prompt. Some applicants respond with a community they’re linked to through culture, and others through sports or a club.
One thing you can emphasize is personal growth—or other aspects of who you are as a person—that has come from belonging to this community. The majority of the essay should, in fact, center around how being part of this group has changed or impacted who you are as a person.
What to avoid:
- Do not discriminate against other communities in your response.
- Try not to talk about your community in broad terms, but instead focus on your place within this community.
- Avoid using the essay as a chance to complain. If you choose to talk about challenges in a certain community, find a way to give your essay a sense of resolution. This can consist even of talking about how you’ve grown as a person or learned how to confront these obstacles in a productive way.
Writing the Essay
Phase 1: Ideation
Highlights of this section:
- Thinking of an idea
- Portraying individuality
- Staying true to yourself
- General tips and tricks
Now that you’re familiar with some of the most common types of essay prompts, let’s dive into the ideation process. Here are some questions that it’s good to ask yourself when you’re just starting out, particularly when the prompt deviates from the more straightforward archetypes above:
- What makes you unique?
- What is your story?
- Is there something you weren’t able to say in your application that you think admissions officers should know?
- Did you mention something earlier in your application that you want to elaborate on?
Remember that your essays, and application in general, should read like a portfolio in which all components are complementary without being redundant. If the application is like a drawing, then the essays should contribute to creating one coherent image without sketching the same line more than once or leaving gaps in the drawing.
Don’t shy away from being quirky! The more you present yourself as your own unique person, the more likely the admissions officer is to remember you. Take the following cases, for instance:
- A football player who scores a winning touchdown in the last five seconds of the game.
- A football player who knits scarves for residents of a retirement home in his free time.
In the first case, telling this story doesn’t do anything to differentiate this football player from others. However, the second story portrays a unique student with two interests the reader might not otherwise have paired together. Individuality is the goal here.
Of course, don’t exaggerate, lie, or pretend to be someone you’re not. In particular, don’t write something just because you think the admissions officer wants to hear it. They have read enough applications to separate the genuine voices from the insincere. As such, your only job is to put your true self on the page!
Here are some other things to keep in mind while brainstorming college essay topics:
- Narratives will always be more successful because they engage the reader emotionally. They are also an easy way to demonstrate how you’ve changed and grown over time.
- If you have already emphasized something in your application, don’t dedicate an essay to it unless can share an entirely new perspective. When in doubt, choose a new topic.
- Your essay doesn’t have to be about something rare and incredible. You don’t have to have started a company or traveled the world to write a solid essay. In fact, some of the strongest essays have taken a simple, perhaps even everyday occurrence, and portrayed it in a beautiful way that shows a unique way of thinking.
- Be sure to answer all aspects of the prompt while still giving the reader insight into who you are. It’s very easy to speak about some topics in third-person or broad terms (example: “What is your idea of success?”). Don’t do this. Instead, find a way to link the prompt to your own life.
Overall, think of the essays as a way to let the admissions officer get to know you on a personal level. Humanize yourself.
Phase 2: Crafting the Essay
Highlights of this section:
- Show, don’t tell.
- Perfecting the first and last sentence
- What does the essay say about me?
You have likely heard this next tip a hundred times throughout high school, but it’s vital to writing a strong essay: show, don’t tell. The whole point of essays is to give insight into who you are and how you think. Can you effectively do that if you’re merely listing off things that happened? Nope. Let’s take a lot at two examples:
- An example of telling: The cat ran out the door, and I got scared.
- An example of showing: The doorbell rang, accompanied by the creak of the mailbox as the mailman slipped the day’s envelopes inside. I ran downstairs and threw the door open, knowing today was the day I was going to hear back. My excitement made me oblivious, though, and it wasn’t until I saw a blur of dark fur dash through the open door that I realized my mistake.
The second example takes the facts and turns it into a story. It gives the reader a sense of anticipation as well as a character to identify with and root for. That’s what “show, don’t tell” does for your essay.
Now let’s talk about the two most important parts of your essay: the first sentence and the last sentence.
Your first sentence’s job is to hook the reader. Aim for a first sentence that surprises, even slightly jars, the reader to wake them up and get their full focus on your essay. Here are some examples:
- It wasn’t supposed to be blue.
- Was the car meant to sound like that?
In both cases, the writer has intentionally withheld information, providing just enough to leave the reader wanting to know the rest of the story. What isn’t supposed to be blue? What happens next?
As for the last sentence, its job is to resolve the essay, leaving the reader with a sense of peace and finality. Give the reader one last great impression to remember you by. Here’s an example:
“I’ve learned to hold my failures close; not so close that they burden me, per say, but just
close enough that they can guide me as I journey onward.”
This sentence works because it gives the reader a sense that, though the story continues on in the form of the narrator’s ongoing journey, the story on the page has been resolved. It feels peaceful.
Now then, after you’ve completed your first draft, the next thing you want to do is ask yourself the following question: What three things about me can the reader get from reading this essay? If you’re having trouble answering this question, then the essay needs to share more about you. Otherwise, you’re ready for revision!
Phase 3: Revision
Highlights of this section:
- Careless errors
- Staying under the word limit
- Getting a second opinion
You’ve done the hard work. You came up with a brilliant idea and poured your heart and soul into the writing. Now comes the tedious part: revision.
Most importantly, college essays need to be absolutely devoid of grammatical or spelling mistakes. You don’t want to give your admissions officer the impression that you didn’t care enough to proofread, especially after all of your hard work.
Another aspect that tends to frustrate students is the word limit. If you’ve made it under the word limit, great! If not, here are some methods of cutting down.
- Look for simpler ways to say things and remove unnecessary phrases.
- Example: In visiting your campus, it occurred to me that the method with which you schedule your classes is ideal because…
- This can be cut down to: The way you schedule your classes is ideal because…
- Most times phrases such as “I think,” “I believe,” “it seems,” and other similar wording is not necessary and simply takes up extra space. Use your judgement, but generally, these phrases get the boot.
- Keep an eye out for the word “that.” This can almost always be cut.
- If you use a long hyphen (—), no space is needed between words. This will bring your word count down. Don’t get too hyphen happy, though!
If the above tips are not enough to get you below the word limit, you may need to remove entire paragraphs. If a paragraph does not drive the story forward, or is unnecessary in understanding the progression of the story, you may want to remove it.
Once your essay is mistake-free and below the word limit, your next task is to send it to at least three trusted individuals. Ask them the following questions to guide their suggestions:
- Does it make sense?
- Does it sound like me?
- What does it say about me? (Check that this aligns with what you want it to say about you).
Take note of their responses and decide what changes you want to implement. Be receptive, but remember to stay true to yourself and your vision.
- Avoid discussion of taboo subjects or things that can be perceived as controversial. Everyone is entitled to their own views, but you don’t want to chance saying something controversial that your reader might disagree with.
- Never appear discriminatory in any way. Colleges tend to be vastly left-wing and progressive.
- Don’t turn in work that isn’t your own. When does accepting another person’s edits become plagiarism? If they are rewriting entire sentences in their own words, it is no longer your own work.
- Avoid clichés! It is okay to write about a common experience (like a sports injury or service trip), but only if you have a unique take on them. Don’t write on a popular topic if you will simply describe the same lesson that everyone else learned.
- Don’t write your essay directly into the application text box or it may not save your work. Write it in a separate document and copy and paste it later. Then, double check that the format is correct.
At the end of the day, your essays should just leave the reader thinking: I want to have a conversation with this student. You want to show that you’re an multifaceted, mature person with an interesting story to tell. At CollegeVine, we’re rooting for you all the way—go get writing!
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