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How to Ace College Supplemental Essays

Parents and students often put far too much emphasis on the common application personal essay and not enough on the college supplemental essays and questions. While it is true that all colleges on the common app network will view the common app essay, making it rather important, colleges that offer or require supplemental essays put far more emphasis on these college-specific responses. According to one prominent Ivy League admissions official, “We don't care too much about the common app essay. Why should we, when we know that people can just pay someone to write it for them? However, we do pay close attention to applicants’ responses to our supplemental essay. In our opinion, that response gives us far more information about whether or not that person will be a good fit. It also tells us whether that applicant has taken the time to learn about us.”

This statement speaks volumes about the mindset of admissions officials at prestigious colleges and universities. First of all, it acknowledges the fact that they are aware that students get help writing admission essays. Second, it acknowledges that colleges care about whether students have done their homework about them. This is regardless of whether a college indicates that demonstrated interest, a rather murky measure of how much a student wants to go to a particular college, is a factor in admissions. Finally, it emphasizes the importance that colleges place on writing skill. A poorly constructed supplemental essay can hurt a student's admission candidacy, especially at highly competitive schools such as Ivy Leagues. A standard or mediocre essay will likely not have very much impact on a student's admission candidacy. However, an extremely well-constructed and well-conceived supplemental essay can actually move the needle in a student's direction.

So, what is the secret of writing a well-constructed supplemental college essay? There are actually five characteristics that go into great supplemental college essays. They are as follows:

1. They should provide proof that the student has deep knowledge of the college’s culture, campus, and/or curriculum.

2. They should demonstrate passion for the college, for a subject, or for an idea held dear by the college.

3. They should be thoughtful and insightful, providing evidence that the student is a “world-wide thinker” rather than a “local thinker.”

4. They should evoke a three-dimensional emotional response, rather than lying flat on the page.

5. They should reveal personal characteristics that each college highly values, such as social responsibility, resilience, or empathy.

There is perhaps nothing worse in a college supplemental essay than the familiar refrains that form the basis for most students’ responses. Such detrimental refrains include:

“I am most interested in this college because of its world-class professors.”

“The campus is beautiful, and I really loved the weather when I came out to visit.”

“I love the concept of the core curriculum, because I know that I will get a well-rounded education."

"The engineering department is one of the top ranked in the country."

"My friend goes here and really loves it."

What makes these responses negative? First of all, they are all quite shallow. Second, colleges already know they have world-class professors, beautiful campuses, a core curriculum requirement, and excellent engineering departments. Therefore, these responses tell them nothing about you or why you belong there. Better responses to college supplemental essays might include the following:

"My own passion for engineering that has been nurtured over the past two years in high school was ignited as I walked through Scaife Hall (Carnegie Mellon), and peered into its brand-new state-of-the-art facilities. “I can definitely see myself spending long hours here, perhaps even toting a flask of coffee for late night rendezvous with my fellow mechanical engineering classmates.”

"One of the main reasons I want to attend college here is that the English department offers more than 30 writing courses, many of which I will definitely attend so that I may fuel my passion for the written word. My particular passion is poetry. With a list of poetry courses longer than the list of ingredients in a Twinkie, I can definitely see myself indulging in a sweet banquet of poetic snacks.

“I have now visited the campus on three occasions and each time I find something more to appreciate. On my last visit, I had the fortunate opportunity to have lunch with Prof. Davis of the mathematics department. We had Pi.”

The objective in writing any college essay is to have you jump off the page, not to have your words sit flat, boring, and ineffective. Not only should you attempt to prove your passion for attending a particular college, you should prove your value to that college. Why should they want you when they have all sorts of other great applicants? Well, let your supplemental essay make the case for you by making you multidimensional, knowledgeable, and “world-class.”