written by
Julia Riew

Supplemental Essays FAQ: Ask An Admissions Officer

College FAQs 8 min read
Photographer: Kat Stokes | Source: Unsplash

In the following article, CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Expert and admissions officer Nichole Reynolds answers frequently asked questions about the supplemental essays for college! For more guidance on your supplemental essays and the college application process in general, sign up for a monthly plan to work with an admissions coach 1-on-1.


What are the supplemental essays for college?

By definition, supplemental essays are writing samples that many selective colleges and universities require in addition to the personal statement. Some schools ask for a single supplemental essay while others call for several pieces of varying lengths.

What is the purpose of the supplemental essays?

The supplemental essay or essays add depth to your application. Think of an admission committee’s job as building your story— as a person and as a candidate — from the puzzle pieces you give them in your application. Supplemental essays are an opportunity for you to give them yet another puzzle piece, one that further showcases your interests, talents, or fit with the school. For this reason, you should never think of supplemental essays as “short answers,” but as fully developed essays or mini-essays in which you present your ideas with polish.

What's the difference between the supplemental essays and the Common App essay?

The Common App essay is geared toward a broader audience — all of the colleges you’re applying to within that application platform — while supplemental essays give you a chance to tailor your writing and thoughts to a specific school. What does that school value? Choose a topic that allows you to showcase your alignment with those values.

How long should a supplemental essay be?

This varies, as each school defines the word count for their supplemental essays; some are as short as 50 words while others are 500 or more words. The most common length is 250 words. Be sure to pay attention to the word count, as the Common App platform will cut your essay off at the limit!

How do I approach the "why us" supplemental essay question?

In a way that shows you’ve done more than skimmed the “about us” section of their website. (The admission committee already knows what’s there, so it’s a mistake to simply restate this information!).

Start by making a list of what it is that excites you most about that particular school, which we’ll call Pendelton for our purposes. You might write, for example: Biology major, smaller student body, active student newspaper. Then, do the research you need to to bring these elements to life in your essay through specific examples. Consult the faculty pages on Pendleton’s biology website to find out which courses or lab opportunities appeal to you; take the virtual campus tour and listen to what students say about the classroom experience — how do they describe it and why, exactly, does it resonate with you? — and dig into the opportunities the newspaper affords student writers. Take notes.

Next, create a mini-thesis based on you and/or your values as they relate to these opportunities: “I am not only a thinker, but a doer, whether in the science lab, the classroom, or the newsroom. Pendleton offers me the opportunity to actively engage all my areas of passion equally.”

From there, get specific. Which biology lab or course are you most looking forward to taking/working in? What will you do in that lab? How does that research fuel your passion? How do small, discussion-based classes complement your learning style? And how will they challenge your growth? What kind of articles do you imagine yourself contributing to the student newspaper? In other words, don’t just list class names or general college qualities. Instead, envision yourself in these spaces at Pendleton and answer why these opportunities are important to you/what you’ll make of them.

Depending on the length of the essay, you might also fold in anecdotes (a related fun fact you learned on a campus tour, for example, or an interaction you had with an alum that underscored one of the themes you’re writing about) that add additional richness.

The result? A “why us” essay that shows you’re serious about Pendleton and a natural fit.

How do I approach the "why major" supplemental essay?

You might adapt the “why us” approach (and again, we’ll use the fictive school Pendelton to outline your steps). Let’s imagine you’re interested in English as a major. Your first step would be to do some self-reflection and articulate why. It is because you’re a writer who wants to pursue journalism and lend your voice to the fight against oppressive systems? Or is it because you’ve loved Classics ever since you heard your first Greek myth at age four?

Your second step — the research phase — involves locating the specifics at Pendleton that support the goal you articulated. What English faculty specialties at Pendleton appeal to you? Any annual department events look neat to you? Or English-related internship/ research opportunities you’d want to take advantage of? What cocurricular opportunities at Pendelton (newspaper, poetry club, literary magazine) will you choose to support your pursuits in English? As with the “why us” essay, these are all details you can glean from afar, though the college’s website and YouTube channels, and through virtual visit and event opportunities for prospective students.

Next, you’ll create a mini-thesis that connects your ambition and Pendelton’s offerings and support it through anecdotes and specific examples that get at why all this is important to you. How, exactly, will you take advantage of these opportunities, individually and collectively?

This is the level of detail that signals to a committee that you’ve thought carefully about your fit and future at their school.

Do I have to do the optional supplemental essays - are they really optional?

Do students who don’t submit optional essays get admitted to college? Sure. But remember: at selective schools, you’re competing for a limited number of spots in the incoming class. Skipping the opportunity to give the admission committee additional insight about your fit with their school could have consequences. It might, for example, make your overall application less compelling than the student who took the time to write this piece. Or, it could send a less-than-favorable message to the committee about your level of enthusiasm and investment in their school.

Does every college require supplemental essays?

No. Typically, more selective schools require them while less selective schools only require the Common App essay. There are, of course, exceptions to this rule.

When are the supplemental essays due?

Supplemental essays are due with the rest of your application materials and by the deadlines posted on a school’s website.

When should I work on my supplemental essays?

Well before they’re due. Students often put hours and hours into drafting, revising, and polishing their Common App essay but make the mistake of hastily crafting their supplemental pieces just ahead of the deadline in order to get their applications over the finish line. The resulting inconsistencies between the writing samples don’t go unnoticed by an admission committee.

How will my supplemental essays be evaluated?

Closely! Supplemental writing is as important as the personal statement in an admission committee’s overall assessment of a student’s candidacy. At selective schools, where many applicants present similarly strong transcripts and academic profiles, the writing allows admissions committees to make fine distinctions between otherwise qualified candidates. See “What is an Admission Committee looking for in the supplemental essays?” for further explanation of how those distinctions are made.

Will colleges read my supplemental essays or my Common App essay first?

Many admission offices will read your Common App essay first, simply because it’s embedded in Common App itself, and that tends to be the starting point of an application review.

What are Admission Committees looking for in the supplemental essays?

Consistency, for one. Imagine for a moment that you are a member of an admission committee responsible for evaluating applications. You read an application with an impressive personal statement: it is purposefully developed, highly engaging, has depth of thought, and is well-executed. Then you turn to the same student’s supplemental essay and find underdeveloped ideas presented with far less polish… writing that has the feel of a first draft. What questions would these inconsistent writing samples raise for you? Would you wonder which of these writers would show up in the college classroom if admitted? We do.

In every writing sample you submit with your application, an admission committee is looking for writing that:

  • Is mechanically sound in terms of grammar, organization, logic and flow
  • Presents well-conceived ideas that are purposefully developed and bear evidence of depth of thought (analytical, critical, or reflective)
  • Has authenticity and voice — in other words, the synthesis of ideas in the essay is unique to this student’s experience
  • Gives us a deeper sense of what makes the student tick

Even 50-100 word mini-essays should convey a sense of voice and purpose! Schools that ask for a range of lengths of supplemental essays are trying to get a sense of how well you can control your ideas in different contexts. (Hint: be sure you’re giving them a variety of windows into what inspires you; don’t simply write about your passion for, say, engineering in six different ways.)

The takeaway? Supplemental essays should never be thought of as “short answers,” but as an additional opportunity to showcase your capacity for depth of thought and skill in writing.

Is there someone who can help me brainstorm and edit my supplemental essays?

Absolutely! CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts are highly skilled not only in the areas of brainstorming and editing, but also in helping students develop their ideas in purposeful ways that foreground the insight that excites admission committees.


This informational article was written by Nichole Reynolds. Didn’t see your question on the list? Get help building your college list from Nichole or other CollegeAdvisor.com Admissions Experts, register with CollegeAdvisor.com today.

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