• Beth & Tim Manners

The Secret of Supplemental Essays

So much energy is expended on the “main essay” that the supplemental questions sometimes get short shrift. This is likely exacerbated because these school-specific prompts are often presented as “optional.” Of course, everybody knows that this isn’t really true, and that if you really want to be accepted, you had better take the time to answer these questions, and answer them well.

In fact, some admissions counselors have told us that they read the supplementals before the main essay because their quality can reflect the applicant’s true level of interest.

While some schools use the supplements to try to get a better sense of student personalities and how they think, the most commonly asked question is some form of “Why do you want to attend our school?” It is a deceptively complex question that requires students not only to deep-dive research the school but also look inside themselves to figure out why they feel the way they do about spending the next four years of their lives there.

The biggest mistake many students make, according to the counselors with whom we spoke, is to treat the question generically, and basically submit the same answer to every school. As one counselor told us: “The response has to pass the white-out test.”

What do you most like to see in the "why our college" question?

We asked our respondents to identify what’s most important to cover in the “why our college” question, and received a broad array of responses. Numbers one and two were “references to campus culture” (60%) and “personal anecdotes” (55%).

So, again, the gold standard is to try to elicit an emotional connection to the school, most probably based on something seen, heard, felt, smelled or otherwise experienced while visiting campus. How best to capture this is a difficult question, but being mindful and aware of a particular, specific moment, and then distilling it into words, is a possibility. Finding connections between the school’s mission and values and the student’s, is another.

If that just doesn’t quite happen, other less spiritual, opportunities abound. Simply visiting the school’s website and finding courses, professors, research and study abroad opportunities, internships, special programs (e.g., first-year programs), and clubs can be a direct path to a convincing answer. Our survey respondents said they like to see references to any and all of the above.

Next Thursday: Conquering Teacher Recommendations

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