If you are applying to multiple universities, you will likely be writing a longer college application essay and other shorter supplemental essays. To learn more about the different kinds of writing for your college applications, see my blog article: College Application Essays A-Z.

Writing Your College Application Supplementals: Making Your Match

Unlike the college application essay, which invites you to choose your own topic, supplemental essays are specific questions from colleges and universities asking you to share thoughtful responses to a wide range of questions. Sometimes these questions are extremely broad: “Why the University of Colorado?” Other times they’re deep and philosophical: “Interpret Saint Augustine’s stance on poverty to address a current social justice issue.”  Still, others are zany and experimental: “Where’s Waldo, really?”

Why so much variety? 

Regardless of the question, colleges are using supplemental essays to discover if you are a match for their school.

Here are some sample supplemental questions from past application seasons:

  • How did you first learn about Macalester? (Macalester College, 200 words)
  • As part of Gonzaga’s Presidential Speaker Series, the University brings to campus individuals whose scholarly research and commitment to social justice inspire students to action. Who would you choose to speak at Gonzaga and why? ( Gonzaga University, 300 words)
  • There is a Quaker saying: “Let your life speak.” Describe the environment in which you were raised – your family, home, neighborhood, or community – and how it influenced the person you are today. (Tufts University, 250 words)
  • Students receive narrative evaluations at Hampshire instead of letter or number grades. At the end of each course, students also complete a self-evaluation reflecting on their goals and class performance. Write a self-evaluation of a favorite class or other learning activity in high school. What were your goals? Where did you succeed? What do you wish had gone differently?(Hampshire College, 300 words)
  • “How’d you get caught?” (University of Chicago, no word limit)

If you simply wanted to reverse engineer a school’s values from the prompts, you’d surely come away with some pretty good theories. I highly suggest you do this kind of intellectual activity when you encounter supplemental questions.

But I invite you to go a few steps farther. In fact, I want you to reach outside of your own brain and start trying to understand this particular school by getting to know the college on a deeper level. If deciding to apply to this university can be considered a first date, think of this activity as exploring the odds of starting a relationship.

In addition to asking your date a list of questions on subsequent outings, you might also gather information by talking to their friends or family. Maybe you’d even research them through social media. And it’s this very mindset I want you to use as you further explore your prospective colleges.

I suppose if you’re really not up for researching a particular school you could just take it off your list. After all, if the college isn’t worth the time it takes to learn about their program—if they don’t rank for a second, third, or fourth date—then you probably don’t want to go there.

But if there’s any way this school is a contender for where you want to spend your undergraduate years, make sure you investigate the following attributes, all found on the college’s website.

Supplemental Essay Checklist

  • University Mission Statement

  • Student Profile

  • Student Opportunities/Programs (study abroad)

  • Department Pages for Your Major (or potential majors)

  • University Data (rankings, passions, relationship to college town)

Learning more about your school is the best way to show admissions counselors you’re a match. And in addition to visiting and staying overnight at your prospective universities, it’s a fabulous tool for helping you discover if these schools match your expectations.
I like to tell my students: remember, you are the bachelorette. In other words, when you receive your acceptances you’ll ultimately be choosing where to spend the next few years of your life. Wouldn’t you like to discover if a school clashes with your dreams? Wouldn’t you like to learn the study abroad opportunities at this university? What about discovering the college allows students to create interdisciplinary majors? And what if you really like the idea of blending two academic disciplines together but later find out one of your other schools doesn’t offer this option?

Write your supplemental essays to help you understand yourself and how a college matches your own wishes, dreams, and desires. Not only will you write a better answer, you’ll receive a return on your investment long before you hear about acceptances.