College Essays, Supplemental Essays, Teacher Resources

How to analyze supplemental essay prompts

When you write the wrong response to an essay prompt, it stinks for everyone involved—applicant, writing coach, admissions reader—everyone.

It’s not unlike the U.S. Presidential debates when the moderator asks, “What is your stance on forgiving college debt?” And the candidate rails against the impact of the pandemic and remote learning on student learning.

Yes, the question and answer both had to do with something in education.

Sure, college-debt forgiveness is controversial, and so were pandemic health and safety guidelines for public schools.

Absolutely, both finances and attention spans are limited resources that strain individuals and families alike.

But chances are, a rant solely focused on COVID restrictions in education does not reveal a plan for education debt relief.

In politics, we roll our eyes and say that the candidate is dodging the question. Sometimes we turn the channel on the debate. Sometimes we decide that if a candidate can’t address the question directly, maybe that person won’t heed our voices either. Consequences vary.

Off-topic responses happen frequently in college essay writing too. They are costly mistakes for the applicant that, at best, make you look lazy and, at worst, make you look incompetent. Neither look benefits your admissions chances.

To avoid heading down the wrong road on your essay, start by knowing where you’re going.

You need to analyze the prompts.

You’ve done a close reading of literature before, right? Here’s where those skills you learned in English class pay off big in the real world.

Let’s walk through an example together. This model comes from the Application Prompts for Fall 2021 page for the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I chose an old prompt to focus on the skills instead of the actual content. These skills apply to pretty much any prompt you will encounter. You can take them with you wherever you go.

Hark the sound of Tar Heel admissions

Since most applications are fully online, I took screenshots of the essay prompts page and uploaded them to Notability. I liked the look and spacing of landscape orientation. You follow your preference for formatting. After a couple of adjustments for size and spacing, I was able to get everything I needed onto one page in Notability.

You don’t have to use Notability. You can use any note-taking app that allows you to highlight, underline, and write margin notes. Or you can copy and paste the text into a Google doc and highlight, underline, and write comments there. You can print the page and annotate on paper. It doesn’t matter what tools you use; it just matters that you get the analysis done. You do whatever works for you.

Let’s look at this essay section part-by-part. UNC begins with background information.


The introductory sentence helps you know that you are in the right place:

  • Did you mean to apply to UNC? Yes? Good.
  • Are you a first-year or a transfer applicant? Yes? Welcome.
  • Did you intend to apply during the 2020-2021 application season? You did? Awesome.

Now that we’re confident we’re looking at the right information let’s get into the body of the background section.

Three strong verbs organize the objectives underlying the supplemental essays: aspire, believe, and hope.

Aspire means to work toward attaining a goal. Without getting super grammatical, whatever is on the other side of aspire is the object of aspiration. The object of UNC’s aspiration is “…to build a diverse and inclusive community at Carolina….” In your supplemental responses, you will want to show that you are eager to join the university in building that community.

Believe sneaks into the mix in the second half of the sentence that begins with “We aspire….” It clarifies the how behind attaining the goal, the object of aspiration. It points toward a core belief “…that students can only achieve their best when they learn alongside students from different backgrounds.” As you write these prompts, keep in mind that UNC sees diversity in its student body as foundational to personal success. So ponder how your presence will both contribute to and benefit from UNC’s diverse community.

Hope as a verb reveals the overall objective for all the prompts. The admissions readers want to find out “what being a member of such a community would mean to you.” Each prompt gives you a chance to share this information from your personal experience. You can point out how a diverse and inclusive community at UNC continues a trajectory you’ve established thus far in your life. Or you can show how attending a school alongside people from a myriad of backgrounds will help you learn so much more in college than you did in high school because it offers you experiences you’ve craved but never had before.

You’ve not even looked at the actual prompts yet, but already you know that your responses need to hit these three concepts:

  • building a diverse and inclusive community at Carolina,
  • achieving your best because you’re able to learn alongside students from different backgrounds, and
  • showing the admissions readers what being a member of a diverse and inclusive community would mean to you.

You might even want to write down these three points before you start brainstorming the individual prompts. Keep coming back to them as you analyze the prompts, select which ones you’ll write, survey your life experiences, organize your response, and draft your essays.


I have a lengthy, well-worn speech about the dangers of failing to read essay directions, but I’m still a little bitter from years of delivering said speech, so let’s move on.

Carolina labels their supplemental essays “UNC-specific short answer prompts.”

Note that you need to write only TWO of the prompt essays they offer as options.

You have a word count of 200-250. That is short.

It’s not as short as the 25-,30-, or 50-word responses that other schools require, but neither does it give you room to wander around before getting to the point.

Prompt Option 1

What does expand on mean?

My BFF Merriam-Webster says that it means “to speak or write about (something) in a more complete or detailed way.” Wait. “more complete or detailed way” implies that you’ll be talking about something you’ve already expressed. Hmmm. Let’s check another dictionary.

Ah, here’s how Cambridge defines expand on: “to give more details about something you have said or written.”

My buddies over at bury expand on at number seven in their list of definitions. Still, it says, “to express something more fully or in greater detail (usually followed by on or upon),” followed by an example.

Let’s see, what do all three of these definitions have in common?

  • You have identified a topic.
  • You’re going to use details to talk about it more fully.

Let’s look at this task in light of the prompt’s wording.

You’re going to expand on an aspect of your identity. The article an means ONE. You do not have the word count to get into multiple facets of your identity. The prompt asks for (and you should stick to) ONE.

You’re going to expand on an aspect of your IDENTITY. Identity is a big, abstract concept, so let’s see if the prompt helps us narrow what the readers might be looking for. Ah! It says, “…for example, your religion, culture, race, sexual or gender identity, affinity group, etc.” You’ve got concrete examples of identities in the list, but you also have the freedom to go beyond those items listed. That permission comes in the outer sandwich of “for example” and “etc.”

An aspect of identity may be obvious as soon as you read the prompt, or you might want to take a few minutes to look up the keywords in the suggested options list. Sometimes reading the definition of a word sparks connections. Examining the meaning might pull you out of the ruts of conventional thinking and into the creative realm that makes for more memorable essays.

You’re going to choose one aspect of your identity and expand on it. That’s a two-part essay.

Start with presenting what this aspect of your identity looks like in your life. Give enough detail to help the reader see clearly.

Then answer the question — “How has this aspect of your identity shaped your life experiences thus far?”

Remember you’re writing to address the vision, core belief, and writing objective presented in the background paragraph. The identity aspect and impact should demonstrate how your values and experience align with the university.

Prompt Option 2

This prompt is clearly about changing one thing about where you live. It’s divided into two parts—1) what you would change, and 2) why you would change it. Straightforward, right?

Not so fast. What does the prompt mean by “where you live”? Is it your house? Is it your neighborhood? city? town? state? Is it your country? continent? hemisphere? planet?

Hmmm. Good question.

The ambiguity can be either inspiring or overwhelming.

The UNC applicants I worked with last year who responded to this prompt took “where you live” to mean different things, and I think that’s OK.

You can go as small or as big as you want as long as you clearly and concisely explain what you would change and why you would change it. Keep in mind that your essay should show the aspiration of building diversity and inclusion, the core belief that students achieve best when surrounded by people of different backgrounds, and the request to show what being a member of a diverse and inclusive community means to you.

Prompt Option 3

Describe typically means to give sensory details about the subject. You absolutely can do that in this essay, but the second sentence asks you to focus on actions, so the bulk of your discussion of this inspirational person is going to center around what they did and what impact it had on you.

Narrow the subject. This prompt asks for an inspirational person essay: “Describe someone you see as a community builder… How has their work made a difference in your life?” Although the directions request a description of someone else, the purpose is to reveal your values regarding community building. So tell the story in light of how it encouraged and inspired you.

Note the latitude the prompt gives you in choosing a community builder. It could be a family member, a friend, a religious leader, a politician, a writer, a social media influencer, etc. You decide.

Prompt 2 invites you to discuss negative elements of your community that you long to see changed. In contrast, Prompt 3 encourages you to share your positive experiences with community building.

The Common App

Following their school-specific prompts, UNC mentions the Common App essay and gives you a few reminders.

First, it’s 250-650 words in length, so longer than the UNC supplemental essays.

Second, the prompts are the same for all Common App schools, which means that you need to use that space to highlight your personal story and not try to tailor it to a particular university.

Third, COVID-19 overshadowed everything, so you have a chance to call out its impact on you if you want to.

UNC’s mention of the Common App essays is encouragement for you to keep your details fresh. Don’t write about the same people and experiences in your supplemental essays that you already address in your Common App essay.

But wait, there’s more

For first-year students, the supplemental essays factor in the admissions decision and facilitate selection for merit-based scholarships, assured enrollment programs, scholars programs, research programs, and global opportunities.

Supplemental essays are high-stakes writing opportunities. Put in the work to understand the prompts to write your best essays for the highest rewards.

Great writing starts with great thinking. Begin your thought process by understanding the prompts. You can’t write what you don’t know.


This screenshot shows a comprehensive prompt analysis. It identifies key components, defines essential concepts, and notes the school’s requirements for responses. Once you have analyzed the prompt, then it’s time to start brainstorming.

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