After you've written your personal statement for the Common Application, Coalition Application, or a specific school you’re applying to, you'll want to master your supplemental essays. These are additional materials that many colleges and universities require so they can get to know an applicant even better. Here’s a look at five common types of supplemental writing prompts, plus tips to help you master each task and write outstanding college essays.
Questions to ask before writing
Before drafting any supplemental essays, write out a simple paragraph or bullet points responding to this question: When they’re done reading this essay, what will readers know about me that they can’t find out from the rest of my application? You should also be able to answer the following questions about your respective essay:
- What is the prompt really asking?
- What appeals to you about the school or program? (Consider experiences you want to have as well as ways you’d like to extend current experiences into the future.)
- What do you want admission officers to learn about you from reading it?
- Why are you compatible with this school/program?
- What examples/illustrations can you share to demonstrate your compatibility?
Types of supplemental essays
You may encounter several types of supplemental essays when applying to colleges. Each one should be approached with different writing techniques and questions you should ask yourself. Here are just a few examples.
1. Activity essays
As with any other essay, you should start your activities essay by making sure you understand the prompt. The key question “What do I want readers to know about me that they can’t find out from the rest of my application?” is particularly relevant here. They already know you participate in this activity after reading your résumé. But they don’t know how you’ve benefitted from this experience, why it’s important to you, how you’ve contributed, or how it has influenced you. Answer some or all these questions as you’re brainstorming story ideas:
- What does my experience demonstrate about me?
- What have I learned from this activity?
- How have I grown since I started it?
- What has this experience meant to me?
These answers will help you formulate a response to your cornerstone question. Once you know what you want readers to learn, it’s time to choose a story (or stories) to illustrate that characteristic (or characteristics).
Always remember: The emphasis should be on characteristics (e.g., I’m confident; I know how to relax under stressful circumstances; I’m a strong team member), not accomplishments (e.g., I led our team to victory; I got the highest score; I was the youngest player to finish the tournament).
2. Community essays
With community-based supplements, you’ll want to start by listing all the different communities you’re a part of. Examples include:
- School groups
- Religious groups
- Sports teams
- Volunteer sites
- Ethnic community
Community can mean many things, so try to get as specific as possible. After that, you have some questions to ask yourself:
- Which of these communities feels most important and meaningful? Usually, this will be a smaller group—your Temple youth group, local cousins who get together every Sunday night, or fellow volunteers at the senior center.
- How has this community shaped you? How have you grown or changed because of that community? For example, if you’ve become more of a leader because you’re the oldest of your cousins, readers should know you’re a strong leader, trustworthy, and independent.
Once you know what you want readers to learn about you, choose a story (or stories) that illustrate that. It could start like this:
Last summer, I took all my cousins to the beach alone. Our parents trusted me to make sure everyone swam safely and didn’t get too much sun. That was the first time I was entirely responsible for that group. How has being a part of my community of cousins brought me to this point? Because my aunts and uncles have trusted me with their children since I was young, and because of that, I’ve learned responsibility and independence, which I apply in many different situations.
3. Creative essays
When responding to open, creative questions, start with an open and creative mindset. Free writing is your most valuable tool here. Start by writing freely in response to the prompt, but don’t try to craft an essay just yet. Instead, wander and explore. See where the prompt takes you. You can do this type of free writing in response to one or more prompts if the school offers various options. Free write for several 10- to 15-minute sessions over the course of several days; it’ll help you let your story flow more freely. Remember, this type of essay requires time and a relaxed frame of mind, so don’t save it for the last minute.
4. Common Application COVID-19 question
Community disruptions such as COVID-19 and natural disasters can have deep and long-lasting impacts on many students. If you need it, the COVID-19 Common App question is yours to describe those impacts. Colleges care about the effects it’s had on your health and well-being, safety, family circumstances, plans for the future, and education, including access to reliable technology and quiet study spaces.
This prompt is optional, should be answered in 250 words or fewer, and appears in the Additional Information section of the Common App. Despite it being optional, some schools strongly encourage students to answer this prompt. If you complete this essay, only share information that’s new and can’t be found elsewhere on your application. Start by answering these three questions:
- What did you do during the pandemic?
- What were you unable to do?
- How do you feel about it?
Note: This is purely an informational question; reflection isn’t really necessary in the way it might be in other essays. This is a question that deserves an honest answer, but there’s no right or wrong response.
5. The “Why This College?” essay
Many schools will ask you to explain why you want to attend their school. In addition to this core question, you should be asking two other key questions to answer this type of prompt:
- What attracts you to the school as well as your potential program/major?
- How does what you know about the program mesh with what you want the reader to know about you?
If you’re attracted to your program of interest because of their larger generalized courses paired with smaller group learning opportunities, you could emphasize your ability to work well independently and in a group. On the other hand, if you’re excited to explore areas you’re not familiar with, you might talk about your never-ending curiosity. As with all essays, focus on content before structure and polish, and make sure you understand the purpose of the essay.
Supplemental essays are the perfect chance to polish off and round out your college applications with stories about you. After finishing these additional materials, you’ll submit your college apps knowing your best possible self is represented by sharing the academic and personal facets that are important for admission officers to know. Don’t waste this valuable opportunity to gain acceptance to your dream college!
Learn even more tips and tricks to perfect your writing with Our Best Advice on College Application Essays.