8 Tips for Writing Supplemental Essays

Bonus Material: Download the Supplemental Essay Prompts for the 50 Most Selective Colleges

Many U.S. colleges and universities require applicants to respond to supplemental essays. These are in addition to the personal statement or college essay.

Some colleges, even top-tier ones like Northeastern, for example, don’t require supplemental responses. 

Some do but only require one or two short responses. Others, like Princeton University, have 6 supplemental essay prompts!

Regardless, it is possible to take a strategic approach to your supplemental essays, just like the college essay. In this post, we’ve got the 8 tips you need to tackle these additional writing responses with success.

We also give you access to our supplemental essay spreadsheet, which includes supplemental prompts and application deadlines for the 50 most selective colleges in the U.S. Grab it below.

Here’s what we cover:

8 Tips for Writing Supplemental Essays

1) Start planning early

Many students devote the majority of their summer and senior fall to writing their personal statement. Your personal statement is, after all, one of the most important parts of your application. You should put in the time and effort to write a successful college essay.

But many students will forget about supplemental essays, saving them for the end of their application process, sometimes a week before the deadline! 

They often don’t realize just how much work these additional essays require. And if you’ve got 8 colleges on your list with supplemental essays, that’s a lot of writing.

That’s why we recommend that students identify the supplemental essays associated with every college on their list as they are building that list. Students should also note the quantity of these essays per college and their word counts.

When we work with our college essay students, we also help applicants build a timeline for drafting these essays, depending on early or regular decision applications. In some cases, students will start work on their supplemental essays as they are finishing their college essay.

You can find out more about a college’s supplemental essay requirements by adding that college to your list on Coalition or the Common App and viewing “Writing Supplement.” Here’s what that looks like for Princeton University, for example, via the Common App:

We also encourage students to check out our supplemental essay spreadsheet for the 50 most selective U.S. colleges, which you can download below.

2) Identify what the prompt is specifically asking

Many supplemental essay prompts are very specific, as in this one from Virginia Tech’s application:

Virginia Tech’s motto is “Ut Prosim” which means ‘That I May Serve’. We are interested in learning more about your interests and how you have been involved and/or served. Briefly describe a group, organization, or community that you have been involved with. Is this a special area of interest for you, and why? How long have you been involved? What role did you play? What contributions have you made to this group? Were you able to influence others and/or influence decisions for the good of the group?

Others can be very broad, like this one, from Wake Forest University:

Tell us more about the topic that most engages your intellectual curiosity. 

Regardless, identify what the prompt is specifically asking. Because supplemental essays are typically shorter than your personal statement, it’s essential to craft a response that is not off-topic. 

Think about what college admissions officers are likely looking for with certain prompts. 

Do they want to learn about your relationship to service, for example? Your innate passion? Your promise as a scholar? Your authentic voice? Why this college is a good fit for you? etc.

3) Be concise

You likely won’t have a lot of room for many of your supplemental essays. Three of Princeton’s essays, for example, have 50-word limits.

This means that it’s imperative for applicants to be concise in their responses. Every word should be essential. Cut the fluff and don’t be afraid to plunge right in (just as we advise our students do with their college essays).

4) Choose topics you haven’t already discussed in your application

This might go without saying, but it is still an important point. 

Think of your application as a whole, including your personal statement, and consider the dimensions of yourself that you haven’t yet discussed. What else do you wish to highlight, especially when dealing with very broad supplemental essay prompts?

Consider all of the following:

  • Personal challenges
  • Values and beliefs
  • A specific volunteering or work experience
  • A meaningful activity or hobby
  • Your passions and interests
  • What makes you curious
  • Your unique personality

This is why colleges have supplemental essays in the first place. They want to know even more about you as a candidate, beyond your personal statement, transcripts, letters of recommendation, and test scores. Be sure to select material that is not fully evident or elaborated in these other parts of your application.

5) Think about that college’s mission statement

This can be particularly vital for supplemental essays that ask why students are interested in applying to that specific school, or how they envision that school helping them with their goals.

College mission statements are usually quite broad. But they do encapsulate that college’s priorities and core values, which can be important to reference in a “Why X College” essay response.

Take Cornell University’s core values:

“Purposeful discovery, free and open inquiry and expression, a community of belonging, exploration across boundaries, changing lives through engagement and respect for the natural environment constitute Cornell’s core values.”

These are very different from Tulane University’s mission statement, which expresses the following: 

“Tulane’s purpose is to create, communicate, and conserve knowledge in order to enrich the capacity of individuals, organizations, and communities to think, to learn, and to act and lead with integrity and wisdom.”

Both provide insight into the values admissions officers are likely seeking in applicants, which can be valuable for crafting supplemental essay responses.

6) Write them even if they’re optional

We mean it! Even if it adds more to your to-do list, we encourage all students seeking a competitive edge to write those optional essay responses. 

Why? It’s your chance to give more meaning to your application and demonstrate that you are invested in applying to a specific school. We’re not saying that if you skip the optional essays you won’t earn admission.

But you will be providing more information for admissions officers to evaluate, which is to your advantage.

7) Recycle where you can

In many cases, it is possible to “recycle” certain supplemental essay responses. Many colleges, for example, require students to briefly elaborate on a meaningful extracurricular activity or work experience in 150-200 words.

Others may allow you to use parts of essay responses you’ve already crafted, with a little bit of tweaking.

We don’t recommend that students copy and paste any of their “Why X College” essays, as these should be tailored to each specific school. But they can certainly reuse certain sentences, templates, and essay structures across their responses.

Regardless of how you choose to recycle, do make sure that every response is authentic and relevant to that particular school and essay prompt.

8) Be specific!

Even if you’re working with a tight word limit, be as specific as possible in your supplemental essay responses, especially for very specific prompts, like the following:

  • Why are you applying to our college?
  • How will our university’s curriculum support your professional and personal goals?
  • Discuss a time where your beliefs were challenged. How did you respond? What did you learn from this experience?

What does it mean to be specific? Incorporate relevant details whenever possible.

In “Why X College” essays, for example, think about mentioning the following:

  • Specific majors and requirements
  • Actual professors and courses
  • Names of programs
  • Research opportunities
  • Study abroad programs
  • Etc.

For more reflective supplemental essays, rely on clear and declarative “I” statements, like the following:

  • I firmly believe that ________.
  • I learned through this experience that _________.
  • I try to guide every action with the following principle: _________.

Download the Supplemental Essay Prompts for the 50 Most Selective Colleges

We’ve compiled the supplemental essay prompts for the most selective 50 U.S. colleges and universities in one FREE easy-to-access spreadsheet!

Here’s what you’ll get:

  • The supplemental essay prompt(s) for the most selective 50 U.S. colleges / universities
  • Word limits for each prompt
  • Application deadlines for each (early and regular)

Kate_Princeton Tutoring_AuthorBio Kate

Kate is a graduate of Princeton University. Over the last decade, Kate has successfully mentored hundreds of students in all aspects of the college admissions process, including the SAT, ACT, and college application essay.