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5 Tips to Approaching College Supplementary Essay Prompts

It's your senior year. You're balancing difficult classes, managing extracurriculars, and navigating friendships. What's more, you're applying for college. This can be an exciting yet nerve-wracking time. Almost all colleges require prospective students to answer one of the posed personal statement. However, some schools will go the extra mile and require supplementary essay questions.

Supplementary essay questions ask you some additional questions beyond the Common App ones. Don't worry about answering so many questions — try viewing your essays as another opportunity to express yourself and your interest in the school.

What is a supplementary essay?

teenage girl types on her laptop
Many schools require supplementary essays in addition to the standard personal statement. Photo by Insta_photos.

Supplementary essays are prompts provided by individual schools. Universities require applicants to answer a specific number of prompts. Some schools will require only one extra essay, but others may require upwards of six additional essay answers. Some even offer several options for supplementary questions, and you'll pick one or two that you want to answer. If this is the format for the school you're applying to, be strategic about which questions you choose.

The requested word count can range from 100-250 words. The word count will rarely be over 250 words, because you're meant to provide a brief snapshot of your identity. You might wonder how you're supposed to make yourself stand out from the thousands of other applicants in just half a page. How can you tell your fantastic life story in so little space?

The strict word count limit forces you to show your creativity and writing skills. You must use your words wisely.

Supplementary essays give you the chance to showcase your personality and include ideas you might not have had room for in the standard essay question. For example, the Common App essay topics might include these prompts:

  • Lessons you've learned/obstacles you've overcome and what you learned from them
  • Ways in which someone else has impacted your life/thinking
  • Times when you've challenged a previously held belief and why your opinion changed

These prompts are purposefully broad to give you several potential directions. Another key feature of these prompts is that they are entirely about you. While that may seem obvious, given that it's your application, this means you can focus entirely on writing a story about yourself without injecting tidbits about the school into your essay.

Supplementary essay prompts give you some room to expand on yourself, but many of them have an ulterior motive. Unlike the Common App's personal statement, secondary prompts tend to be a mix of personal and professional. Some of these prompts are school-specific), meaning you must tell a story while appealing to the school's college admissions officers. With these, what you write for one school may differ from what you write for another.

Writing a successful supplementary essay

While you might feel pressured to give the absolute best prompt answers, remember that the answers are unique to you, your experiences, and your future goals and desires. There are many ways to ensure that your essay answers are effective, and they all start in the writing process.

1. Answer the question

We know how easy it is to get caught up in a story — especially with such a small word count. In this case, you won't be able to say everything you can in limitless detail to answer the question given.

Suppose a school asks you to choose one specific community service activity you participated in and explain how the experience affected you. In that case, don't provide a list of every act of service you've ever completed and what you did in those moments. This isn't the place to show off your impressive and extensive list of community service hours. Besides, lots of prospective students have similar lists.

Answer the question. Choose one act of service, briefly describe what it entailed, and spend most of your words discussing how it personally affected you.

  • Did it challenge a previously held belief?
  • Did you meet someone who inspired you?
  • Did it introduce you to a social justice issue you're passionate about?

This doesn't mean you have to write about a life-changing experience. Do not exaggerate anything you've done because you think it'll make you seem more impressive.

2. Narrow your focus

magnifying glass aimed at a long hallway
Be as specific as possible in your answers - tell a story unique to your life. Photo by Trey.

To avoid giving a general and potentially boring or overused answer, pick a unique story to write about. Yes, we said story. Think of yourself as a nonfiction storyteller writing the pitch for your next big book.

  • What story can you tell that is guaranteed to garner interest and attention?
  • What things can you write about that will leave the audience – the college admissions officers – wanting more?

Your stories make you stand out because they are unique to you — no one person will have the same experience.

This strategy is especially helpful in answering the more general supplementary questions, like "why are you interested in this school?" We'll explore that question in more detail later, but notice how this technique will help you hone in on a particular idea rather than list reasons why you want to attend a school. Do not provide a list in response to any question unless the prompt specifically asks for a list — some will.

3. Establish your voice

You want the admissions officers to know you're intelligent, but this doesn't mean you need to write like a graduate student. You're still in high school, so you should sound like a senior. Your story is your own, so it shouldn't sound like anybody else's. Having a clear voice proves that you're someone with writing skills and your own opinions. You know what you want (at least in terms of applying to college!), and you can illustrate that through your words.

Maintaining a clear voice throughout your essays will help to show your personality. You can inject humor or seriousness into your writing, but most importantly, show your passion for whatever you're writing about. Admissions officers should feel like they're in a one-on-one interview with you. They want to feel your eagerness and excitement through the screen.

4. Avoid repetition

repetition in a dictionary
Avoid retelling the same story in both your personal statement and supplementary essays. Photo by sharafmaksumov.

Show yourself to the admissions officers as much as possible. Avoid repeating the same story or referencing the same activity from one essay to the next, including your personal statement. For example, suppose you wrote your personal statement about how you helped your school's math team win a national competition. In that case, avoid writing about your involvement with the math team in a supplemental essay about your extracurricular activities. You want to prove that you're a well-rounded student, so don't lean too heavily on one obstacle, action, or accomplishment.

5. Optional essays aren't optional

You might be surprised — and maybe intimidated — to learn that the school of your dreams requires six supplementary essays. The college admissions process is exhausting, so the thought of writing six more essays in addition to your personal statement is challenging. Then you notice that two of those six questions are listed as optional. You don't have to complete them then, right? Technically, you don't have to answer those questions. But practically, they aren't optional.

Since you want to put your best foot forward while applying for college, you should show as much of your personality and story as possible and answer as many prompts as you have available. It will prove to schools how invested you are in the process and how eager you are to be accepted. Keep in mind that thousands of other prospective students are applying to the same schools, so don't sell yourself short as an applicant who skimped out on the optional questions.

How to approach answering popular supplementary essay questions

Although supplementary essay questions differ across colleges, they all want to know the same thing: why do you want to attend this school, and why should we accept you? The questions you could be asked are endless, but let's examine how to tackle some of the most common prompts.

Why do you want to attend this university?

gavel, book, and scale in a court room
Referencing specific programs or opportunities specific to a school shows that you've done your research. Photo by Who is Danny.

Some schools will explicitly ask you why you're interested in attending. For example, Tufts University has asked its applicants, "Which aspects of the Tufts undergraduate experience prompt your application? In short, 'Why Tufts?'" You might consider this one of the easier questions because it is direct, but questions like these can be difficult because there is a range of potential ways you could answer the question.

Be as specific as possible. Show the admissions committee that you've researched the college. This shows them that you're applying with purpose. You can reference:

  • A specific major/program: Perhaps you're applying to the college because it's well-known for its pre-med or pre-law track. You know the statistics regarding students who became successful doctors and lawyers, and you want the opportunity to be taught as those professionals once were. Do you have a research question about an illness, such as pancreatic cancer, that you want to answer? Reference the school's excellent research lab programs and resources. This will allow you to demonstrate your knowledge about the school and a personal passion driving you to apply.
  • Faculty/staff: Maybe there are renowned professors in the program you want to meet and work closely with. Mention that learning under their particular instruction would advance your knowledge and help you build a network of knowledgeable professionals that you can work with in the future.
  • A specific activity: Suppose you want to be a part of the school's pre-law program, and you know they have one of the country's most competitive mock trial teams. Or maybe you want to major in computer science, and the school is well known for its coding club.

Consider what the school offers that you want to participate in, and explicitly mention why you chose that school in your essay. Don't forget to include why you'd be a good fit for the school too — it's not just about what the school can do for you but what you can do for the school.

Extracurricular activities

male rugby players huddle in a circle on the field
Extracurricular activities can include sports teams, clubs, and advisory roles. Photo by Jacob Lund.

College admissions officers want to know what you have to offer beyond a good report card. Your competitors will likely have similar grades, so what you do outside school helps you distinguish yourself from the crowd.

  • Were you a division 1 swimmer? Did you run cross country?
  • Were you a member of your school's Habitat for Humanity club?
  • Did you work a part-time job after school?

Colleges especially like to know if you were in a leadership position, because this proves you have determination, independence, ambition, and charisma.

  • Were you a student advisor for incoming high school freshmen?
  • Were you the captain of your varsity hockey team?
  • Better yet, were you a combination of both? Maybe you were a student advisor, co-president of the debate team, and a volleyball player.

Include any extracurricular activities that show you can multitask and lead by example. These will help you stand out in the sea of applicants.

Community service

a group of volunteers serving food to people
Community service experiences demonstrate your commitment to engaging and bettering your communities. Photo by New Africa.

Many high schools require students to complete a certain amount of community service hours to graduate, so if your school does, you can be confident you have fulfilled this admissions standard. Some colleges want to know about your volunteer experiences.

  • Where did you volunteer?
  • Why did you choose to volunteer there?
  • What did you learn from the experience?

Many colleges value service on and off campus and might host volunteer-based clubs and trips. Your essay is an opportunity for you to express your own values and commitment to being part of a larger community. After all, the college admissions process is designed to evaluate your eligibility to fit into the school's culture. How can you contribute to the college's immediate and surrounding community?


compass with the arrow pointing at vision and mission
Consider telling a story that demonstrates how your values and goals align with those of the college you're applying to. Photo by Coloures-Pic.

Supplementary essay questions might ask how you align with the college's values, traditions, and mission statements. For example, part of Vanderbilt University's mission is to "champion equity, diversity, and inclusion in academic and scholarly activities by cultivating opportunities for collaboration and community across the University."

If you were applying to Vanderbilt, you could write an essay about how you have contributed to a culture of respecting each other's differences and encouraging a supportive environment around you. Include points like:

  • How do your goals align with those of the college?
  • How does your unique identity foster a diverse community?

Don't just state that you have a diverse perspective — show it. Tell a story demonstrating how your values align with those of the school. Remember: narrow your focus.

Current events

student stands in front of a protest
Your knowledge of current events and activism can demonstrate your passions and values. Photo by Julian.

Many schools are curious about your involvement with current events. This subject represents one of the more recently implemented supplementary prompt topics, because your activism can give a sense of your value systems and community engagement. You might be asked your opinion about a particular current event or about your participation in a movement. Be honest in answering this question. This is yet another opportunity to show your passions and extracurricular involvement.

Submitting your supplementary essays

The college admissions process can certainly be stressful, but we hope some of these tips have assuaged some of your worries about writing those extra essays. Remember that those essays are your own, so be yourself, and your personality and passion will shine through.

Header photo by terovesalainen.

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