The past few years have seen a remarkable shift in students’ mentality regarding the college application process; students are applying to more and more colleges, ostensibly in an attempt to try and increase their chances. But most students are going about this completely wrong. While it can be advantageous to apply to many schools, students often significantly diminish the potency of their essays by writing individual essays for dozens of different schools.

Here’s the truth: there is a way to apply to many schools, write fewer college essays, and maintain the quality of your essays. The last facet is of considerable importance; there is a superior method of cross-applying college essays in the application process.

While it is true that college supplemental essays are of vital importance and should each be treated equally, writing these essays effectively can nearly be boiled down to a science. There are three things college admissions officers look for in supplemental essays: writing abilities, past experiences, and interest in their particular school.

The final consideration, interest, is where most students who apply to many schools fail. While it is true that certain schools like Harvard and Princeton don’t consider demonstrated interest when reviewing students’ essays, for other schools, especially ones with “why us?” essays, interest is of considerable importance. When applying up to dozens of different schools, it is admittedly very difficult for students to demonstrate genuine interest in each program. This is where this guide comes in: there is a very easy and efficient way to write your supplements while also exhibiting a high level of interest for every school.

Disclaimer: It should be said that CollegeVine does not encourage students to feign interest in order to increase the number of schools on their lists. For our recommended strategy on how to create a school list, see our blog post here.  

Some of the most common supplemental questions are:

  • Why our university?
  • How will you contribute to our university?
  • Why your major?

For each additional supplement you write, it is critical to reflect on two things: (1) what you have already written for previous essays, and (2) what the prompt is asking of you. As you shape your new essays, do not hesitate to use your previously completed essays as models. Borrow both language and ideas when fashioning your answers to different prompts. If a prompt asks  you “why our university,” the admissions officers are likely trying to determine your interest in their school and your past experiences that align with the school’s interests. So suppose you are applying to Caltech and MIT. Consider the following prompts from 2015-2016:

  • Scientific exploration clearly excited you. Beyond our 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio and our intense focus on research opportunities, how do you believe Caltech will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you meet your goals?
  • Although you may not yet know what you want to major in, which department or program at MIT appeals to you and why?

These are the typical “why our university” and “why your major” questions. By reflecting on the similarities between the two schools and the two essays early on, you will drastically reduce the amount of work you have to do in the future. For instance, let’s say you write about your participation in mathematics competitions, such as the AIME and the Olympiad. Writing about this experience with a strong, identifiable voice will satisfy two of the three things that admissions officers are looking for: writing abilities and past experiences. Thus,you are proverbially knocking out two birds with one stone. The next step is to ensure that your essay applies to the specific college in question. So for the “why MIT” essay, you should research specific programs and departments that align with what you’ve already written. Make sure you are applying a critical lens when analyzing these programs, not merely looking superficially at the programs but rather at what makes them each unique.

Reusing Essays for Uncommon Supplemental Questions

It is true that some schools are infamous for their outside-of-the-box, creative supplemental questions (U-Chicago, MIT, Caltech), yet students can still apply some of these same methods in crafting essays for even the most prompts. Consider one of the U-Chicago prompts for the 2015-2016 extended essay:

  • “Art is either plagiarism or revolution.” – Paul Gauguin. What is your “art”? Is it plagiarism or revolution?

Chances are most students will write a completely new essay to answer this prompt, but when running on a time-budget with multiple essays left to write, this needn’t be the case. The key to answering this question effectively is to think critically. Perhaps you have written about your passion for medical research for the “why your major?” essay for another college. Chances are most students would never consider applying that essay to this distinctive U-Chicago prompt; but if you think critically, there are ways to reconcile the two. It’s all about finding where the two dissimilar prompts intersect.

For instance, the U-Chicago prompt might cause you to consider your medical research an art, something that you would probably not have thought about before. You can take this one step further and discuss why your art (medical research) is not only plagiarism but also a revolution. You might conclude that by recreating scientific experiments and analyzing the data, you are extending the wheels of scientific progress.

Once you have given considerable critical thought to how to reconcile the two supplements, then you can begin to cross-apply the sentences of your first essay to the second. Being conscious of the word count of the U-Chicago essay, you should borrow enough material from your first essay to establish your passion for the art of medical research and, perhaps most importantly, your voice. Then, you must write about your previously outlined critical thought – your reconciliation of the merging topics. This latter section does not need to be lengthy nor particularly comprehensive. Its most important function is to show the reader that you are engaging with the prompt through a critical lens. Your goal is to shape your original essay through a nuanced voice to answer the new prompt. Don’t be afraid to move paragraphs around or drastically change sentence structures; remember, this is a new essay for a new prompt. At the end of the day, the new essay will require some work and a lot of thought.

For many students who struggle to write all of their essays in a timely manner, this guide demonstrates how to cross-apply different college essays while also maintaining the integrity of each essay.


Ethan Kesternberg

Ethan Kesternberg

Ethan is a member of Columbia University's Class of 2019, double-majoring in Mathematics and Biochemistry. While he's not busy playing Words With Friends or playing with little furry four-legged friends, Ethan enjoys playing tennis, skiing, cycling, and watching Game of Thrones. His favorite type of mammal is the marsupial.
Ethan Kesternberg

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