Supplemental Essays:  Finishing Strong

By College Counseling

Filling out college applications is a lot like running a marathon.  It tests your training, perseverance, and endurance; that is the whole point.  Too many high school students treat the supplementary parts of the application as a cool-down exercise instead of the elimination round of final laps where only the strongest runners finish ahead of the pack.


Supplemental essays are required by many colleges, and each prompt is unique to each school.  In fact, a wise way to gain insight about the culture of the college is to peruse the prompts from years past.  For example, a few years ago, the University of Chicago asked applicants to answer this question, “Why the Y-axis?”  One high-schooler that I was consulting from Fairfield County, CT addressed this quandary with fervor as he enjoyed intellectual debates. Another student from Litchfield County, CT opted to remove this college from her list, taking it as confirmation of the rumor that U of C is “where fun goes to die”.  This second student was more comfortable applying to Northwestern University, where the supplemental essay posed a more common question: “Why are you interested in attending our college?”  Sometimes the nature of the additional inquiries directs students to right-fit colleges.


Nonetheless, the common “why this school” question should be approached from the student’s unique perspective.  When explaining a desire to attend the school, applicants should argue why they are the right choice for the school, not why the school is the right fit for them, even though the prompt leads the writer in that direction.  Unlike the essays of high-school exams where a student is encouraged to directly answer the prompt by repeating the question, colleges are hopeful for responses that thoroughly answer the question, but not in a typical way.   Consider the applicant who begins her “Why Northwestern University?” supplemental essay by writing an article about herself in the future after availing herself of all NU has to offer.  Not only does her creative approach showcase a deep understanding of the characteristics and offerings of the college, but it features her journalistic abilities important for admission into the top-ranked Medill School of Journalism.


Are supplemental essays less important than the main college essay featured on the Common Application used by thousands of colleges?  NO, not at all.  For colleges that require them, they add another layer to the product that is your application.  Even essay questions that are presented as optional by the colleges should be answered.  The school is inviting you to reveal more of yourself, declining the invitation would be a missed opportunity.  Colleges seek students who are go-getters and risk-takers, and writers of optional essays.  All supplemental essays should not be repetitive versions of your main essay, they should show different angles of your personality, interests, and strengths.


Other supplemental parts of the application include options to submit extra recommenders, slideshow attachments, and any further explanations or facts unknown about you separate from other parts of the application.  These sections should only be addressed if they add something worthwhile to your candidacy.  One student from Branford, CT delivered a keynote speech at a teachers’ luncheon.  It was an honorary designation which she mentioned in the Honors section of her application.  But after some discussion, she opted not to send in the video of her speech as there was nothing about it that justified taking time from the admissions office to view it.  Remember who your audience is and be respectful of their time.  With additional recommenders or portfolios, make sure that their inclusion augments your presentation of self.  Use good judgment, the choices you make on the application are reflective of your persona being reviewed by the college decision makers.


When final admissions decisions are being made, you want to make the cut with an application that argues on your behalf every step of the race to the finish line, the winners’ circle, and the list of names of the incoming freshman class.