Three Tips for Writing Successful College Application Supplemental Essays

In many admissions offices, the supplemental essays are referred to as the “weeder outer” essays. In other words, admissions officers use these college-specific essays to eliminate (or weed out) less qualified applicants after the initial reviews have been conducted.

Because each college has its own supplemental essay questions, writing each supplemental essay requires research, strategy, planning, and cunning. When writing your essays, keep in mind that admissions officers are reading your supplemental essays to see how well you know the college and the program to which you are applying, and to see how successfully you can connect your background, interests, and aspirations to specific aspects of the colleges that interest you. In effect, you have to make a case for your admittance, and in order to do so you need to cite specific evidence that will persuade the admissions officers that you fit with their programs and the college’s goals, that you are a good match for the college or program to which you want to be admitted.

While each supplemental essay questions is different, there are three general rules to keep in mind when writing all supplemental essays.

Read the Colleges’ Mission Statements

While every college mission statement is designed to appeal to a wide range of students and commitments, there are important differences in the wording of mission statements that can help direct your thinking about your supplemental essay responses. For example, here’s an excerpt from University Notre Dame’s mission statement:

The University of Notre Dame is a Catholic academic community of higher learning, animated from its origins by the Congregation of Holy Cross…The University prides itself on being an environment of teaching and learning that fosters the development in its students of those disciplined habits of mind, body, and spirit that characterize educated, skilled, and free human beings. In addition, the University seeks to cultivate in its students not only an appreciation for the great achievements of human beings but also a disciplined sensibility to the poverty, injustice and oppression that burden the lives of so many. The aim is to create a sense of human solidarity and concern for the common good that will bear fruit as learning becomes service to justice.

Compare University of Notre Dame’s mission statement to Columbia University’s:

Columbia University is one of the world’s most important centers of research and at the same time a distinctive and distinguished learning environment for undergraduates and graduate students in many scholarly and professional fields. The University recognizes the importance of its location in New York City and seeks to link its research and teaching to the vast resources of a great metropolis. It seeks to attract a diverse and international faculty and student body, to support research and teaching on global issues, and to create academic relationships with many countries and regions. It expects all areas of the university to advance knowledge and learning at the highest level and to convey the products of its efforts to the world.

Both mission statements provide valuable information that can be used to strategize and write the supplemental essays. When we compare these two mission statements, we see that University of Notre Dame emphasizes service through learning and suggests that concern for social justice and social inequities are important aspects of learning. Note also that the statement makes reference to the university’s origins in the Order of the Holy Cross. That’s all useful information for you to think about when writing your supplemental essays. For example, when writing your supplemental essays for University of Notre Dame, you would do well to think about your academic experience, your experience learning, as a way of serving. You might also want to research the Order of the Holy Cross and think how you can use what you learn about the Order to inform the content of your essays. For example, once you know that the Order was founded to educate underprivileged boys to be teachers, and specifically, to teach by developing the students’ minds and hearts and by kindling a zeal for service and hope , you can use those ideas to inform your personal responses. In other words, in your supplemental essays, you might want to emphasize your interest and experience learning as a way of helping others or advancing your understanding of social injustices.

Now look at Columbia University’s mission statement. Unlike University of Notre Dame, Columbia’s statement emphasizes research, diversity and globalism, advancement and dissemination of knowledge, and their location in New York City. Note that there is no emphasis on service or community responsibility, nor on learning as a tool of and for social justice. When writing supplemental essays for Columbia, their mission statement suggests that you think about, and emphasize in your essays, your past research experience and research you hope to do in the future. You might also want to think how the university’s location in New York City would help you continue and advance your research interests.

Match Your Strengths to Those of the College

Remember that the admissions officers are reading your supplemental essays to see how well you, specifically, not any other applicant, will fit into the college or the specific program to which you are applying. The key here is specificity. In other words, if you tell Columbia you want to be admitted because the university has great research departments, that’s not going to cut it. Instead, find specific research opportunities that interest you at Columbia and write about how those specific opportunities will help advance your specific interests. For example, if you are an aspiring biology major, are you interested in Columbia’s SURF program? If so, you want to explain—specifically—what drives your interest in the program and what specifically qualifies you for the program. Likewise with Notre Dame: Don’t write that you want to be admitted to the business school because the Mendoza College of Business is a great business school. Instead, find some aspects of the program that compel your interest and then write supplemental essays that show—specifically—what drives your interest in those aspects, what specifically qualifies you for admission to the program, and how you will contribute to the program if admitted.

Write Strategically

When writing the supplemental essays, try to showcase aspects of yourself that have not been revealed by your transcript and in other responses. For example, if you are a potential chemistry major applying to a university such as Columbia that requires students to take a core curriculum, you might want to use one of the supplemental essays to showcase an aspect of yourself that is outside the realm of science. In other words, you might want to write an essay that indicates that you have an artistic or creative side (do you write poetry or paint?), or that describes your interest in novels and other forms of fiction (which ones and why?). Even if you are applying for admission to a particular school within a university such as the Mendoza Business School, you will most likely be required to take at least one year of courses within the general curriculum. In this case, you might want to describe how general courses in math, science, and language or literature have already enhanced your understanding of business and will contribute to your better understanding of business.

When writing the supplemental essays, keep in mind that you are making a case; you are trying to prove to the college that you are more qualified than all other applicants. And you prove that you are more qualified than other applicants by demonstrating to the college how well you know the college and how well you represent–or match–your background, interests, and aspirations to the specific aspects of that particular college or that particular program at that college.

Because of the intense competition for college admission today, the supplemental essays need to be taken seriously. But once you research the differences between one research university and another, or the ways the research universities to which you are applying are different from the liberal arts colleges to which you are applying, it’s simply a matter of matching your interests and goals to the strengths of the colleges to which you are applying. Remember, the supplemental essays are designed to help admissions officers eliminate applicants who do not appear to match the colleges’ goals and programs. So make sure you let each school know that you are not only a match, but the perfect match!

About The Author
Susan Osborn, Ph.D., has spent 30 years in higher education, in admissions at Vassar College, in the English department and Writing Program at Rutgers University, in the lab at The New Jersey Center for Research on Writing, and as a private tutor. Dr. Osborn is also an award-winning writer and scholar and she brings both her education smarts and her writing smarts to every student relationship.