College Admissions, College Essays, Supplemental Essays

Strategies for writing supplemental essays

Supplemental essays are matchmaker essays.

Let me explain.

Personal statements focus on YOU, the applicant. When you write your personal statement, the trick is to narrow all the things you could possibly say to the narrative that gives the clearest view of who you are and what you hope to accomplish.

In contrast, supplemental essays help universities select the students who are the best “fit.” Yes, your story is still essential, but telling your story as it relates to a specific school is what lands you in the sweet spot.

These school-specific essays help admissions readers determine which applicants are the most compatible with their campus’s programs, character, philosophy, values, and goals. And they ask you to get the point by limiting the word count, so there’s not enough space to hedge your bets by saying a little of everything.

Most supplemental essays have somewhere in the neighborhood of a 250-word maximum. Some counts run as low as 50 words per question. You have to be precise, concise, and convincing.

The best strategy for writing attention-grabbing supplemental essays is to put in extra work on the front end to make sure you know what you need to say before you begin drafting.

Analyze the prompt

Read each essay prompt closely. Understanding what information the university is asking you to address is crucial. Don’t just skim the first few sentences and go straight to the action item at the end.

Get out your highlighters and colored pens, and annotate all the sentences. Break down each prompt into the background of the concept, the information it asks you to give, and the mode of writing it requests (narrative, descriptive, persuasive, or expository). Circle and define any words you couldn’t explain to a five-year-old without hesitation. Once you are confident you know what the prompt is asking you to do, it’s time to do some homework.

Investigate the school

To write the most effective supplemental essay, you need to do a little research about the university. Determine the values the school promotes in its portrayal of life on campus and in the surrounding community. What is its cultural vision?

For example, if a school-specific essay topic asks you to talk about your experience with diversity, begin by defining the term in light of the school’s commitment to it. By diversity, does the school mean racial diversity? Economic diversity? Diversity in core beliefs? Is diversity centered around geography, education, age, or social status? How inclusive is the campus? Do they celebrate different styles of learning? Multiple intelligences?

You need insight. To find it, you can survey a range of resources to discover a university’s stance on any culturally relevant topic. Here are three solid places to start:

  • Visit the website. Look at the articles the school has recently posted about its programs, students, and faculty. Discover what’s new and what’s evolving. What changes are happening? What accomplishments do they celebrate? What visionary statements do they make? When they feature an individual student’s story, what do they praise? What partnerships do they have locally, nationally, and globally? What are the notable areas of research? Which programs produce thought-leaders? What opportunities do students have to make professional connections beyond the classroom?
  • Check out social media. Social media marketing highlights the best of a college’s programs and people. Often it is a tool that draws readers to the information posted on the website, but it also highlights campus life and community impact. Find those locally relevant gems. What coverage does the school give to cultural events? How do they promote sports? What happens when there’s extreme weather or a global health crisis? How does the university support students during challenging times? How does the campus interact with its neighbors? What are the school’s treasured traditions?
  • Search the news. Find recent media reports about the school—its administration, faculty, student body, employees, organizations, etc. While the website and social media give you the polished version of the university, the nitty-gritty details appear in the news. What issues face the Board of Trustees? How do the employees view working conditions? What opinions do the students have about how the school advocates for their best interests? How does the university foster campus safety and accessibility?

Researching culture and values requires efforts in discovery and analysis, but it is a critical part of preparing to write supplemental essays.

Make your match in 250ish words

Supplemental essays are short.

You have to hit the nail on the head and drive it into the wood in just a couple of hammer strokes.

I know it’s a little cliche, but honestly, the nail analogy works perfectly here. If you’ve even tried to hammer a nail, you know that you have to hold the nail at the correct angle and press it firmly against the wood. How securely you grip the nail and how accurately you hit it with the hammer combine to accomplish one of four things: you join one piece of wood to another, you smash your fingers, you dent the wood, or you bend the nail. Three out of four are negative outcomes. You have a narrow opportunity to achieve your goal. To protect yourself and your building materials, you need to hit the nail precisely, forcefully, and repeatedly.

So it goes with writing short essays.

To hit the one-out-of-four good outcome, you need to plan. You’ve already analyzed the prompt, so you know precisely the topic and approach the admissions department wants. You’ve researched the school’s culture and values as presented in intentional branded marketing, incidental campus snapshots, and external critical commentary. Now it’s time to figure out the sweet spot where your values intersect with the school’s values in light of the supplemental prompt’s topic.

To discover this connection, try using a graphic organizer like a three-column chart (Headers: School’s values, My values, Experiences that show where we connect). Once you identify the connection and the story that supports it, then you can start drafting.

I’ve found the most successful supplemental essays have the following structure.

First, identify your thesis precisely and immediately. Don’t even try to inject suspense. Supplemental essays are not the venue for a delayed opening. Second, present concrete details that prove your thesis to be true. Show first, then tell. Analyze after you’ve given concrete information. Finally, convince the reader that your presence at the university benefits both you and the school. Present an undeniable collision between your experience and the school’s values. Conclude by telling how your presence will reinforce the university’s cultural values and how your time at the university will equip you to achieve your goals.

It’s a proverbial “match made in heaven.”


Rethink your options

What happens when you’ve done all the research, and you realize there are things about the school’s culture and values that are incompatible with your values and goals? What if they aren’t supportive of your lifestyle or identity? What if they don’t embrace the free expression of your faith or political views? What if you realize they don’t have the major you need to accomplish your long-term goals?

During the writing process, you may realize a university you always thought you’d want to attend is just not a good fit. Congratulations!!! You just saved yourself (and possibly your parents) a lot of time and money.

Unless there is another reason that outweighs the mismatch, you will do best to cross this option off your list and direct your energy toward writing supplemental essays for schools that are a better fit.

Save time to revise

For many schools, supplemental essays are higher stakes than the personal statement. These school-specific essays often factor into scholarship consideration and honors college invitations. So don’t wait until the last minute to write your supplement essays just because they’re short and specific.

Save time to let your draft age just a little bit. Once you finish the initial writing, don’t look at it again for a week or two. Then, when you come back to revise it, begin by reading the prompt aloud, followed by reading your response aloud. Your ear will let you know where your transitions need work. Your eyes will find grammatical and mechanical errors too. You become your own best editor when you read your essay aloud.

As you finish your essay journey, tie up any loose ends. Check your word count. Make sure you give the admissions readers the information the prompt requests. Simplify your verbs. Vary your sentences. Persuade your audience.

Make your match.

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