• Bentham Admissions Team

How to write the supplemental essays

Many applicants make the mistake of devoting most of their time and energy to the personal statement, only to discover late in the game that each school to which they apply requires a variety of supplemental essays. The term “supplement” can mislead students into assuming these essays are of secondary importance. But supplements are just as vital a component of the application as any other. They help the college form a holistic portrait of you, the applicant, and what you would contribute to the entering class and the university as a whole. Don’t view these questions as a chore or as a threat, but as an invitation. Working on them should feel less of a chore than a chance to talk about yourself without being interrupted. Who doesn’t want that?


The applicant needs to start writing the supplemental essays early, because each essay is so important, and because there are many of them if you are playing to a variety of reach, target, and safety schools. But don’t despair, supplemental essay writer. Many of these essay prompts overlap.


Writing supplemental university application essays
How to write supplemental College essays

How to tackle overlapping supplemental essay questions

You might be thrown a few curveballs by particular colleges, but for the most part, you will encounter a lot of overlap - questions that might be phrased a little differently, but center on the same topic. Common overlapping supplement categories include

  • What have you been passionate about, and how have you pursued it?

  • Why this college?

  • What will be your field of study, and why?

  • What will you bring to our community, in terms of diversity of background, perspective, and community-building skills?

In addition to these questions, certain schools might ask questions to test your creativity (what’s so odd about odd numbers?) or your level of college-ready maturity (what books do you love? Who would you invite to speak on our campus, and what question would you ask?).


Start by gathering all the supplemental essay prompts you will be answering. Group them by common topic in a spreadsheet. Brainstorm possible responses for each common topic prompt, and draft a supplement. Once you have a satisfactory essay (be sure to show it to a trusted reader or two), you might need to tweak it to satisfy each institution’s specific wording of the prompt.


Should I be myself?

Supplemental essay prompts are invitations to write about your own experiences, passions, and dreams. Embrace this invitation, but be careful. These prompts can be traps for the naive student, under time pressure, who discusses how Harry Potter is his favorite book, or how he’d like to invite his mother to speak on campus. Be yourself, but be your aspiring collegiate self. If the college is highly selective, show off your most impressive self, preferably in an original way. Writing the supplemental essay is your opportunity to demonstrate your intellectual curiosity, your wit, your maturity, and your empathy. As in the personal statement, strive to create a personal bond with your reader. You want an ally in the admissions office who remembers an essay, a joke, even an image fondly, or was impressed by an insight or accomplishment. Working particular details, anecdotes and accomplishments into a supplemental essay help to accomplish this, as does an original approach.


Tackling the ”why us?” essay

This prompt is designed to find out how good a fit you and the college will be for each other. It’s also a way of screening out those who don’t really know why they are applying and aren’t really serious about going. For various reasons, a college wants a fairly high rate of acceptance from prospective students offered admission, so they need to know you know and care about who they are.


Don’t tell the college how wonderful it is; it doesn’t need your approval. In your supplemental essay, write about how you and the college are a good fit. In order to do this persuasively, you will want to demonstrate a deeper knowledge of the school than what you find in a brochure, on a campus visit, or through a cursory review of the website. You will want to scour the website, and the internet, for information on majors, programs, particular courses and professors, research opportunities, clubs, publications, campus-wide initiatives, alumni networks, etc., looking for fits - opportunities at this particular school that fit with your passions, your mission and your major. Use your family’s social network to pick the brains of current students and alumni, if possible.


The objective here is not necessarily to be well-rounded - listing a club, an intramural team, a beloved professor, and an old college tradition, as many applicants will do. Instead, demonstrate your singular passion or ambition (one or two), and how various opportunities specific to this college will help you continue your pursuit. Do not cite the location of the college as a reason to go there - lots of colleges reside in any given city. Do not use emotional language, stressing how much you love this or that aspect of the college or campus. Instead, when you write this supplement focus on how you will take advantage of what the college has to offer - actions, not feelings.


Emotional: When I visited the campus, I really loved the way people were having intellectual conversations on the lawn. This made me happy because I love intellectual conversations.


Purposeful: When I visited the campus I noticed how everyone was talking about what they were studying with enthusiasm. I believe this enthusiasm results from Brown’s open curriculum, which allows students to study what they’re interested in, even if that means designing their own concentrations. I know I study best when I am intrinsically motivated, and because I intend to study both archaeology and cultural anthropology, I look forward to constructing a major centered on how cultural myths influence our understanding of artifacts found at archaeological digs on the Indian Pueblos.


Tackling the field of study essay

You will need to write a few supplemental essays centered on your academic interests, the field of study, and prospective major. Because you are building a personal connection with the reader, relate your field of study to personal experience. Think about how key formative events or people have stimulated this interest. As in the “why us” essay, refer to specific college offerings in your answer: faculty, academic curriculum, research opportunities, publications, and other avenues for the pursuit of this passion on campus (but avoid repeating yourself).


How to tackle the Community/Diversity essay

A common mistake is to think a diversity supplemental essay is about people of color, or poor people, and privileged students under this misconception end up writing about a time they passed a poor person on the street, encountered an impoverished place on vacation, or did charity work. Because these students don’t really know the people they describe, these essays often are superficial. Also, they miss the point. A diversity question is about how you will contribute to campus diversity in terms of race, class, nationality, ethnicity, region, religion, gender, sexuality, or even unusual interests, perspectives, or experiences. That said, pay attention to the boundaries of the prompt!


University of Washington: Our families and communities often define us and our individual worlds. Community might refer to your cultural group, extended family, religious group, neighborhood or school, sports team or club, co-workers, etc. Describe the world you come from and how you, as a product of it, might add to the diversity of the University of Washington.

This prompt is almost without boundary in terms of the community you might choose.


University of North Carolina: Describe an aspect of your identity (for example, your religion, culture, race, sexual or gender identity, affinity group, etc.). How has this aspect of your identity shaped your life experiences thus far?

This prompt is focused on identity groups, so a sports team or academic club wouldn’t be suitable.


If a prompt specifically asks you to talk about a community to which you belong, do not choose your immediate family. First, the community you choose reveals more about your interests and goals. Second, it might be difficult for you to write about yourself as a contributor and leader when you write about your family. When you choose a community, tell us about the role you played, and how you led or supported it. Again, an emotional response expressing your love of community will not be as effective as a focus on your actions. Being part of a community is a challenge. You might write about how you overcame your own impatience with others and learned to appreciate the diversity of skills and viewpoints in your community.


As you can see, writing a single supplemental essay is a challenge, not to mention several supplements for several schools. The time to start, if you’re applying this year, is now. Visit our contact page if you want some support.