Supplemental essays are personal statements. They need to be about you, tell a compelling story, and so on. I know, I know—you’ve already written a personal statement, and now you’re being asked to do so again, over and over. It should go without saying that you can’t reiterate anything you’ve already said in your Common App. So how should you approach the supplemental essays?
Supplemental essay prompts can be “general” (open-ended questions about what inspires you and so on) and “specific” questions. (The University of Chicago has a ton of quirky options: write a letter to an inanimate object, imagine you’re on a thirteenth-century sea voyage and you fall off the edge of the earth, make up your own word, etc.)
Here are some strategies for approaching both general and quirky questions. I’ll also take a look at the ubiquitous “why this college?” question, as well as the “community” question.
The good news is that, for “general questions,” you can usually kill two or more birds with one stone. Take a look at all your supplemental essay prompts side-by-side and spend some time strategizing. This year, Yale has a supplemental question that goes:
“Think about an idea or topic that has been intellectually exciting for you. Why are you drawn to it?”
One suggestion for a Harvard optional supplemental (more on optional essays later) reads:
“An intellectual experience that has meant the most to you.”
Now take a look at a Princeton prompt:
“Culture is what presents us with the kinds of valuable things that can fill a life. And insofar as we can recognize the value in those things and make them part of our lives, our lives are meaningful.”
If you can write about an intellectual idea/experience that is also cultural in nature, you’ve got three essays for the price of one. Maybe you’re into post-WWI European avant-garde art movements? Take a look at the other questions for these three universities: there are other overlapping questions that may inspire you more than intellectual ideas and culture.
You’ll need to keep word-count in mind: Yale wants 250 words or fewer, Princeton asks for “about 500,” Harvard doesn’t say (probably best to aim for around 500 words). Write the longer version first, and then whittle your essay down for Yale.
Have some fun, and most importantly, be yourself. In your U Chicago letter to an inanimate object, you wouldn’t want to pick, say, the Hubble telescope if you have no real interest in astrophysics or space. The Hubble telescope is certainly an impressive object, but it’s more important to be true to yourself and your passions than to try to be fancy.
It’s harder to recycle essays for quirky topics, but sometimes you get lucky. Let’s say you wrote about European avant-gardes for your Yale/Harvard/Princeton essays. For Chicago, you can always write a letter to Duchamp’s famous urinal or something.
“Why this college”
There are no shortcuts here. You can’t turn in your essay for College X to College Y just by changing the name. Just as you should be the only person on earth who could have written your personal statements, your response to the “why this college” prompt should describe College X in such a way that only College X will recognize itself in the picture you paint. Do your research. Discuss the classes you visited, the atmosphere on campus, the clubs you’d like to join, and so on.
Sometimes colleges try to personalize this question by telling you something about who they think they are. Tufts asks:
“What excites you about Tufts’ intellectually playful community? In short, Why Tufts?”
It’s like the university is saying “hint, hint!” when it calls its community “intellectually playful.” You may have plenty of “serious” things to say about your interest in the School of Engineering—that’s fine. Don’t feel the need to write an essay that’s all about playfulness (whatever exactly that means) just because it’s in the prompt. Rather, take the mention of playfulness as an indication that it’s OK to show your quirky side, assuming it relates to your interest in Tufts.
Community and diversity
Essays that ask about the communities you belong to (related to your upbringing, your religion, your ethnicity, your sexual orientation, your gender, and so on) can be tricky, regardless of your background. Even if you have an incredible story to tell (such as one that relates to facing real discrimination), it’s not enough simply to explain to admissions folks that you’ve overcome adversity. You also need to show how your experiences have shaped who you—and only you—are today. As always, make sure that your story is yours alone. Don’t fall into the trap of telling the tale of an entire community: if being a Mormon in New York City isn’t always easy, don’t stop there—talk about your own experience, and how it informs your unique personality.
A message to all the cisgendered, able-bodied, agnostic, middle-class white guys out there: if you haven’t given much thought to what diversity means, now’s a good time. A diverse community is not a community without folks like you. Don’t try to marginalize yourself if you’ve never had the experience of being marginalized, but do focus on what makes your background unique. I’ve seen excellent essays about being from Wyoming, attending a high school with a graduating class of eight, being a military brat, helping out at the family-owned bar as a child, or catching flack for being a boy who likes ballet. We all have different backgrounds. The point of this essay is to see whether you’re self-aware enough to recognize that, to see if you can imagine how your unique experiences will benefit a diverse community.
The question, of course, is whether these questions are really optional.
The simple answer is, not really, despite what the colleges who ask them say. You probably suspected as much.
One notable exception to this rule comes to mind. Some optional essays are specifically designed for certain applicants. Duke, for example, proposes the following optional essay prompt:
“Duke’s commitment to diversity and inclusion includes sexual orientation, gender identity and gender expression. If you would like to share with us more about how you identify as LGBTQIA+, and have not done so elsewhere in the application, we invite you to do so here.”
It goes without saying that, unlike the general “community” question, this prompt is not an opportunity for just anyone to chime in and benefit from additional space in the application. If you do not identify as part of the LGBTQIA+ community, sit this one out.