How to Write a 250-word College Supplement

Welcome to the third part in our supplement series! We’ve covered 1-word answers, and 50-word answers, but most of the supplement questions come across fall into the 200-300 word range. Colleges like the 250(ish)-word length because it’s concise enough to be a quick read, but it gives the student enough space to either do a really good job or to raise some admissions red flags. We want you to do a really good job, so we’re here to help you out.

We’ve also written a ton of college specific posts that break down the supplements for schools like Haverford and Claremont McKenna (both of which have 250-word supplements, by the way). If we haven’t published a post on the supplement for your dream school, let us know!

The 250-word length might very well be our favorite. It forces students to be concise, like the 50-word questions, but it also offers some room to move around and to do something interesting. Think about it like an elevator pitch with a little room for context. An elevator pitch is a name for the coherent presentation of an idea in the amount of time it would take to go from, say, floor 1 to floor 15 in a moderately slow elevator - maybe a minute and a half max. The phrase comes from the business world. A business person follows a potential investor or client onto an elevator and only has a few seconds to make a coherent argument for why they should work together - so it’s basically the same as college applications. Your answers are measured in words rather than seconds, but you only have a small amount of time to ask for a big thing, admittance, so the 250-word supplements are an important place to make the elevator pitch for why you should get in.

Many schools are transparent about wanting you to make the case for yourself. The most popular supplemental question every year is the “Why should we let you in?” question. Swarthmore, for example, asks: “In 150 to 250 words, please write about why you are interested in applying to and attending Swarthmore.” (Check out our step-by-step advice for the Swarthmore application.)

Other schools make you work a little harder, forcing you to flex some creative muscle in the short word format. Smith gives students only 200 words to write about a time that made them laugh, Dartmouth asks students to share a time that they had to step out of their comfort zone, and Barnard wants to know what woman in history or fiction you would choose to talk to for an hour.

These questions are obviously very varied, but they can all be tackled using the same five-step process. Seriously, do this to the letter and you’ll be killing it in no time.

Step One: Brainstorm and Research

If you’re asked why you’d like to go to a school, the research is pretty straight forward. You research the school, duh. Find specific programs you want to get involved in, classes you want to take, and professors you want to learn from. For questions that are more creative, you should still be brainstorming and doing research. For a question like what woman you’d want to talk to, pull together a bunch of names, cross off any that will come off as generic (bye bye Hillary Clinton, Oprah, and Katniss Everdeen). Even if you’re just writing about your own life, like a time that made you laugh, start off with a few ideas to choose from. Often, the one that works best isn’t the first one that pops into your head.

Step Two: Outline

It’s only 250 words, so you don’t have to do anything crazy here, but take your notes and ideas and pick 1 or 2 ideas to guide your answer. For example, if you’re writing about why you want to go to a school where you want to study Anthropology, you may decide to focus in on the Anthropology Department. After you’ve picked your focal point(s), give yourself 2-3 bullet points that you MUST hit for each. Continuing with the anthropology example, your bullet points might be:

  • Receive mentorship or guidance with Y professor who specializes in this thing I’m really interested in.
  • Take X class(es) that link into that thing.

Step Three: Write Long

This is probably the most counter-intuitive step for people but bear with us.

Any answer that is longer than 50 words needs to have a coherent narrative structure. There should be an intro, a body, and a conclusion. If possible, there should also be some sort of story arc and details that give characters life and set the scene. But, this can be really hard to do in the short format, especially if you aren’t used to writing in the short prose form. SO, start by writing long. Completely erase the word count from your mind and write the answer as you would organically. Usually, this means going ~100 words over.

Step Four: Kill Your Darlings

While Step Three is the most counter-intuitive step, this step is definitely the hardest for people, especially when you like what you’ve written. Now, though, it’s time to take out the red pen. Hunt down unnecessary flourishes and ‘throat clearing’, or superfluous information that is shared on the way to making your point, but that doesn’t aid you in your argument. Cut down overly worked transitions, shorten long sentences, and look for more concise ways to say simple things. For example, you could change “I really admire X because she was confident when no one else believed in her,” (15 words) to “I admire X’s confidence in the face of adversity,” (9 words). The key is to maintain the narrative structure. Each section will get shorter, but there is no excuse for a mess. Often, this means playing around a little, so we recommend using the track changes or suggestions functions so you can chop away without fear of not being able to go back.

Step Five: Read it Out Loud

Once you have a piece that fits into the word count, take the time to read it out loud a few times. This can help you catch awkward wording that you may have missed.

If you’re done with Step Five, your journey to an epic short-answer supplement is complete!

Want more hands-on help? Get in touch! We help students get into amazing schools that they often had no idea they could even shoot for. Good guidance truly can make magic happen, and 100% of our students get into one of their top two picks.