Aside from grades, standardized test scores, and your high school courses, one of the most important elements of the college application is the essay. While the Common Application and the Universal Application each have a required essay, many colleges include their own school-specific essays, known as writing supplements.
Supplemental essays give admissions officers the chance to get to know students, and they’re also great gauges for demonstrated interest. So how can students master college admission essays?
Tell Admissions Officers Something They Don’t Already Know
Admissions officers want to get to know applicants. There’s only so much that application readers can deduce from your extracurricular activities, transcripts, test scores, recommendation letters, and other application materials. Many times the best way to get a clear picture of a student’s goals, accomplishments, and character is to hear it directly from the student him or herself.
Don’t use the essay to regurgitate the information that’s already available – reveal something that can’t be found anywhere else in the application. For example, if captain of the school’s soccer team is on the activity list, don’t write an essay about the biggest game of the season. The admissions officers already know soccer is an interest, so choose a deeper topic that reveals something meaningful.
One example: A student’s top activity on her activity list was horseback riding. Instead of writing an essay about riding, she instead wrote about her faith and how she reconciled that with what she was learning in her advanced science courses.
Approaching “Quirky” Essay Prompts
It’s a college admissions trend that keeps growing in popularity: The quirky college application essay question. From questions about “YOLO” and spiders, to inquiries about how students would design their own courses, many colleges are asking applicants some strange questions. For many students, these wild and wacky application prompts can be extremely intimidating. Many struggle with the balance between writing creative, witty responses and sounding cheesy and forced. If you’re unsure about how your essay could come across to admissions officers, it’s not too late for our team of expert counselors to review your supplements and give guidance on how to draft and revise your essays.
When tackling these odd application essay prompts, remember the main goal of the admissions essay – to reveal something not obvious about yourself. These essays are about you, not what you think the college wants to hear, so keep your interests in mind!
The same applies to the “short-take” supplement questions, those that seek a one-word or one-sentence response. Dig deep, but remember that your answer doesn’t have to be as strange as the prompt – it just needs to reflect your character and passions.
For example: USC asks, “What’s the greatest invention of all time?” A student who was passionate about photography once answered the daguerreotype – the first photographic process to come into widespread use.
The Common “Why This College?” Essay
One of the most common supplemental essays that students will come across is the infamous “Why This College?” essay. Whether it’s simply “Why XX University?” or a more specific question about how a student plans to contribute to the campus, colleges are looking for detailed and well-researched responses.
It’s not enough to say, “I want to go to XX University because it’s a great school.” Or “XX College is my favorite.” When evaluating these responses, colleges wants to know that a student has done his or her homework on the institution and has really thought about how he or she will fit into the campus community. If supplemental essays are good gauges for demonstrated interest, this particular type of essay is the most important.
When answering this essay question, use specific details. Mention courses and professors of interest. Students should elaborate on campus organizations or programs that fit certain goals, and specific aspects of the campus community that make it a good social and academic fit. Be as detailed as possible, but be sure to relate these details to specific goals and interests. Don’t just rattle off some course names and expect to wow the admissions committee.
The best writing supplements will add great context and personality to a student’s application, and elevate his or her chances of admission. Often it can be the difference between the ‘no’ and the ‘maybe’ pile. Research and preparation is key to writing stand-out supplements, so don’t wait until the last minute!
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Under what circumstances should I consider whether or not a school requires supplemental essays?
While it’s best to create your college list without regard for supplemental essay requirements, you might encounter situations in which you need to consider the time commitment involved in writing these essays. Given that some schools requiring up to five supplemental essays, you’ll need to plan well in advance if you intend to tackle each one seriously. If you decide that you need to add a few schools to the list at the last minute, or you find yourself suddenly out of time to apply anywhere at all, you’ll want to know which schools don’t require a supplemental essay, and you’ll want to know quick.
If this is the case for you, don’t worry; we’ve done some of the legwork for you. Below, you’ll find a list of some high quality schools that don’t require supplemental essays.
Schools That Don’t Require a Supplemental Essay with the Common Application
Middlebury College: Middlebury requires only the essays from the Common Application, along with the usual teacher recommendations and transcripts. Additional materials such as an arts portfolio can be uploaded through the student portal, but there is no guarantee that they will be reviewed by the admissions committee.
Harvard: While the application requirements for Harvard do require a supplement, each of its required components is a multiple-choice question or a fill-in-the-blank. There is an optional supplemental essay, which we would recommend completing whenever possible, but it is not required. You can read more about this in our post Should You Send the Harvard Optional Supplement Essay?.
Washington University in St. Louis: Washington University in St. Louis does not require any supplement to the Common Application or Coalition Application. They note on the FAQ page of their admissions website that “supplemental essays are required for our Academic Scholarship and Fellowship Programs, which are open to all first-year applicants. Because our application deadline for our academic scholarships is January 5, 2018, we would like students to focus their time to thoughtfully address our scholarship essays and not add an additional strain.”
Williams College: Williams is another strong school with an optional supplement. Of course, as before, we do recommend completing optional essays. You can read more about it in our post How to Write the Williams College Application Essays.
Wesleyan University: Currently ranked 21st in National Liberal Arts Colleges by U.S. News and World Report, Wesleyan requires neither test scores nor supplemental essays. They note in their testing policy that “students should have the power to decide how best to present themselves to the admission committee and whether—or not—their standardized test results accurately reflect their academic ability and potential”. Beginning in fall 2017, it will begin to accept the Coalition Application in addition to the Common Application.
Colby College: Colby College is currently ranked 12th in National Liberal Arts Colleges and does not require a supplement to the Common Application or Coalition Application. Another attractive feature of its application process is its lack of an application fee.
Amherst College: Okay, okay, highly-ranked Amherst College does actually require a writing supplement, but we’re including it on this list because one of the options is something you’ve already written. Though you could write a separate essay for the supplement, you are also invited to “submit a graded paper from your junior or senior year that best represents your writing skills and analytical abilities.” This option specifically invites you to submit a paper you’ve already written for school, and in fact the admissions committee prefers a paper that has your teacher’s grade and comments on it already. Consider this option if you’ve held on to your top work from the year.
No matter where you apply, there will be at least one essay you’ll need to write. If you’re currently considering where to apply and need some help narrowing down your college list, consider checking out CollegeVine’s Applications Guidance service. Here, you’ll be paired with a personal admissions specialist who can provide step-by-step guidance through the entire application process, including how to perfect your approach to the personal essay.
For more about creating a college list and writing application essays, check out these CollegeVine posts: