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Super Supplemental Essays

Students can easily overlook supplemental essays; however, admissions officers consider them one of the most important parts of the application. It’s here they look for evidence of academic potential and the student's fit with their university. These essays also show whether the applicant is genuinely excited and serious about attending. For admissions success, it’s vital to write them well. 

Most supplemental essays fall into the following categories:

  1. Why This University?: Why do you want to attend this college over all the others?

  2. Why My Major?: Why do you want to study a particular subject?

  3. Extracurricular: Highlight an activity outside the classroom that has been especially meaningful to you.

  4. Background/Identity: Tell us who you are and which experiences have shaped you.

  5. Community: Describe a community you belong to and how it has shaped you or how you’ve contributed to it.

  6. Intellectual Curiosity: What topic excites you and makes you want to learn more – and how have you explored it?

  7. Short Answer: These vary but include prompts such as describe yourself in 3 words; share your dream vacation; what historical event do you wish you’d witnessed?

Some colleges ask more than one of the above questions or even combine them. For example, the University of Michigan requires one community essay and another about why you’re drawn to a specific school and curriculum at UofM. Likewise, the University of Southern California asks short answer questions alongside how you plan to pursue your academic interests at USC. 

Writing these supplemental essays well requires time – which can be in short supply for busy students! Here are five common mistakes students make when drafting them. After you learn what not to do, we’ll share a better way to tackle this critical part of your application. 

Half-hearted effort: U Who? A generic, poorly researched essay shouts, “Don’t admit me.” Similarly, if your messaging is unclear or vague, it will be difficult for your admissions officer to ascertain your fit and make a strong case for you. Finally, admissions officers judge students harshly when they present sloppy writing or submit a brilliant Common App Personal Statement and weak supplemental essays. 

Prompt? What prompt? Students who don’t think carefully about how the prompts are worded make a big mistake because these questions reflect what matters to the university when selecting a class. Additionally, stick to the recommended word count, avoiding essays that are too long or short. 

Overused topics and words: While ‘making the world a better place’ and ‘fighting climate change’ are laudable, they sound incredibly cliché unless you back them up with concrete evidence. It’s better to show through stories and examples rather than tell. Similarly, words like 'hard-working' and 'passionate' sound meaningless unless given thoughtful context. 

Overly gracious praises: Flattery annoys admissions officers, so avoid phrases like “your esteemed university” or “the distinguished instructors.” However, if you explain why you feel this way, you can say the university is fantastic or the faculty is impressive. 

List everything: Admissions officers dislike boastful essays where students simply list achievements. Your Common App Activities section and resume will speak volumes about you, so only discuss achievements if they’re relevant to the prompt. 

Now that you know what not to do, here are the steps to writing essays that stand out:

1) Analyze the words in the prompt – they indicate the university’s values. Think carefully about why they are asking this question.

2) Make notes about your experiences, achievements, or perspectives related to the prompt. 

3) Research, research, research. Diligently explore the university’s website, videos, mission statement, news stories, and newsletters to ensure your essays show knowledge unique to the university. 

4) Show fit by linking your stories to the college’s values, programs, and other opportunities. Prove you care about what you do or hope to do, understand your motivations, and eagerly engage with others.

5) Proofread your work. Read your essays out loud to weed out grammatical errors, spelling mistakes, and a lack of depth or clarity.

Finally, step back to assess how these essays contribute to the big picture. Ensure that across the essays and other parts of your application, each university learns why you want to attend and why you’d be a great addition to campus. Your goal is to be thorough but never repetitive, so map out everything you want to share and where in your application the admissions officers will read it. 

While this may sound challenging, the great news is that once you have created compelling structures for the core supplemental essays listed above, you can customize them for each university by conducting thorough research. Your stories and experiences don’t change; however, you’ll want to tailor them to each prompt and college. A typical applicant applying to 10 US universities will write between 12 and 35 supplemental essays ranging in length from 50 to 800 words; students who are successful in admissions prioritize these essential essays early and give them plenty of thought.

Our final piece of advice: have fun! Take risks, and don’t be afraid to show your personality in your supplemental essays; you want them to be memorable and enjoyable to read. Your Ivy Options counselor can help you make your supplemental essays shine. Let’s get to work!


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