How to Write School-Specific Supplemental Essays

Even though many colleges allow students to apply through convenient centralized application services like the Common Application, they still require students to complete supplemental application materials, which often include extra essays and short responses. These school-specific supplemental essays can quickly multiply as you add colleges to your list. Supplemental essays help colleges gauge the sincerity, commitment, and interest of students and help weed out the students who are just applying because they can. Colleges want to see why you are specifically interested in them and how you will be able to fit in and contribute on their campuses. It's important to invest significant time and energy into these supplemental essays and distinguish yourself from other applicants with your deep knowledge of and authentic interest in specific colleges. Here are some tips to help you write your school-specific supplemental essays:


1. Do your homework beyond brochures and quick facts.


Even before college application season officially kicks off, you will be inundated with colorful brochures from colleges all over the country. Colleges are aggressive marketers and try to reach students as early as possible so that they can generate student interest, increase the number of applications to their schools, and in the process, elevate their status and ranking. Colleges know that the early bird gets the worm and want to encourage students to apply and commit early to them. Regional college admissions officers will also visit local schools and communities, giving presentations about their schools, handing out brochures, and answering student and parent questions. In short, during this entire process, you will be overwhelmed with information--in print, in person, and online.


Because you will be applying to numerous colleges and most likely won't have intimate knowledge of these colleges, you will be tempted--especially as you write school-specific supplemental essays--to rely heavily on quick facts gleaned from these flashy college brochures and presentations. This would be a serious mistake for several reasons.


First, these brochures and presentations offer very superficial facts about these colleges. Statistics about the student-faculty ratio, the number of Nobel laureates, the diversity of the student body, the number of freshman seminars, the number of clubs on campus, etc. are great in theory, but if you incorporate these brochure-level facts into your essay, you will not impress your reader. It will show your reader that you did not conduct in-depth research on the college and simply relied on quick facts that a simple Google search would unearth.


Second, relying on these brochure-level superficial facts will not enable you to distinguish yourself from other students. What do you think other lazy high school seniors will be doing? Quick research based on brochures, presentations, and websites. Most students will rely on these easy facts to try to impress admissions officers, and they will fail miserably. Don't let your essay sound like all of the other essays. Show off the fact that you have actually done some serious homework on the school and that you are actually interested in the school.


Third, if you just rely on brochures and quick facts, your essay will sound very generic and broadly applicable to most colleges. Many colleges like to boast about very similar facts. You don't want to give the impression that you just copied and pasted supplemental essays from one school to the next and just swapped out the names of the schools. I'll talk about this in greater detail in the next section.


So how should you approach these essays and show that you didn't just rely on brochures and quick facts? Do your homework! There is no easy substitute for putting in the time and energy to really getting to know the colleges that you are applying to. This is important not only to make a strong impression in your supplemental essays but also to make sure that you are applying to specific colleges for the right reasons. Don't just fool yourself into thinking that you want to go somewhere because the school sent you a nice brochure with smiling faces and flashy statistics or because the school ranks highly on some list. Make sure that you would actually be a good fit there.


Study the school's website inside and out. Explore other websites and texts that offer insights. Speak to current students and alumni about their experiences. Browse the course catalog and the faculty to get a taste of the types of classes and professors at the college. Ask your college counselor for advice and speak to regional college representatives. Ask lots of questions. And especially if you plan on applying early to the school, make sure that you visit the school. Take a tour, sit it on a class, spend a night on campus. Absorb as much as you can about the school so that your essay can reflect your sincere commitment to and interest in the school. Opening the brochure is only the first step.


2. Be specific and concrete.


Writing these school-specific supplemental essays will become tedious. You will be tempted just to copy and paste supplemental essays from one application to the next and just swap out the school names. If you do plan on executing the lazy strategy of just switching a few proper names here and there and making minor detail adjustments, make sure that you do it carefully! You don't want to get caught with facts about a different school in your essay. Attention to detail is critical in your essays; making sloppy mistakes is an easy way to get cut from serious consideration by your colleges.


Ideally, when you write these school-specific supplemental essays, you should be specific and concrete. You might be wondering why you have to offer these specific and concrete details. Don't these college admissions officers already know everything about their own schools? Why do I need to be stating what the admissions officers already know? The purpose of being specific and concrete is not to educate or enlighten your admissions officers about great facts regarding their schools. Of course they already know most of the facts that you will be mentioning in your essays. The main purpose of being specific and concrete is to demonstrate a sincere interest in the school. Colleges want to know that you have thought carefully about your applications and that you know what you are getting into. They want to hear that you are excited to engage with their schools and look forward to the extraordinary opportunities that they provide.


Many of these school-specific supplemental essays will ask you why you are interested in attending a particular school. So how can you answer specifically and concretely? Let me give you some examples. If you just say that you are really excited by the numerous freshman seminars that the college offers, then your response will be quite mediocre. However, if you are able to show that you have gone through the freshman seminar catalog and are interested in particular seminars and can list a few of them by name, you will demonstrate a deeper interest and seriousness about attending the school. You should try to explain why these particular seminars interest you. Take another example: let's say that you are really excited by the superstar professors that a particular college offers. Don't just list the fact that there are X number of great professors at the school. Pick a few of these professors that really interest you and explore their research and contributions to their academic fields. If they run a lab, look into the lab and see what the lab focuses on. If they teach particular classes, then look into those as well. If they run a very unique program on campus, be able to mention that. Finally, let's say that you are really excited by the environmental initiatives and programming of a particular college. Don't just mention that fact. Dig deeper! Mention specific initiatives and programs that interest you. Explain why you are interested and how you hope to contribute.


Here is an easy litmus test to determine if your essay is specific enough to the particular college that you are applying to: if you replaced the school's name with another school's name in the essay, would your essay still make sense mostly? If the answer is yes, then you are not writing specifically enough. You need to tailor your response more specifically and narrowly to that particular school. Only when swapping out the school's name would disrupt the essay are you beginning to approach the level of specificity that will make your essay shine.


3. Minimize the storytelling.


In your main Common Application essay, many of you will engage in storytelling to capture your reader's attention and to share your experiences. When executed properly and succinctly, that kind of storytelling is great. Some colleges will provide you a second opportunity to engage in such storytelling through long and open-ended essays. For example, Harvard College usually has a supplemental essay prompt that is very open-ended and gives you an opportunity to generate a second long essay. When you are given these second opportunities to basically create a second Common Application essay, engaging in storytelling is fine. You should approach these longer and open-ended essays with a similar mindset that you had when you approached the main Common Application essay.


However, many school-specific supplemental essays will not be so long and not be open-ended. They will usually be much narrower in scope and much tighter in space. In these types of situations, you need to minimize the storytelling. Storytelling usually takes up a lot of space because you have to help the reader imagine the situation by setting up the characters, the tension, the setting, and the dialogue. In these shorter supplemental essays, you don't have the space to be doing such lengthy storytelling. I'm not saying that there is no space for storytelling, but keep the storytelling to a minimum. In these shorter essays, your responses should be more directed, specific, and narrow. Colleges want you to answer particular questions in these school-specific supplemental essays, so make sure that you do so. If you have some space to sprinkle in a pithy anecdote, great. Otherwise, focus on providing substantive responses in these shorter essays.


4. Diversify your essays.


No matter how boring a life you have lived or how boring a person you are, each of you has a unique personality and life story to share with your reader. Take advantage of supplemental essays to share more about yourself to your reader. Think of your college application like a large puzzle that you are assembling. When you finish your college application and all the puzzle pieces are together, your application reader should be able to see a clear and interesting portrait of who you are--the bigger picture. In this spirit, you should try to avoid redundancies in your application. Each puzzle piece should be playing its own unique and significant part in capturing the essence of who you are.


Thus, in each school-specific supplemental essay you write, figure out what aspect of yourself that you haven't highlighted previously you are going to share. Diversify your essays both in substance and in style. Don't just repeat and emphasize the aspects of yourself that are already obvious on your application. What are your interests? What are your talents? What engages you academically? How have you demonstrated academic curiosity? In what ways do you enjoy engaging groups and communities? If there is something on your Activity List that you haven't discussed, maybe use your supplemental essay as an opportunity to elaborate on the activity and to connect it to something specific at the college. If there is a hobby or something interesting in your background worth mentioning, try to insert those facts into your essays. Let your reader see the whole you--idiosyncrasies and all. Same goes with the style of your essays. If a few of your essays are very straightforward and serious, then maybe in other essays, try to showcase your vibrant personality and sense of humor a little bit more. Demonstrate that you have depth and character and that you are a three-dimensional person with an interesting life story and great potential.


5. Always connect it back to yourself.


In these school-specific supplemental essays, you will sometimes find yourself carried away talking about how great the school is and elaborating on all of the numerous opportunities available. Make sure that you remember that the ultimate purpose of all of these essays is to reveal things about yourself. You should always be asking yourself, "So what?" Why is this important to who you are? How does it connect to some aspect of yourself?


The best supplemental essays will seamlessly connect the past, the present, and the future. What do I mean by this? All of the exciting opportunities available at a particular college are in your future. You want to reveal how those future opportunities are meaningful to you because of who you are in the present and what you have experienced in the past. For example, let's say that you are really excited by the prospect of collaborating with Professor Green in his marine biology laboratory. If you were writing a paragraph about this in your supplemental essays, you would first mention the specific and concrete things about Professor Green and his lab that interest you. Then, you would want to connect this opportunity to your past and present. What have you done in your past that demonstrates your interest in marine biology? Have you participated in a club related to that? Have you volunteered? You also want to make clear your present interest in marine biology. Of course, your interests may change when you get to college, but you want to articulate to the reader how marine biology is something you are really interested in right now and explain why. In this way, you connect your past experiences with your present interest with the future opportunities available at a college. Connect the dots for your reader always; making your reader's job simpler will make you a more attractive candidate for admission.

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