8 Types of College Supplementary Questions and How to Ace Them

Luckily, there are identifiable patterns in the supplemental questions that most universities ask, so you won’t have to start anew on every single essay.

Broadly speaking there are 8 main supplemental essay types. Below we explore these types AND offer some Top Tips on how to answer them!

1. The ‘Why us? / Why you?’ question

For a ‘why us’ prompt, your focus should be on (1) what the school offers and (2) how it aligns with your interests, passions, and values. The college is asking you: “why are you choosing us?” For a ‘why you’ essay, your focus should be on (1) your interests, passions, and values, and (2) how they align with what the school offers. The college is asking you: “why should we choose you?”

Top Tip

The ‘Why us’ / ‘Why you’ questions are two sides of the same coin, but the order in which you present the items—and the amount of the essay you spend on them—is reversed for each. Ultimately, your goal with this essay should be to sincerely, authentically, and excitedly tell
admissions committees what you will get out of going to their school in particular, and what you will contribute to their school as a student there. Which specific opportunities will you take advantage of? How will you bring your skills and past experiences to bear as a leader and collaborator on their campus?

2. The academic interest essay

These essays ask you to explain your intended choice of major, or if you don’t have one, your academic interests in general. They are typically ‘short’ answer questions, with universities often asking for responses in 150-250 words.

Top Tip

When answering this prompt you must address three questions: Why you want to study your elected future major area of study (or if you are undecided, you’ll need to write about your primary area(s) of academic interest), what your goals are for the future, and how pursuing this course of study will help you to achieve them. You don’t need to know exactly what you plan to do in the future, but it’ll make your essay a lot stronger to have a few ideas and try to develop those ideas with a bit of detail!

3. Describe an extracurricular

Tell us about an extracurricular activity you’re involved in and how it has shaped you. Once again these questions normally ask for a 150 250 word response. In these essays you explore one of your extracurriculars in greater depth.

Top Tip

When answering this prompt you must address three questions: Why you want to study your elected future major area of study (or if you are undecided, you’ll need to write about your primary area(s) of academic interest), what your goals are for the future, and how pursuing this course of study will help you to achieve them. You don’t need to know exactly what you plan to do in the future, but it’ll make your essay a lot stronger to have a few ideas and try to develop those ideas with a bit of detail!

4. The meaning of community

Colleges may word these questions somewhat like this: “Our college campus is all about community and valuing a diverse group of people. In what ways do you value community? How have you contributed to communities in the past? What would you bring to our community?” As you can see in this case you need to narrow down on what you would bring to this specific university’s community.

Top Tip

In asking this question, admissions officers are trying to find out: What in particular does our school have to offer that you’d like to get involved in as a future student? And… What will you contribute or bring to the table as a student on our campus? In answering these questions you must show how your past experience as part of a community informs what you’ll contribute.

5. The second Common App essay

These essays can vary in content just like the Common App essay, and they are similar in length (500-650 words). They might ask you to write about a person who has inspired you; or write about an experience that has shaped how you approach the world; or to use a quote as a starting place to tell them about your perspective.

Top Tip

This supplemental essay type typically asks you to write a 500-650 word piece using a usually broad prompt to guide your answer. Writing this essay is like writing a second Common App essay – but you must be sure to pick a new topic that explores a new area of your past, interests, personality or attributes.

6. Short takes

Some colleges ask you to provide brief descriptions of yourself or things you like in 100 words or less — sometimes without even using complete sentences. They might ask for two adjectives your friends would use to describe you; or your favorite word; or what your favorite snack is; or who (living or dead) you’d like to ask a question to, and what you’d ask them; or if you were teaching a class, what it’d be called.

Top Tip

These short answer questions can be hard to tackle! Top tips include: answer the question, but don’t repeat it, consider the underlying message you are sending, explain your answer and be specific!

7. The write a letter to your future roommate prompt

This prompt is pretty self-explanatory the aim of it being for admissions officers to gauge what you will bring to campus as an enthusiastic, passionate, intellectual and empathetic member of the college community. They can be creative, humorous, reflective, inspirational — whatever theme and style reflects your personality best.

Top Tip

These questions provide a great opportunity to show what you will bring to campus on micro level. Will you be the ball of energy that exudes positivity, or the reflective listener who is always there to lend a helping hand? This question must be honestly and reflect a side of yourself that will provide a true insight as to who you are beyond the classroom.

8. Miscellaneous prompts

These are the creative or otherwise unusual prompts (“design a major,” “design a class,” “what do you do for fun?”, “choose an image that represents you,” “what gets you excited about learning?”, etc.) that vary in length and style. While not common, they can be great fun for applicants to create!

Top Tip

These questions vary, but some basic tips include: be personal (go deep!), be humble (no bragging!), be intellectually curious (show your love of learning) and be genuine (no platitudes or clichés).

Categorized as Blog Posts

The Importance of US College Supplemental Essays and How Admissions Officers Review Them

Imagine you want to hire someone for a job.

Your boss gives you 10 questions that you have to ask — but she tells you that you can create a few extra questions of your own in addition.

The first 10 questions will give you a good sense of who the applicant is, but those extra few that you create — those are the ones that will give you the best insight into whether the person will be a good fit to work with you and your team.

You can think about US college supplemental essay questions in the same way. The Common Application questions are the standard questions that every school gets answers to — but the supplemental questions represent the individual universities’ best chance to really get to know you and to judge whether or not you’ll be a good fit on their campus(es).

They’re also your best chance to show schools why they should pick you. Lots of students underestimate the importance of the supplemental essays — and lots of students get rejected as a result. If you’re here reading this, then you’re already well on your way to avoiding that critical mistake.

Admissions Officers use supplemental essays to fill out their picture of who you are and learn things about you that are not contained in the rest of your application. The supplemental essays shouldn’t contradict anything you’ve written elsewhere, but they shouldn’t repeat anything either.

If we were to choose three words that are key to the success of your
supplemental essays, they’d be specificity, authenticity, and

When it comes to specificity, colleges want you to go deep into your research on what they have to offer, and the various unique aspects of their campuses that appeal to you directly.

That means taking time to do substantive research — it doesn’t mean finding the first class on microeconomics they offer and mentioning it in your essay, because that’s neither specific to the university (every university has an intro to microeconomics class!) nor is it specific to you (thousands of students will take a class like that).

When it comes to authenticity, colleges are looking for personality and individuality. That means talking narrowly and specifically about what interests you.

If you love completing Rubik’s cubes as a hobby, that should go in the essay. If you love model trains, that should go in the essay — the key is just finding an outlet for it at the university (a cubing club? a hobbying club?). Don’t just talk generally about the “incredible career opportunities” — what specifically is going to be great for you?

When it comes to commitment, universities want to see that you’re the type of person who’s had experience committing to extracurricular activities and your various communities in the past, and that you intend to do so at their school in the future.

You can express this eagerness to commit in ways small and large — it can be as simple as saying something like “I plan to build on a passion for community service that began in high school by joining
__ tutoring club at Harvard”. Little additions like that show that you value your commitment to things you did in the past and plan to continue building on that commitment in the future.

Categorized as Blog Posts

How Personal Statement Essays Are Opening Doors for University Applicants

The personal statement shows different things depending on where you are applying. In the UK, the UCAS personal statement is an opportunity to explore the student’s academic area of interest and show the research they’ve done in that area.

The UK application process is more direct and focused on the student’s formal qualifications for study, so students can clearly demonstrate a rigorous grasp on their declared major. Quality personal statements cite existing research and show nuanced understanding of the underlying theory, proving the student’s readiness for college work.

In the US, the personal statement is similarly a reflection of broader
application priorities. Top US colleges and universities seek well-rounded students that will thrive in liberal arts academic environments emphasizing plurality of thought and inquisitive dialogue through Socratic-style teaching methods.

The US personal statement is thus about helping colleges understand who the student is – their formative experiences, their goals, and how they think about the world around them. More than any other part of the process, it is a window into their mind and thoughtfulness, empathy, and reflection are prized highly.

What kind of personal statement stands out to admissions officers?

This likewise varies a lot! A good UK personal statement will likely make for a poor centerpiece to a US application, and vice versa. Quality UK statements are direct and precise. They are nuanced and
academic, and applicants recite existing accomplishments and research to directly evidence their role qualifications.

Remember that the goal is showing that the student will be well prepared to study in their chosen area of discipline: their writing ability and personality isn’t being evaluated!

A good US personal statement, by contrast, has very little to do with the rest of the student’s application. It should not reiterate other parts of the Common App. Unless there is a ton of additional context needed on an existing activity, students should shy away from touching on topics covered elsewhere and focus instead on explaining other parts of who they are.

Statements should be authentic and reflective: what happened to the student is often less important than how they processed and understood it. Students can write about any topic they want – personal stories from their youth, how they think about important social issues, or their dreams and ambitions.

The essays below reflect this, what unifies them is neither topic nor style but how honest they are and the picture the reader gets into the writer’s mind and personality.

Common mistakes in personal statement essays

In the UK, a common mistake is to be too flowery with the writing – to put down something closer to poetry on the page. The UCAS personal statement is intended to capture academic goals and lay out the student’s vision for their time in college: it is not a measure of how good of a writer the student is.

In the US, one common mistake is to assume that because the readers want to learn about the student as a person, the best topic to write about are difficult personal topics. While some of the essays below are compelling personal narratives about hardship, not all good personal statements take that form. If you are writing about hardship because you feel that’s what they want to hear, and not because that is an authentic turning point in your life on which you have genuine reflection, it’s likely not the right topic.

Final words of advice

Writing personal statements is difficult! The UK essay is a bit more straightforward, but in both cases, it is the opportunity for the student to concisely explain the thesis of their application: why the college should take them. To tackle this well, you need to start early and take your time. Two techniques that help are:

  • Taking time to write by hand. Too many students write on their computer, where distractions abound and it’s easy to get sidetracked. Put the computer away and write on paper. It will go slower, and that’s ok! Slowing down gives you time to think and choose words carefully: the prizes are only for having the best essay, not finishing quickly.
  • Take time to walk outside. Walking has been shown to activate and calm the brain – when you hit stumbling block, leave the page behind and take some time to think as you exercise. Often, by the time you get back you may have figured out the right words!

So are you ready to explore exactly what sorts of essays result in acceptance to the best schools in the world? Keep reading and good luck!

Categorized as Blog Posts