Episode 106: The Nightmare of the Supplemental College Application Essays

Listen to the episode in the player, download it here, or subscribe on Google Play MusiciTunesStitcher, or TuneIn.

We are still in Series 9, The Last Minute. That’s because we told you in our last episode that many colleges, including some top-ranked public and private ones, were still accepting applications–and will be doing so right through January and February, with some into March and April, and a few even beyond that. So, if you have a high school senior at home and he or she intends to take advantage of that fact, this episode is for you. And perhaps equally important, but less urgent: If you have a high school junior at home, this episode is for your family big time.

We have talked on numerous occasions (most recently in Episode 98) about the dreaded college application main essay or personal statement. This is the place in The Common Application where your teenager is asked to write about 650 words on his or her choice of one of five prescribed topics. Everybody talks about this essay (including us), and everybody has lots of advice about how to produce a memorable piece of work (including us).

But we are going to talk today about a slightly different topic, which we also addressed briefly back in Episode 98. This is one that I have been painfully focused on for the past couple of weeks, and it is the college application supplemental essay.

My personal story goes something like this: I had worked with a number of students here in New York City on their Common App main essays over the course of the fall months. I probably read and edited (that is, edited back and forth with the students) more than 50 of them. Suddenly, just before Christmas, some of these students started emailing me their supplemental essays and asking whether I might give them some guidance and some help in editing them. I made the “mistake” of helping the first few students, and I guess word got around. As January 1 deadlines approached, more and more students sent me more and more supplemental essays. Some kids sent as many as a dozen across six or seven different colleges! Having read and edited with students perhaps 100 supplemental essays in the past several weeks, I now feel like something of an expert on the topic. So, let me pass on what I learned in the trenches.

1. Supplemental Essays: The Word Count

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 even more (at last count, I put one Ivy League institution at seven open-ended questions calling for answers of various lengths, though not all actual essays). Typically, supplemental essays are not as long as the main personal statement, fortunately–although we all know that higher word counts allow us to be a bit sloppy and it is sometimes easier to write more rambling words than to write fewer better-chosen words.

Many of these 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 100 to 150 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 put it.

Here is the point: These word limits are very different, but they are all way lower than the 650-word personal statement. These lower word limits imply a different style of writing. While an applicant might relax into a narrative personal story in the 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. Most high school kids are going to have enough trouble writing a coherent, logical response, which gets in some important facts and pertinent background information and perhaps an insightful opinion or two.

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(s). Because we all know that getting down to 100 words can be brutal.

One final note on word limits: As you might already know or could have guessed, one college’s 400-word essay topic is another college’s 150-word essay topic. Obviously, as we will talk about in a minute, 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. Believe me, having a long version and a short version of popular essay topics can help you speed through the supplemental answer nightmare.

2. Supplemental Essays: The Tone

So, let’s talk about tone. I am going to use “tone” here to mean both the attitude the writer has toward the subject (or content) of the essay and the attitude the writer has toward the audience (and by “audience,” we mean, of course, the college admissions staff). I have already said that I think that most supplemental essays call for a straightforward, academic, somewhat formal tone. Yes, the applicant will be writing about his or her personal background, ideas, and even opinions, but not in the words he or she would use if writing to a friend or a relative or perhaps even to his or her own teacher.

This doesn’t mean the essays have to be stuffy or dry or boring. An applicant’s personality can shine through even though the writing is not chatty. Maybe that’s the style applicants should strive for: personality, with decorum and appropriateness.

Let me say that one of the worst problems I found with tone was my high school seniors’ gushing over how wonderful the college is or what great students go there or what fantastic and potentially helpful alumni it has. To take one example, the kids often wrote about a college’s “Nobel Prize-winning professors” or “world-famous professors who are doing brilliant research” or “dedicated professors.” Parents, explain to your teenagers that colleges know how great their professors are and they don’t need a high school senior to tell them. It is fine to be admiring and polite, of course; but, gushing just sounds naïve and unsophisticated. I would settle for “well-known” or “highly respected professors” instead, if you really want to talk about them. So, let’s shoot for admiring and polite, but not over-the-top.

3. Supplemental Essays: The Likely Topics

Some of the topics for the supplemental essays, especially the shorter ones, are a bit odd, chosen perhaps to allow an applicant to show his or her creative side. If given a choice among essay topics, I rarely recommend that a kid choose one of the odder ones–unless that kid is particularly creative or perhaps naturally funny or witty.

However, there are several often-used and often not-optional topics that your teenager should have a longer (about 350 words) answer and shorter (about 100 words) answer for:

  • “Why our college” or “Why is our college a good fit for you” or “How will our college contribute to your goals and interests” or some version of that–As we said in Episode 98, this topic virtually requires your teenager to read up about the college and refer, in the essay, to what he or she has learned from that research. For example, an applicant could reference the college’s diversity or academic strengths or curriculum or research opportunities for students or community outreach efforts or faith-based mission or something else. If this is one of the longer-length essays, then the applicant will need to reference several things about the college.

Remember: This is an essay that is not easily used from college to college because of the specifics about the college, so tell your teenager to be careful about trying to get double duty out of it. This is precisely the kind of essay that can cause some teenagers to become a bit gushy and overly complimentary, so watch out for that, too. By the way, if this is the only supplementary essay required by a college, then your teenager can write about his or her interest in a field of study that the college offers; but, if there are more supplementary essays for the college, your teenager probably is going to need to save that content for a different essay.

  • “How can you contribute to our college” or “What can you bring to our college” or “Our students live in suites, so what would you bring to your suitemates” or some version of that–This is the reverse of the previous topic, like “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” This essay has to be about what traits and skills and talents your teenager has–like commitment to community service or love of research or musical talent or athletic prowess–and how those will be a plus for the college if your teenager is admitted. Again, if this is one of the longer-length essays, then your teenager will likely need to write about several of his or her traits or skills or talents in order to make his or her best case.

It’s hard to write this essay without sounding boastful, so watch the tone. Again, if this is the only supplementary essay, then your teenager can write about his or her interest in a field of study that the college offers and how he or she might contribute to classes or projects in that field; but, if there are more supplementary essays for the college, your teenager is probably going to need to save that for a different essay.

  • “Why are you interested in the field of study you are proposing to major in” or some version of that–We frequently see applicants write a version of this essay for the main Common App essay or personal statement. That is a serious mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about his or her field of academic interest for this supplemental essay if this is one that a college requires. For example, whatever led to his or her interest in art or French or electrical engineering or something else–all of that goes into this essay.

This is also the place to look carefully on the college’s website at the academic degrees and majors listed (and concentrations, if available, within those majors) and to cite the exact name of the degree, major, and concentration, if available, that the college uses. For example, there are many variations of “biology” within some colleges and indeed from college to college; it is important to write each college’s essay on this topic as specifically as possible, using the words that each college uses to describe its own majors, concentrations, and so on. Know, for example, that some colleges offer both a B.A. and a B.S. in Biology. So, what is the difference and which one is your teenager headed for?

It is likely that your teenager already had to declare a major in another question on the Common App, so this should not come as a surprise. If your teenager has no idea what he or she wants to major in, we totally understand that, but it will probably make for a less appealing essay. Tell your teenager to keep in mind that the major and/or concentration written about here is not cast in stone, so it is likely better to write about something specific with as much passion as possible.

As we said in Episode 98, this is the supplemental essay where pre-med majors write about why they are drawn to the field of medicine; if you are going to do that, the story should be a good one. Everyone wants to be a pre-med major, but if an applicant has a compelling reason (and that doesn’t mean “to help people”), then the pre-med choice is more believable. I recently read an interesting essay by a high school senior of Asian background, who wrote that her immigrant parents had always had difficulty when it came time to file income taxes?both because they did not speak English very well and because they did not understand the array of documents they needed to provide in order to complete the forms. The student said that she hoped to become an accountant to help families like hers. I thought that was actually interesting, and definitely not the same thing as every other kid who wants to be a business major will write.

  • “Describe an activity that is important to you” or “Write about something that is important to you” or, more specifically,”Talk about the role of sports in your life” or some version of that–We often see applicants write a version of this topic for the main Common App essay or personal statement. Again, that is a serious mistake. Tell your teenager to save any talk about an activity or sport that is especially meaningful or significant to him or her for this supplemental essay topic. This is the place for the story about conquering a fear of water and then competing on the swimming team or serving as the treasurer of your school’s cancer fundraising organization or writing for the school newspaper or playing in the orchestra that toured in China or working at a summer camp for kids or picking up a younger brother or sister or niece or nephew after school every day and watching that child until a parent comes home. Remember: “Activity” can mean something a teenager does for the family.
  • “Describe a community that you are part of” or some version of that–This essay allows for a bit of creativity in defining the “community” that the applicant chooses to discuss. It also, happily, allows for the applicant to take one of the basic essays he or she has written and to bend it cleverly to fit this topic. For example, it could be a school community or church community or community of athletes or community of volunteers or theatrical community or musical community or you name it.
  • “Write about a time when you had to work with someone whose background (e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, politics, income, gender identity, or sexual orientation) was different from yours” or some version of that–Many colleges are committed to promoting student diversity on their campuses and are, understandably, interested in how new students will react to that diversity. Specific examples drawn from an applicant’s school or community would probably work best to show whether and how that applicant values diversity. For students who go to school or live in a community that is not racially, ethnically, socioeconomically, or otherwise diverse, this topic might be harder to write about, but could turn out to be very insightful?if, in fact, diversity is one of the main reasons the applicant chose to apply to that college.

Clearly, you and your teenager must look at the totality of the supplementary essays each college asks for and mix and match the ones you have with the ones that are needed. What is one college’s “activity that is significant to you” is another college’s “community that you are part of.” You see how that works?

I recently worked with one high school senior on 11 college applications. We managed to do almost all of her supplementary essays with longer or shorter versions of three basic essays that we established at the beginning: one about her interest in medicine and medical research (and it was a compelling story, which included the biology research she did in high school competitions); one about her brother, who has a life-threatening disease, and the work she does with a community of volunteers to raise awareness and money to fight that disease (and, incidentally, how she plans to continue that work in college); and one about playing and traveling for several years on championship softball teams at school and in the community. You can already see how these work with the topics we just discussed and how they can be shaped to fit various purposes.

By the way, parents of juniors, just to give you the heads up, here are some of the super-short questions your teen might see in the future (you can start getting ready now):

  • Who or what is an inspiration to you?
  • If you could live for a day/have lunch with/ spend some time with someone past or present, fictional or real, who would that be and why?
  • If you had to invent a course to teach at our college, what would it be?
  • What books have you read recently outside of school?
  • What museums, concerts, exhibitions, films, and theatrical performances have you attended recently?

Those should get you thinking. As always, call us, if you could use some free advice!

Ask your questions or share your feedback by…

  • Leaving a comment below on the show notes for this episode
  • Calling us at (516) 900-6922 to record a question on our USACollegeChat voicemail if you want us to answer your question live on our podcast

Connect with us through…