Students spend lots of time and energy on their main Common Application essay and sometimes rush through their college-specific supplemental essays without much thought or care. College admissions officers report that supplemental essays play an increasingly important role in the college application process. A supplemental essay is an extra essay beyond the personal statement or the primary application essay. These are college specific essays and typically asks a question such as, “On our campus, students engage with individuals from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, races, ethnicities, religions, and perspectives during the course of their educational and social experiences. In 250 words, please share the benefits you see in engaging with a diverse body of students, faculty, and staff,” or “Please tell us why XYZ College is a good fit for you and what specifically has led you to apply for admission.”
Understand What Each College Represents and Offers
Applying to college is a process of self-discovery and reflection. Students should spend time thinking about what they want in a college and why. Research the schools to which you plan to apply; read the mission statement and identify what resonates with you. Make a list of what makes each college a good fit for you and what you would bring to that campus to add value.
“Show that you’ve done your research. Get started early. Know yourself and our college,” says Gil Villaneuva, vice president of enrollment at Rhodes College and former president and chair of The Common Application Board of Directors.
Mr. Villaneuva also cautioned students about choosing sensitive topics. “Don’t present yourself in a way that leads us to question your emotional health. If your story is one of struggle, be sure it has a happy ending. “
Admissions officers also warned against using the space to discuss a relative who attended the college unless that story somehow tells more about the applicant. Understanding a college’s admission process is key to writing a strong essay.
The Admissions Committee and Application Review
Every college has its own process for reviewing applications and how essays are used. Grace Cheng, former director of admission at Wellesley College, also spent nine years in Harvard University’s admissions department. She says that admissions counselors, some faculty, and even some undergraduate students review applications at Wellesley. They have no cut-offs in terms of GPA or test scores, and they read every essay.
The Wellesley required supplemental essay asks:
We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but the “Wellesley 100” is a good place to start. Visit the Wellesley 100 and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why. (PS: “Why” matters to us.)
“The Wellesley 100 supplemental question requires the applicant to significantly research our website,” said Cheng. “It’s a weed-out because the prompt is so unusual. Our site is pretty informal and cheeky so we expect less formality in students’ responses as well.”
In addition to students saying why they like the college, admissions officers want to know what each student will bring to their campus. Colleges want to admit students who will get involved on campus by staffing the newspaper, DJing a radio show, performing in orchestra, filling the intramural sports rosters and volunteering in the community. They look to see if you were engaged in your high school or community as a way to see where you might fit on campus.
Link Your Academic Interests To Your Experiences
The takeaway message: know yourself and what you want from college. If you want to study engineering and are asked the reason then be sure to share a story about an engineering-related experience such as your robotics team or an engineering research project. If you are not sure about a major and are asked about academics, focus on the classic liberal arts and science curricula and be prepared to discuss what academic areas you want to explore in college and why. Connect those reasons to your background and experiences by sharing a story that brings your points to life.
Start thinking about your supplemental questions early—the questions are usually available on August 1st. Since admissions staff will review your responses carefully, your answers to these questions can significantly impact your admissions decision.
It isn’t easy to know how an essay will impact the admissions decision. According to Katharine Hager, admission officer at Boston College, ninety percent of the personal statement essays that BC reads are of average quality, and the admissions committee is basing its decision more on the student’s academic record and extracurricular contributions.
“Five percent of the essays are amazing and lead to an accepted decision and another five percent are disappointing, leading to a denial,” said Hager.
In short, most of the time the personal essay for college does not impact the admissions decision. That is one reason why college-specific supplemental essay questions are becoming more and more important. College admissions officers also realize that students get more help on their Common Application essays than on their supplemental essays, so the latter are a better gauge of the student’s effort, writing ability, and genuine voice.