Great college application essays are like hit songs: there’s no exact formula for perfection, but you know one when you hear one. And like every song in the top 40, the best college application essays exist in the negative space—they rise to the top of admission counselors’ stacks because they say something that hasn’t been said before.
I know what you’re thinking: how am I, a person who has existed on this planet for less than two decades, supposed to say something that hasn’t been said before and make myself sound good to the admission office?
While you’re correct that writing these essays won’t be easy, try not to psych yourself out. Every student applying for college across the country (and beyond) has to write these, so if they can do it, you can too.
Here we’ll break down three common supplemental essay questions colleges might ask you and give you unique brainstorming material for each one. By the end of this article, you’ll be ready to write the next great American novel… as long as that novel only consists of standout application essays.
Essay #1: “Why our school?”
A lot of colleges and universities will have you answer a supplemental essay question that asks you why their school is the right school for you. Personally, these were my least favorite essays to write. But the good news is the readers aren’t looking for anything too out of the box here.
The bulk of the writing in these essays comes from research. Look up a list of prominent clubs or organizations unique to the school and explain why they interest you. If a specific department’s major or minor program sounds appealing, tell them why with lots of specifics. Maybe the Biology department offers hands-on research with a rare species of dolphin you’re passionate about saving, or maybe the English department spawned Emily Dickinson herself. Either way, the more specific you can get, the better.
It also doesn’t hurt to mention aspects of the school’s location that interest you, such as your desire to get a part-time job as a ski instructor if the school is in the mountains, or your passion for New York City’s Broadway scene if you’re applying in the Big Apple.
Essay #2: The book question
Almost everyone has at least one book that’s stuck with them by the time they turn 18, even the most math- and science-oriented students. If you read a lot already, that’s great—but you could still fall into a few common pitfalls that will make admission counselors roll their eyes.
First off, you should not write down the most popular book at the bookstore over the past five years. That means no Harry Potter series, no John Green, and definitely no Twilight saga. Secondly, don’t talk about a book that relates to your love life, even if you and your crush met over a copy of Rupi Kaur poems at Barnes & Noble. I’d also advise against talking about any classics you read during high school if they’re well known. Thousands of students will write about The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, and you want to stand out, don’t you?
So what books can you write about for this essay? Tons of them. There are a million and one books out there that don’t fall into the categories above, and there has to have been one that touched you in some way. A memoir would be a good choice, or an obscure book of poetry from your grandfather’s bookshelf; your take on a YA novel that middle schoolers are reading these days; a feminist manifesto of any sort, or a self-help book that made you see the world differently. The point is, while you can (and should) write about your favorite book for these questions, if your favorite book is extremely popular, pick your second favorite instead.
Try to work your interests or something unique about yourself into these literature-related questions. Want to be a history major and interested in American History and female leaders? Write about a biography on your favorite First Lady. Studying to be a high school teacher? Pick a book by a teacher, for future teachers. These questions serve as a great way to highlight your love of learning.
Also, a note about writing about children’s books: If you feel as though you have fantastic writing skills and a very deep or unique take on a children’s book, go for it. But if you want to write about Green Eggs and Ham because that was the last book you remember reading, ask your friends what books they’ve enjoyed reading in the past five years and pick up one of those. You have to follow the rules before you can break them, and this essay is no exception.
Essay #3: The weird one
We’re looking at you, University of Chicago. This school (among others) has been notorious for putting out incredibly quirky questions for years now. For example, one of their past essay questions asked students to write about “What’s so odd about odd numbers?” Where do you even start with that one?!
For these types of questions, go with your gut feeling. These essays give you a chance to really think outside the box and flex your creativity. No matter how weird your answer might sound, trust it, make sure it’s well written, and run it by a few English teachers at your high school before sending it in (for good measure).
As for the “What’s so odd about odd numbers?” question…my answer would be along the lines of how it’s odd that we call them “odd” when there are just as many odd numbers as there are even. A friend of mine who actually answered and submitted that application question wrote about why he walks upstairs two steps at a time, and when there’s an odd number of stairs, he has to walk up the last stair as a single stair and it makes him feel odd. Whose answer was better? You be the judge.
Find more writing advice in our Application Essay Clinic.