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Now that the Common App has reset and most colleges have updated their applications as of Aug. 1, college application season is in full swing! Typically, the most time-intensive aspect of this process is essay writing. While many colleges require a general personal statement that can be sent to many different schools, quite a few colleges require students to also write “supplemental essays.” Although these will be sent to only one school, your supplemental essay responses are just as important as your general personal statement — and sometimes, even more important! Read on for tips on how to tackle these essays before senior year begins!

What are supplemental essays?

While the personal statement is written to a more general audience (since it gets sent to all or most of the schools that a student is applying to), supplemental essays are required by specific schools and written with a more specific audience in mind: the admissions team of the school that the prompt is provided by. Supplemental essays can vary in subject and length, and on occasion, the prompts can be quite creative or unusual; for instance, during this year’s admissions cycle some supplemental prompts included “What can actually be divided by zero?” (U Chicago), “What historical moment or event do you wish you could have witnessed?” (Stanford), and “Name three songs from your perfect playlist” (Elon). 

More commonly, however, supplemental essay prompts tend to ask students to address topics like their intellectual interests, community involvement, or why they want to attend a particular school. Both these more “typical” prompts and the more unique ones are intended to serve the same purpose: to help schools learn more about a student and where they might fit into that particular school’s academic community.  

The “Why” Essay

By far the most common supplemental essay prompt is what we like to call the “Why” essay, which asks students some variation of “Why do you want to attend this school?” For instance, this is the prompt for UW Madison’s required supplemental essay: 

“Tell us why you would like to attend the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In addition, please include why you are interested in studying the major(s) you have selected. If you selected undecided, please describe your areas of possible academic interest (650 word maximum).”  

Note that this prompt asks some questions beyond just why students want to attend the university. It is crucial to carefully read and break down the text of the prompt to make sure that you’re actually answering the question that’s asked! 

It is also important that you take the opportunity to write about both your own interests and the school’s offerings, so that you can demonstrate how they complement each other. (In other words, don’t just write about how great the school is without inserting yourself into the narrative – the school already knows that they’re great, but they want to know why they’re a great fit for you!)

Do your research!

For many supplemental essays (but especially the “Why” essay), it’s good to find opportunities to be specific about what draws you to a particular school and why it is a strong fit for your goals and interests. Colleges want you to show “demonstrated interest” in their school, and one way of doing that is to include in your supplemental essays evidence that you’ve done your research about their unique academic offerings and campus culture. Including specific information about courses you hope to take, clubs or organizations you plan to participate in, or campus traditions that you learned about on your tour can be an impactful way of showing that you’re truly interested in the school and see it as a perfect fit.

Questions to Consider

Even before beginning any of your supplemental essays, there are some general questions that might be helpful to brainstorm and use as prompts for freewriting or bullet points:

  • What are you interested in studying in college? What academic, work, or personal experiences have led you to this decision, and what skills and experiences do you hope to gain in college related to this subject?
  • What kinds of extracurricular experiences do you hope to have in college? What extracurricular activities have been most meaningful to you in high school, and why?
  • What communities are you a part of, and how have you contributed to those communities? (Community can be defined broadly – it could refer to location, clubs/organizations, religious affiliation, ethnicity/nationality, friendships and familial ties, and more.)
  • What are the main values, traits, or identities that you want colleges to know about that may not show up in other parts of your application?

Doing some of this initial thinking will make it easier to decide how you want to respond to particular supplemental prompts, as well as potentially helping you refine what exactly you’re looking for in a college. Happy writing!

Feeling like you could use some extra support getting started? Get help from our team of experienced essay coaches here at Galin! Email ethan@galined.com.


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