Supplement essays (aka “College Pages” on the Common App) are students’ biggest missed opportunities on college applications–especially to the most selective colleges.
You’ve spent months obsessively reworking “the essay,” as if the 650-word personal statement is your next set of SAT scores, and the more rounds of editing you do the better it will get (which often isn’t the case—see below).
But your big chance to connect with a specific college is the supplement essays you toss off at the last minute, like they’re optional assignments in your least important class. “When I walked onto your campus I fell in love,” the generic supplement essay begins. “I look forward to studying in your world-class economics department,” it continues. And it ends, “I know I will make an important contribution to your diverse educational community.” Don’t let those soporific words be yours! (Look it up! It’s an SAT word.)
Unlike the personal essay in the Writing section, where the questions are designed to be open-ended thought-starters, you really do need to answer the questions asked in the supplements specifically.
There are two types of supplement essays: essays that ask you about the college and its programs (“If you are applying to Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you”), and essays that ask you to elaborate on your experiences, commitments, and aspirations (“What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?”).
While there’s still time to get this right for your Early Action, Early Decision and Rolling applications, here are 5 tips to successfully answer the first type, supplement essays about a specific college:
1. First, talk to a student or alumnus. Your best access to specific details about what the place is really like is to talk to someone who is on the campus right now. Ask them what they love, and even what they might change. Many colleges have online chat with current students. Recent alumni will also give you a good sense of the place. Or watch the videos on the college’s website. Get a sense of what the school is about, and what you would bring, or change.
2. Then, do your homework. With every shard of info available on the Internet, there is no excuse to not know specific information about the colleges you are applying to! What courses will you take with which professors? Which activities will you lead? Where and what will you study in your semester abroad? Where will you hang out late at night? These details make a huge difference; they show the admissions officer reading your essay that you care enough to do your research. These will be key details in your essay.
3. Next, choose your main connection. The best indicator of what you’ll do in the future is what you’ve done in the past. So make a case for how you will engage at that campus by revealing the key moments of your work and learning in high school. For instance, “Last summer, when I was enrolled in a nanotechnology class at our local college, I read about Cornell’s program in renewable energy and Professor Craighead’s research on biofuels. I’m keen to learn not only how to design cleaner energy sources, but also how to turn them into successful social ventures.” Address each of the points you thought of in the first steps, this specifically and clearly.
4. Remember! Go past the surface. Don’t base your essays on the glossy pictures in the college’s marketing materials! What does the college value? And how does your sense of purpose connect with theirs? The important thing isn’t how you feel about the college, but what you will do once you get there. Are you going to revamp their recycling system? Join a lab? Combine two areas of study in their multidisciplinary program?
5. What difference will you make? Many students say things like, “College X will allow me to. . .” That is a completely narcissistic way to answer the question. Instead, ask yourself, “What will I do for this college?” Remember that the admissions office has to choose between students who are all strong candidates. What specific passion, commitment, or curiosity will you bring to the community? I’m repeating myself, but it’s that important.
Finally, remember how I said more rounds of editing doesn’t always make a better essay? While you definitely want all your essays to be examples of your best writing, many students obsessively edit their essays to please everyone and, in the process, grind them down to generic-sounding platitudes. The most memorable essays are written in your authentic voice, almost as if you were speaking to the admissions reader. So when you are editing, make sure to keep in the memorable details, your quirky turns of phrase, and especially reasons to believe in your future, based on what you’ve done in the past.
Note: Next week Carol’s blog will show you how to answer questions that ask for more information about your experience. She will be leading 2 webinars about Supplement Essays on 10/15 and 10/22, 7pm EST. Sign up here.