The Ultimate 2017-2018 Guide to Writing Your College Essay Supplements

Before you dive into a college supplement, there are a few things to look for and review that will guide how you approach each and every application. The majority of the work for any application comes before you start actually writing. We’ve discussed in past blog posts how you can tell a lot about a college just by reading through its supplement. This point also reflects the biggest part of your applications, which is reading. While colleges are looking for responses that answer their questions, they are also looking for answers that indicate that you have read through and thought about their supplement thoroughly.

Reading instructions is important l to any successful application, but there are a few other crucial things to look out for that we recommend to all of our students when reviewing any application supplement. We’ve rounded up the 3 main components of a college supplement that you should consider before beginning to work on it, and then we’ve outlined a couple of things to think about while you’re writing. If you follow these steps, you’ll be sure to produce a supplement that is not only on subject and relevant, but thoughtful, well-written, and creative.


 The length of any given essay is essentially your entire story—it is the single most important fact that you should be taking note of before you even begin thinking about what the question is asking. Though every essay is about research and reflection to some extent, some require more restraint and editing than others. No matter what, every response should illustrate that you have a deep and solid understanding of whatever school the supplement is for. Even if you only have 50 characters to do this, you can still do it. Here’s a breakdown of what a response should look like for the 4 most popular supplemental essay prompts: 

  • Under 100 words
    This is a rapid response question that is essentially your elevator pitch for whatever their question may be. In this case, your answer is more about you than it is about the college. Though you should tie the college into your response in some way, you don’t have room for detail. Instead of mentioning a program you’re interested in, mention a class. This response is all about editing. Eliminate fluff words and produce a tight, compelling, direct answer. The tone should be confident and clear, reflecting how well you know yourself. The attitude with which you write this response will come through.

  • 100-250 words
    This length still requires a relatively bare bones response, but you can provide a bit of context for your interest. This is also a great place to use your creative writing skills—you have space to add in a metaphor or a brief background story. Be sure to tie in why you want to study at the particular school that you’re writing to by incorporating details. It needs to be clear that you have done your research, have an understanding of what the school can offer you, and that studying there would be an obvious extension of your foundational interests.

  • 250-300 words
    This is where you can really get creative and less restrained with your language, though of course remain discerning and intentional with what you include and how you tell your story. This length of essay requires a more extended narrative arc with a direct climax of the story that you’re telling. You have room to add in a number of details and really expand upon why you are applying to this school over all of the other thousands of schools that you could have applied to. Incorporate a substantial amount of background, context, and an illustration of your goals. Invite the admissions reader into your thought process and draw them into your story.

  • 400+ words
    Once you’ve over 400 words, you’re essentially writing an essay. We love this length. If it’s relevant, you’re writing your second choice Common App personal statement essay. The Common App questions span a diverse number of subject matters, formats, and tones, so the question that the college is asking more likely than not, is applicable in some way. If you want any samples of these essays, just let us know and we can send some over.  


After spending years reading through hundreds of college supplements, we’d say there’s at least a 90% chance that some part of a college’s supplement is asking you at least one part of the ‘Why X School?’ Question. Naturally, they want to understand why you want to attend their college, and either they’ll mask the question in some sort of a creative way or they won’t. Either way, if you think they’re asking you, “why us?” then they are.

If you’ve correctly identified this beast, read up on how best to tackle it (hint: research, research, context). Not every ‘Why X School?’ question is dressed the same, so be sure that your writing answers their specific wording of the question. Be sure to include the following in your research. First, tackle academics, and then tackle the outside-of-the-classroom stuff:

  • Classes you want to take

  • A professor whose research fascinates you

  • An academic path that intrigues you

  • Some clubs or activities you want to participate in

  • Some cultural details about the school that excite you

Now, as we just said: many colleges use this question. It might be tempting to do a quick copy-paste job from a different school’s supplement and fill in the specific details/name of the college. But we’d actually advise against even looking at an essay you’ve written for another college. Every supplement is a bit different, and you shouldn’t mimic your response to another school. So just trust us on this—don’t even look at your other essays. Start fresh. Colleges can tell when an essay is recycled. And there’s no fate worse than hitting submit on your Bates application, only to realize that you left your Dartmouth header in.


As we said above, the majority of the work that you’ll do on any college supplement is analyzing and categorizing the question. Once you’ve done that, most of your work is done and all you have to do is write. There are a few different categories of questions that the college might be asking. Here’s how to tackle each of them:

  • The hobby question
    You know it’s a hobby question if they are asking you to share something about yourself that isn’t necessarily academic. Their goal is to get inside your brain and understand who you are in a fuller context. They want to get to know you. These questions are great because it’s a chance to remind everyone involved that there is a human on either end of an application. There is an actual human person reading your application. And you, the applicant, are someone with complex interests, goals, dreams, and thoughts. This is your chance to share something that might normally go in your Additional Information section, but now you can expand a bit on it. Use this opportunity to make a connection with your reader. That said, don’t create something out of nothing—if you don’t have a unique hobby, that’s OK. Don’t invent something. Admissions readers can tell (and so can we). If your only hobby is maintaining your streak on Snapchat, then we have two pieces of advice: 1. Yale probably isn’t for you, and 2. Call us.

All jokes aside, with questions like this we always say: the nerdier, the better. Tell a story about something that you do just for you. It’s OK if it’s not for the overall betterment of your education. In fact, we encourage our students to share something quirky in response to the hobby question. Quirky is memorable, and memorable gets accepted.

  • The issues-based question
    A number of schools ask students to expand on an issue that they are passionate about or a problem that they want to tackle. A few words of wisdom here: go local and go personal. When a college asks you to discuss an issue of importance or to choose a problem to solve, it’s always best to go small. Regardless of the space that you have to answer the question, we guarantee that you don’t have room to solve world hunger or domestic violence in a realistic way. Set yourself up for success. Choose an issue that you can directly relate to or that you have experience with, and then go even a bit smaller than you’re comfortable with. It’s always better to incorporate personal experiences into a response, and though we’re sure that your passion for the environment and worry about the Antarctic Sea is genuine, these are issues that affect everyone. It’s not your reality or your day-to-day, making it hard to talk about. Writing about something that you can relate to evokes empathy from the reader, which is the ultimate goal.

Everyone can relate to certain issues, i.e. the planet’s well-being or animal welfare, but unfortunately your passion for these topics is not unique. As such, your writing on these topics won’t strike the admissions reader as unique either. Discuss something that you have experienced and that you have a personal stake in. Wrap it all up by elaborating on a lesson that you learned and a key takeaway that you want your reader to come away with. Your passion will come through in your writing and you will inevitably draw the reader in. You can’t argue with genuine.

If you are writing a particularly compelling story, for example, discussing government disaster recovery plans which you had experience with after your house was destroyed in Hurricane Sandy, be mindful of the tone you are striking. You should aim to tow the line between telling a sad story in such a way that you shock the reader into paying attention but still keep them engaged instead of bringing them down. And of course, be sure that you’re not just telling a story and walking away—wrap it up in such a way that the reader has a clear take home point. You should illustrate a change that you initiated or a lesson that you learned. 

  • The short answer question
    These questions inspire a rapid response from the applicant and require some thinking, but not too much. They are often lighthearted questions, like “What’s your favorite snack?” or “What’s the fifth song on the soundtrack of your life?” The worst thing that you can do with the short answer questions are to over-think them. Overly nuanced and unnecessarily “deep” answers are not the way to go with these. Rather, just be yourself, and more likely than not if we were advising you one-on-one, we’d end up with a version of your immediate instinctual response rather than one that you thought of after hours of contemplation.

While You’re Writing… 

We’ve outlined some guidelines and things to keep in mind while you’re writing all of these wonderful supplements.  

  1. Work backwards
    It might sound counter-intuitive, but we find that your writing actually gets clearer and more precise if you know where you want to end up. Start by thinking about and figuring out what you want your reader’s takeaway lesson to be from your story before you write it. Start from the end and determine what the lesson is and help that end point guide your writing, as opposed to the writing determining your end point. Whether you’re discussing failure, an issue you’re passionate about, or even why you want to attend the college, figure out what your main driving thought is and go from there.

  2. Consider creativity and an unexpected format
    We are always looking for ways to surprise the reader. Think about the scene: your admissions reader has been reading hundreds of applications in a room. While they’re enjoying them, they’re getting to a point where they need a cup of coffee and are contemplating what time it is. They happen upon your application and boom, your essay jolts them to life in a way that is so unexpected. Your essay makes them laugh. All of a sudden, they’re in a great mood and your essay is the root cause of their turnaround. Odds are, you’re getting a recommendation for acceptance.

One way that you can surprise the reader is by writing in medias res. This is a particularly valuable tool because you might not have room to tell the full story, so take advantage of a limited canvas and start your story smack dab in the middle. Draw the reader in with a slice of compelling dialogue or by painting an intriguing scene mid-action. That’s just one idea.

Another idea is to write your essay in the format of a poem or a song. Make it rhyme. Bottom line: make it fun to read. It doesn’t need to be funny, but if you can insert some humor, we’d always encourage you to do so. It’s never a bad thing to make your admissions reader laugh.

Let us know if you have any questions at all about a college supplement or application. We have a lot of wisdom that we’d love to share with you.