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Should I Submit an Arts Supplement? The Dangers of Submitting Supplementary Application Materials
You’ve been playing violin since you were five. You’ve been told countless times by family, friends, and teachers how talented you are. And you’ve shown just how talented you are by becoming concertmaster of your school’s orchestra as a freshman and winning every regional violin competition there is. The years have gone by, your accomplishments have grown, and now it’s time to apply for college. You’ve heard about how hard it is to get into top schools, and you want to do every last thing you can to make yourself stand out. You’ve stayed on top of the college application process and already have so many of the pieces in place—great grades, an impressive course load, top-of-the-line test scores, and compelling essays—but you want to make sure your main extracurricular activity, violin, is underscored. Obviously, submitting an arts supplement is the next step, right? Sending in a music supplement would prove to colleges just how committed you are to violin and give you a leg up on everyone who doesn’t submit a supplement, right? Wrong.
Submitting a supplement is often talked about by parents and college counselors as something to send in to college as long as you’re proficient at an art, whether it be music, film, dance, or the visual arts. It’s talked about as if it’s icing on the cake—something that can help, but can’t hurt unless there’s a drastic difference between your level and the level of other applicants. But this simply isn’t true. Submitting a supplement can hurt you.
Before talking about why submitting a supplement can potentially hurt your application, here is some information on how the supplement fits into the overall application and gets evaluated. The reason colleges accept supplements is because it gives them another avenue to evaluate your arts prowess. Your awards may say something about your skill, but it’s difficult for colleges to compare awards lists and rank students by that alone. Thus, colleges look at supplements for the students who provide them, as it gives them an opportunity to directly evaluate the strength of applicants in the arts. To shed some light on how supplements are evaluated, here’s how the process generally goes. This by no means is the process used at all colleges, though it does give a good sense for how things generally go when colleges receive supplements: Colleges receive supplements and then send them to the corresponding departments at the college. Supplements are then evaluated by the faculty in those departments and a rating number is assigned to each supplement (in this case, let’s say the rating scale is 1-5). Once the ratings come back to the admission officers, they are most interested in the supplements with the highest ratings (i.e. supplements rated a 5). Supplements rated with the highest rating are the ones that actively strengthen an application. Supplements rated as a 4 may have some positive impact, but the impact is generally neutral to minimally positive. This means that unless your supplement gets the highest rating, it is unlikely that it will have any positive effect on your application. Worse, if it gets a low rating, you may hurt your application by submitting a supplement. Thus, unless you are confident your supplement will be among the best in the applicant pool, it may be wiser to hold off on submitting a supplement.
To give some perspective on how likely it is your supplement will get the highest rating, think about this: out of the hundreds, or even thousands, of arts supplements a top school will get, only a handful will get the highest rating. Generally, those applicants have skills in their respective arts similar to what students in specialized arts schools would have. For example, a musician with whose supplement gets the highest rating would likely play music at a level comparable to musicians in conservatories like Peabody, NEC, or Juilliard. In short, it is not easy to get the highest rating.
You might think that leaving your awards unsubstantiated with any supplement will weaken your application, but that isn’t necessarily the case. There are many ambiguities with awards—some small competitions can have lofty award names; other competitions might have an extremely high level of competition, but have a rather mundane name for the top award given. For this reason, listing off your awards to colleges will put you in a big pool of applicants for whom the college does not know the exact level of proficiency. This can both be an advantage and a disadvantage, depending on how you stack up with the rest of the applicants. If you’re at the top of the applicant pool in terms of artistic ability, then yes, just having an awards list could hurt you, but in that case you’d probably feel confident about getting a high rating if you submitted an arts supplement, and submitting a supplement would be the way to go. If your art prowess is average for the applicant pool, then you’ll likely neither be hurt or helped by omitting the supplement. If you’re at the bottom of the pool, however, having an impressive (yet inherently ambiguous) awards list could actually help you. In this case, submitting a supplement may expose your relative weakness when compared to the other applicants who submit supplements. Keep in mind that in this context “relatively weak” is by no means weak in absolute terms, as the people being used as comparison are the Juilliard musicians of the world. Nevertheless, holding off on submitting an arts supplement in this case could help you, as colleges would likely assume that your arts strength is middle of the pack, when in reality, your art skills may put you more towards the bottom of the artistic applicant pool.
Ultimately, predicting whether or not submitting a supplement will help an application is an educated guess. A highly rated arts supplement has the potential to boost an application and give it that extra bit of differentiation from the rest of the applicant pool; a lowly rated one has the potential to make an applicant’s arts awards and achievements seem less impressive. The decision of whether to submit a supplement or not is yours—just be aware of how the evaluation process for supplements can affect your application. It’s not as simple as it may seem.