Episode 144: Supplemental College Application Essays–Oh, My!

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I really was not going to do this episode.  I resisted doing our last two–one episode about The Common Application main essay (that 650-word statement that all seniors’ parents and teachers have come to loathe at this time of year) and one episode about the sad fact that our high school seniors in the U.S. cannot write.  I was glad when last week was over, and I thought that I could move on to other topics of importance in the college applications season.  And yet, I am drawn back into the quagmire of college application essays.

It gets worse.  When I started putting this episode together–this episode that I did not want to do–I figured that I could keep it short and sweet.  When I hit nine pages of text, I realized that it was not short (nor was it sweet, actually).  And so, I have done something else that I didn’t want to do.  I have planned for two episodes on this topic of supplemental essays.

Of course, I thought you might go back and re-listen to Episode 106, where we talk about supplemental essays.  But I fear you won’t, and so I am going to reprise it here and add some new, updated thoughts.  Why?  Because I have just spent a fair number of days working on college application supplemental essays for a few teenagers I work with individually–and they have confirmed my worst nightmare.  Our high school seniors cannot write these supplemental essays any better than they can write anything else.  I base this bold statement not just on the teenagers I am working with now (who are, by the way, bright students with excellent grades and admission test scores), but also on the teenagers I have worked with over the past several years.  I have read–and edited–hundreds of these supplemental essays.  And I still have more to read and edit ahead of me this season.  If I keep working with more and more teenagers every year, soon I will have 10 episodes on this topic.

Anyway, the last time we chatted about this topic was last January.  Let’s see what, if anything, you remember–in case you were listening then.

1. How Many and the Choice, If You Have One

As you probably know, supplemental essays are required by lots of colleges, especially by the highly selective ones.  Some colleges require one, some require two, and some require as many as four. If you include short-answer open-ended questions that require just a sentence or two or a list of things–for example, cultural events you have attended recently–that number of supplemental “essays” for some colleges could go up to seven.  Yikes!

Let’s look at the University of California system–a public university system with a zillion applicants (okay, zillion might be a slight exaggeration).  But not much of one.  UCLA, one of nine University of California campuses, had over 102,000 freshman applicants for this past fall.  So, how UCLA, for example, can process four essays from each applicant is, frankly, beyond me.  But the University of California has some great universities–including the University of California, Berkeley, and UCLA–and some very smart people.  Here are the directions for University of California applicants for what are called the “personal insight questions” (quoted from the University of California website):

Directions

  • You will have 8 questions to choose from. You must respond to only 4 of the 8 questions.
  • Each response is limited to a maximum of 350 words.
  • Which questions you choose to answer is entirely up to you: But you should select questions that are most relevant to your experience and that best reflect your individual circumstances.

Keep in mind

  • All questions are equal: All are given equal consideration in the application review process, which means there is no advantage or disadvantage to choosing certain questions over others.
  • There is no right or wrong way to answer these questions: It’s about getting to know your personality, background, interests and achievements in your own unique voice.

Questions & guidance

Remember, the personal questions are just that–personal. Which means you should use our guidance for each question just as a suggestion in case you need help. The important thing is expressing who you are, what matters to you and what you want to share with UC.

  1. Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes or contributed to group efforts over time.

Things to consider: A leadership role can mean more than just a title. It can mean being a mentor to others, acting as the person in charge of a specific task, or taking the lead role in organizing an event or project. Think about what you accomplished and what you learned from the experience. What were your responsibilities?

Did you lead a team? How did your experience change your perspective on leading others? Did you help to resolve an important dispute at your school, church, in your community or an organization? And your leadership role doesn’t necessarily have to be limited to school activities. For example, do you help out or take care of your family?

  1. Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.

Things to consider: What does creativity mean to you? Do you have a creative skill that is important to you? What have you been able to do with that skill? If you used creativity to solve a problem, what was your solution? What are the steps you took to solve the problem?

How does your creativity influence your decisions inside or outside the classroom? Does your creativity relate to your major or a future career?

  1. What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?

Things to consider: If there’s a talent or skill that you’re proud of, this is the time to share it. You don’t necessarily have to be recognized or have received awards for your talent (although if you did and you want to talk about it, feel free to do so). Why is this talent or skill meaningful to you?

Does the talent come naturally or have you worked hard to develop this skill or talent? Does your talent or skill allow you opportunities in or outside the classroom? If so, what are they and how do they fit into your schedule?

  1. Describe how you have taken advantage of a significant educational opportunity or worked to overcome an educational barrier you have faced.

Things to consider: An educational opportunity can be anything that has added value to your educational experience and better prepared you for college. For example, participation in an honors or academic enrichment program, or enrollment in an academy that’s geared toward an occupation or a major, or taking advanced courses that interest you–just to name a few.

If you choose to write about educational barriers you’ve faced, how did you overcome or strive to overcome them? What personal characteristics or skills did you call on to overcome this challenge? How did overcoming this barrier help shape who are you today?

  1. Describe the most significant challenge you have faced and the steps you have taken to overcome this challenge. How has this challenge affected your academic achievement?

Things to consider: A challenge could be personal, or something you have faced in your community or school. Why was the challenge significant to you? This is a good opportunity to talk about any obstacles you’ve faced and what you’ve learned from the experience. Did you have support from someone else or did you handle it alone?

If you’re currently working your way through a challenge, what are you doing now, and does that affect different aspects of your life? For example, ask yourself, “How has my life changed at home, at my school, with my friends or with my family?”

  1. Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you have furthered this interest inside and/or outside of the classroom.

Things to consider: Many students have a passion for one specific academic subject area, something that they just can’t get enough of. If that applies to you, what have you done to further that interest? Discuss how your interest in the subject developed and describe any experience you have had inside and outside the classroom–such as volunteer work, internships, employment, summer programs, participation in student organizations and/or clubs–and what you have gained from your involvement.

Has your interest in the subject influenced you in choosing a major and/or future career? Have you been able to pursue coursework at a higher level in this subject (honors, AP, IB, college or university work)? Are you inspired to pursue this subject further at UC, and how might you do that?

  1. What have you done to make your school or your community a better place?

Things to consider: Think of community as a term that can encompass a group, team or a place–like your high school, hometown or home. You can define community as you see fit, just make sure you talk about your role in that community. Was there a problem that you wanted to fix in your community?

Why were you inspired to act? What did you learn from your effort? How did your actions benefit others, the wider community or both? Did you work alone or with others to initiate change in your community?

  1. Beyond what has already been shared in your application, what do you believe makes you stand out as a strong candidate for admissions to the University of California?

Things to consider: If there’s anything you want us to know about you, but didn’t find a question or place in the application to tell us, now’s your chance. What have you not shared with us that will highlight a skill, talent, challenge or opportunity that you think will help us know you better?

From your point of view, what do you feel makes you an excellent choice for UC? Don’t be afraid to brag a little.

I think that these eight topics are sensible and fair, if not especially creative.  On balance, I think that is a good thing.  I believe that teenagers can actually write answers to these, and sometimes that is the biggest hurdle.  (To tell you the truth, I have read some quirky or overly philosophical prompts that I could not respond to at all.)  And yet, four essay questions of 350 words each is a lot of writing–especially if an applicant might have used up the answer to one of the prompts in the main Common App essay, which seems quite possible to me.

Sometimes, the topics for the supplemental essays, especially short ones, can be a bit odd, chosen perhaps to allow an applicant to show a creative or funny or witty side.  If given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a teenager choose one of the odder ones–unless that teenager is particularly creative or perhaps naturally funny or witty.

For some examples of essay topics that can be a bit odd, let’s look at the University of Chicago.  If you don’t know the University of Chicago (one of those private universities whose name makes it sound like a public university), it is an outstanding, highly selective private university in, obviously, Chicago.  Here are the directions for University of Chicago applicants (quoted from the University of Chicago website):

The University of Chicago has long been renowned for its provocative essay questions. We think of them as an opportunity for students to tell us about themselves, their tastes, and their ambitions. They can be approached with utter seriousness, complete fancy, or something in between.

Each year we email newly admitted and current College students and ask them for essay topics. We receive several hundred responses, many of which are eloquent, intriguing, or downright wacky.

As you can see from the attributions, the questions below were inspired by submissions from UChicago students and alumni. . . .

Required Question:

How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.

Extended Essay Questions:

(Required; Choose one)

Essay Option 1.

“The aim of argument, or of discussion, should not be victory, but progress.” ? Joseph Joubert

Sometimes, people talk a lot about popular subjects to assure ‘victory’ in conversation or understanding, and leave behind topics of less popularity, but great personal or intellectual importance. What do you think is important but under-discussed?

Anonymous Suggestion

Essay Option 2.

Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History… a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here.

-Inspired by Josh Kaufman, Class of 2018

Essay Option 3.

Earth. Fire. Wind. Water. Heart! Captain Planet supposes that the world is made up of these five elements. We’re familiar with the previously-noted set and with actual elements like hydrogen, oxygen, and carbon, but select and explain another small group of things (say, under five) that you believe compose our world.

-Inspired by Dani Plung, Class of 2017

Essay Option 4.

The late New York Times photographer Bill Cunningham once said “Fashion is the armor to survive the reality of everyday life. I don’t think you could do away with it. It would be like doing away with civilization.” Tell us about your “armor.”

-Inspired by Adam Berger, Class of 2020

Essay Option 5.

Fans of the movie Sharknado say that they enjoy it because “it’s so bad, it’s good.” Certain automobile owners prefer classic cars because they “have more character.” And recently, vinyl record sales have skyrocketed because it is perceived that they have a warmer, fuller sound. Discuss something that you love not in spite of but rather due to its quirks or imperfections.

-Inspired by Alex Serbanescu, Class of 2021

Essay Option 6.

In the spirit of adventurous inquiry, pose your own question or choose one of our past prompts. Be original, creative, thought provoking. Draw on your best qualities as a writer, thinker, visionary, social critic, sage, citizen of the world, or future citizen of the University of Chicago; take a little risk, and have fun.

And, by the way, some of the past prompts are truly wacky.  Choosing the right prompt in this kind of situation can make all the difference.  When I work with teenagers on this, we always talk through several options before settling on the one that seems the most appropriate and the most likely to yield a convincing, insightful essay.  And, yes, sometimes we get one written and realize that it just doesn’t work, and we have to switch prompts and start again!

So, the University of California and the University of Chicago are at the extremes, in terms of number of essays required and provocativeness of essay topics, respectively.  Parents, you might be thankful now if the colleges on your teenager’s list have just one or two slightly boring supplemental essays to complete!

2. The Word Count

Typically, supplemental essays are not as long as the main personal statement, fortunately (though I just saw one from Tulane University, where the upper limit was 800 words!).  We all know that higher word counts allow us to be a bit sloppy and that it is sometimes easier to write more rambling words than to write fewer better-chosen words.  Many supplemental essays seem to call for about 350 to 400 words, or about four meaty paragraphs, which is not really too long when you think about it.  Many of them seem to run quite a bit shorter, at about 150 to 250 words, which can be downright restricting if you actually have something to say.  Some of them–which are not really essays at all, but more like short-answer questions–ask for just 200 characters (or about 35 words), as one Ivy League school put it.

Here is the point:  Lower word limits imply a different style of writing.  While an applicant might relax into a narrative personal story in The Common App main 650-word essay, using lots of descriptive detail and many examples to elaborate the main idea, the shorter essays do not really permit that.  They need a much more focused, straightforward, get-to-the-point style if the question is to be answered effectively in far fewer words.

Now, I am sure that there are some creative writers among our current crop of college applicants who could write a brilliant poetic response to one of these shorter essay prompts.  But, I am going to state, for the record, that I have not found too many of them.

So, if you are a parent who is reading supplemental essays in the next few weeks, look for essays that make sense and that are clearly written.  They need to make a point (or two or maybe three), both effectively and efficiently.  Help your teenager edit out the extra sentences and superfluous words–including all of those that don’t contribute to the point.

One final note on word limits:  As you might already have guessed, one college’s 350-word essay topic is another college’s 150-word essay topic.  As we will talk about in our next episode, there are some topics that come up over and over again across many, many colleges.  You will quickly learn that it is truly helpful for your teenager to have a drafted long response to these topics and–just as important–a drafted short response for the same topics.  That takes some thoughtful and careful editing. Having a long version and a short version of popular essay topics–like an extracurricular activity that is particularly meaningful to you–can save a lot of time.

3.  No Thanksgiving Break:  New Episode Next Week

Next week is Thanksgiving, and we were going to take a holiday break.  However, we realized that the long Thanksgiving weekend might be just the time that some of you will use to work on supplemental essays for applications that will be due just weeks later.  So, we will have a new episode next week, which will cover the rest of the advice we have on supplemental essays.   We will bring it out on Tuesday, instead of our usual Thursday–just in time for the Thanksgiving celebration!

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