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What You Need To Know About College-Specific Essays: Advice From Admissions Officers

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Supplemental essays can play an important role in the admission process.

Students spend lots of time and energy on their main common application essay or personal statement 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. It typically asks a creative question, such as, “You are writing an autobiography. Tell us what is on page 251,” or “Please tell us why XYZ College is a good fit for you and what specifically has led you to apply for admission.”

It is difficult to know what impact an essay will have on the admissions decision. According to Katharine Hager, admission officer at Boston College, ninety percent of the personal statement essays BC reads are of average quality and generally support the admissions committee’s decision based on the student’s academic record.

“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 statement does not have an impact on 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 primary personal statement essay than on their supplemental essays, so the latter are a better gauge of the student’s effort, writing ability, and genuine voice.

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 apply; read the mission statement. Make a list of what makes each school 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, former dean of admission at The University of Richmond 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 supplemental essay.

The Admissions Committee and Application Review

Every college has its own process for reviewing applications and how essays are used. Grace Cheng,  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.)

“Our 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. Along those lines,  the University of Richmond admission team calculates a “personal quality index.” This may include attributes such as curiosity, arrogance, fragility, a giver, risk taker, intellectual, or creative.

Link Your Academic Interests To Your Experiences

The takeaway message: know yourself and what you want from college. 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.

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.

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