Step-by-Step Guide on How to Write a Supplemental Essay for College

writing a supplemental essay

Step-by-Step Guide on How to Write a Supplemental Essay for College

Published on November 20, 2023

writing a supplemental essay

Understanding the nuances of supplemental essays in college applications is crucial for aspiring college students. This article delves into what a supplemental essay is, its importance in the college admissions process, and how it differs from the Common App essay. It provides a comprehensive guide on writing effective supplemental essays, including strategies to showcase your fit with a college and tips to address various essay prompts.

What Is a Supplemental Essay?

In addition to the main personal statement for the Common Application, many schools include their own college-specific essays, also known as supplemental essays. These additional pieces of writing give admissions officers the chance to get to know you better.

Many students might not know some schools will ask for additional essays. These writing supplements are usually shorter than the main college essay but are no less important.

Some colleges ask for just one supplemental essay, while others may require several. Most of the more selective colleges will require at least one additional essay, and some may require several essays.

How a Supplemental Essay Differs from the Common App Essay

A supplemental essay is targeted to one college, while the Common App personal statement essay accompanies your Common Application, which can go to multiple colleges of your choice. As a result, supplemental essays are usually more specific and designed to showcase your fit with the college.

Here are the three key differences between supplemental essays and the Common App essay:

  • Specificity and focus:One of the most significant distinctions between the Common App and supplemental essays is the required specificity and focus. The Common App essay prompts are intentionally broad, allowing you to choose a topic that speaks to your experiences, values, or interests. In contrast, supplemental essays are often college-specific and require you to address particular questions or prompts related to that institution.

Colleges design supplemental essays to assess your genuine interest in them. . Admissions committees want to know why you’re choosing them. You must demonstrate a deep understanding of the college’s values, programs, and opportunities to excel in these essays. Avoid generic responses and instead tailor your writing to highlight the unique aspects of the school.

  • Word count:The word limit for the Common App personal statement is 650 words, while supplemental essays are usually shorter. Most supplementals range from 100 words to 500 words. However, some are 800 to 1,000 words, longer than the Common App essay.
  • Showcasing your fit:Supplemental essays provide an excellent opportunity to showcase your “fit” with a college. Admissions officers are looking for students who will succeed academically and thrive within their campus culture. Therefore, these essays often ask questions like “Why do you want to attend this college?” or “How will you contribute to our community?”

To effectively answer these questions, research the college thoroughly and identify specific aspects that align with your goals and values. Consider the college’s mission statement, core values, and any specific essay prompts provided.  Mention unique programs, professors, extracurricular activities, or campus initiatives that resonate with you. Explain how your background, experiences, and aspirations make you a perfect match for their community. Use anecdotes, examples, and personal stories to illustrate your fit and commitment.

How to Write a Supplemental Essay

Writing a standout supplemental essay requires a thoughtful and strategic approach. To help you craft a compelling response that sets you apart from other applicants, follow these essential steps:

  1. Thoroughly Research the College or University

Before writing, delve deep into the college or university you’re applying to. Familiarize yourself with its programs, campus culture, values, and mission. Look for specific information that resonates with you and aligns with your academic and personal goals. Take notes on what makes this institution unique and why it fits you well. The more you know, the better you can tailor your essay to demonstrate your genuine interest.

  1. Understand the Prompt

Carefully read and understand the supplemental essay prompt or question provided by the college. Identify the key themes or elements the admissions committee seeks in your response. Be sure to address every aspect of the prompt and follow any specific instructions or word limits. Misinterpreting the prompt can lead to a disjointed or irrelevant essay.

  1. Brainstorm Ideas

Once you understand the prompt, brainstorm ideas for your essay. Think about your experiences, achievements, challenges, and goals related to the college’s values and mission. Consider how your unique perspective and background can contribute to their community. Create an outline or list of potential talking points and anecdotes to incorporate into your essay.

  1. Craft a Strong Thesis Statement

Your supplemental essay should have a clear and concise thesis statement that encapsulates the main message you want to convey. This statement should directly address the prompt and highlight your fit with the college or university. It serves as a guiding principle for the rest of your essay and helps you maintain focus.

  1. Tell a Compelling Story

Effective supplemental essays often tell a compelling story. Use vivid and descriptive language to engage the reader. Share personal anecdotes or experiences that illustrate your connection to the college and demonstrate your qualifications. Show, don’t just tell, how you align with the institution’s values and contribute to its community.

  1. Provide Specific Examples

Back up your claims with specific examples and evidence. If you mention a program or initiative at the college that excites you, explain why it’s meaningful to you and how you plan to get involved. Use concrete details to paint a vivid picture of your contributions and aspirations.

  1. Edit and Revise

Writing a strong supplemental essay often involves multiple drafts. After writing your initial draft, take a break and return to it with fresh eyes. Look for areas where you can improve clarity, coherence, and conciseness. Check for grammar and spelling errors. Seek feedback from teachers, peers, or mentors to gain different perspectives and refine your essay further. Make sure you stay within the word count.

  1. Proofread Carefully

Before submitting your essay, proofread it meticulously. Typos and grammatical errors can detract from your professionalism and attention to detail. Use spell-check tools and consider reading your essay aloud to catch any awkward or unclear sentences.

  1. Seek Feedback

Feel free to seek feedback from trusted individuals, such as teachers, counselors, or experienced writers. They can provide valuable insights and suggestions for improving your essay. Be open to constructive criticism and be willing to make revisions based on their feedback.

  1. Final Review

Once you’ve made the necessary revisions, review your essay to ensure it meets all the prompt’s requirements and aligns with the college’s values. Confirm that your writing flows smoothly and effectively conveys your message.

Supplemental Essay Prompt Examples

The most popular supplemental essay prompt is a “Why Us?” question. Colleges ask this question to find out why the student is applying to this institution and why they have listed a specific major or program. 

The best way to approach this question is to consider your visit, do more research, and find an angle no one else will use to capture how differently you see yourself and that specific college.

Another popular supplemental essay prompt asks students to write about an extracurricular or job-related experience. It’s good to save this type of experience for a supplemental essay instead of using it in the main college essay.

The following are actual supplemental essay prompts from a sample of colleges:

  • Yale University: “Tell us about a topic or idea that excites you and is related to one or more academic areas you selected above. Why are you drawn to it?” 
  • Cornell University: “In the aftermath of the U.S. Civil War, Ezra Cornell wrote, “I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study.” For over 150 years, Cornell University has remained deeply committed to Ezra’s vision. Explain how your life experiences will help inform your contributions to a learning community devoted to “…any person…any study.” We encourage you to think broadly about your life experiences, including how local (e.g., family, school, neighborhood) or global communities you’ve been part of have helped shape your perspective.”
  • Duke University:  “What is your sense of Duke as a university and a community, and why do you consider it a good match for you?  If there’s something in particular about our offerings that attracts you, feel free to share that as well.”
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT): “MIT brings people with diverse backgrounds together to collaborate, from tackling the world’s biggest challenges to lending a helping hand. Describe one way you have collaborated with others to learn from them, with them, or contribute to your community together.”
  • University of Georgia: “The transition from middle to high school is a key time for students as they reach new levels of both academic and personal discovery. Please share a book (novel, non-fiction, etc.) that had a serious impact on you during this time. Please focus more on why this book made an impact on you and less on the plot/theme of the book itself (we are not looking for a book report).”
  • University of Vermont: “If you could pick one song to be the soundtrack of your life, what would it be? What is your connection to the song?”
  • Rutgers University: “You indicated interest in honors community consideration and participation.  Please share with us your concept of an educational challenge that interests you, and how you anticipate meeting this challenge at Rutgers through your involvement in an honors program.  Your response can be up to 500 words.”
  • University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill: “Discuss one of your personal qualities and share a story, anecdote, or memory of how it helped you make a positive impact on a community. This could be your current community or another community you have engaged.”
  • Virginia Tech: “Virginia Tech’s motto is “Ut Prosim” which means ‘That I May Serve’. Share how you contribute to a community that is important to you. How long have you been involved? What have you learned and how would you like to share that with others at Virginia Tech?”
  • Wake Forest: “Dr. Maya Angelou, renowned author, poet, civil-rights activist, and former Wake Forest University Reynolds Professor of American Studies, inspired others to celebrate their identities and to honor each person’s dignity. Choose one of Dr. Angelou’s powerful quotes. How does this quote relate to your lived experience or reflect how you plan to contribute to the Wake Forest community?”
  • Johns Hopkins: “Tell us about an aspect of your identity (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, religion, community, etc.) or a life experience that has shaped you as an individual and how that influenced what you’d like to pursue in college at Hopkins.? (This can be a future goal or experience that is either academic, extracurricular, or social).”
  • Purdue University: “How will opportunities at Purdue support your interests, both in and out of the classroom? (Respond in 250 words or fewer.)”
  • Vassar College: “At Vassar, we aim to foster an inclusive community through our philosophy of engaged pluralism. Engaged pluralism is rooted in “the conviction that collaborating across differences is necessary for social transformation and critical for the well-being of any community and its members.” In short, we believe it’s our differences that make us stronger. Tell us a little bit about an important part of your identity and how it has shaped your life and/or interactions with others.” 

Organizing Multiple Supplemental Essays

Some schools require more than supplemental essays, and you’re probably applying to several colleges. So, that means you need to keep track of the essays and their deadlines. Use a spreadsheet or a text document to list the colleges and prompts in order of their deadlines. 

This will keep you on track and help you identify similarities between prompts. You can use similar ideas in different supplemental essays if appropriate

Do You Want 1-1 Essay Coaching and Editing?

Road2College provides 1-1 essay coaching and editing with professionals. We can help you brainstorm ideas, choose approaches, organize the essay, and write, edit, and polish it. We offer a full package or a final review. Check out all of our services here.


Use R2C Insights to help find merit aid and schools that fit the criteria most important to your student. You’ll not only save precious time, but your student will avoid the heartache of applying to schools they aren’t likely to get into or can’t afford to attend.  

Other Articles You Might Like:

College Essay Examples, Why They Worked, and Essay Tips

Use the Secrets of Screenwriting to Write Your College Essay

Colleges Without Supplemental Essays




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