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.