Supplement Strategies for College Applications

The odds of you getting into a school where you don’t fall into the range for GPA or scores is slim. But if you’re on the cusp, having great essays can tip the odds in your favor. They are an absolutely crucial part of the application and something we are very rigorous with in helping our own students. In this post, we discuss strategies for writing killer supplements.


The key to success here is to be extremely focused. If you don’t focus, you’re going to go all over the place. So, do yourself a favor and take a moment to meditate on what you want to write before you begin. Your goal in the supplement should be to develop a very clear picture of who you are. That may sound absurd. You’ve lived 17 or-so-years of life. How are you supposed to fit all of that into one essay? The answer is, you don’t need to. But you do need to leave the reader (the admissions team) with a very crisp understanding of some part about you. More on that below. You do that by focusing in on specific attributes within your persona and painting a picture through details.

Let your personality shine

Imagine you are entering the dating world. In high school, finding a match doesn’t usually consist of one single effort. In other words, there are a lot of different things you look at in a person when determining whether or not you want to date them. You might look at their Instagram account, talk to some of your mutual friends about what they like, or perhaps you developed an affinity after you saw them play in a sports game or sing in a recital. Maybe you even pay close attention to the music they blast from their car in the school parking lot or admire what they say in class.

 The college application process is not unlike dating. You compile an entire portfolio—your GPA, grades, resume, essay, perhaps an interview, among other elements—and basically tell a school that you have a crush on that you’re interested, then wait a while with the hopes that they’ll reciprocate. The thing is, all of those elements in your portfolio tell a story about you. In the crush analogy, it’s not just that you like how a guy’s hair looks on Instagram or the fact that he’s on the soccer team that pulls you in. You noticed that he hangs out with a lot of different types of people in photos; he’s a people person and he’s a leader on the soccer field. Imagine that the admissions committee is deducing parts of your character from your application and your essay is, perhaps, the biggest opportunity to showcase your personality.  

The ‘why this school’ essay  

There are two types of supplement essays. 

There’s the “why do you want to go here?” essay and then, there’s the “creative” essay. For both, you need to be incredibly laser focused on your end goal, which is different, depending on which essay you’re writing.

For the “why do you want to go here?” essay, you must demonstrate a legitimate interest in the school. In order to do this, you need to take a deep-dive. Research the school to a borderline obsessive-point. And hey, if you’re genuinely interested, this part will be fun. Just like you’re probably stalking your crush all over social media, you should be stalking your school (in a healthy way!), too. The first thing you must do is pick a major. One note: your essay is not binding. You can declare an “undecided” major once you get there, but for the application’s sake, you know exactly what you want to pursue. Remember, that’s part of staying laser focused. Your academic interest shouldn’t be out of left-field, either. It should be an extension of an expertise you’ve already developed, and an interest you’ve already demonstrated throughout high school. Identify the professors and classes taught within that corresponding major. In your essay, make sure to connect the dots and talk, very specifically, about why you want to pursue that area of study and why you’re a great candidate who is already on track within that academic disciple. You can tie in related clubs and activities at the university, as well, and speak briefly about your own leadership experience or experience with relevant internships. Just don’t spend a ton of time regurgitating the information that’s already on your resume.

You should also be demonstrating parts of your personality throughout. Remember, stay focused. We will repeat that over and over again until it gets in your head. You’re going to want to identify a few adjectives or soft skills that pertain to you and weave them into your essay. A bit more about that in a moment.  

The creative essay

The other essay option is the dreaded “creative” essay. This takes different forms at different universities, but the gist is basically “show us how you’re creative.” A lot of students feel the pressure with this one, but it really should be fun. It’s not just a BS creative essay, either. The thing is, the objective should be the same in the creative essay as it is in the “why x school” essay. What we do with our kids is map out personality traits through adjectives and soft skills and then try to put all of those traits into various essay, just as in the essay prompt above. The reason why is because you always want to be introducing new information to the admissions officers. If you have taken all STEM classes in high schools and taken the STEM-related SAT IIs, then don’t write a creative essay about being a STEM kid. That’s already clear in the rest of your application. Instead, draw from aspects of you they committee doesn’t know yet. People tend to fall short here. Now, pick a creative form as the vehicle for talking about your personality traits.

Tell a story

So, once you’ve identified what you want the admissions committee to know about you, you should then figure out how you’re going to do it. No matter the length, your essay should always be a story. That means it has a clear structure with a beginning, middle, and end. Think of a story in your life that conveys one or more of your personality traits. The trick is really to keep it simple. It doesn’t need to be (or actually shouldn’t be) some major, life-altering, existential story. You can even talk about your drive to school. Just keep it simple  

Answer the question. (No, really)

One other really important thing to note is that you must answer the question. That probably seems like a ridiculously obvious point to make, but believe us when we say we’ve seen it all. In fact, one of our students was given a supplement that prompted her to talk about her past two summers in 200 words or less. So, instead of answering the prompt, she only talked about the most recent summer. When we asked her about her choice, she replied that the school didn’t give her enough room. Here’s the thing. Failing to answer the prompt shows up as either arrogance or laziness. It says to the school you either weren’t paying attention, or that you know how to ask their questions better than they do. Operating out of either laziness or arrogance are really easy ways to get rejected.

Get organized  

Students who sign-up for our A to Z Package  get super organized. What we do is go through every supplement and group them together in a Google doc. One reason we do this is because organization diffuses stress, and it also prevents careless mistakes. Another reason we do this is because we don’t like to reinvent the wheel. You may actually be able to use parts of your supplement for one school for an entirely different application. This doesn’t mean write the “Why Penn” supplement, change the word “Penn” to “Michigan” and submit it to Michigan, too. It just means that both are about why you want to go somewhere in 500 words or less, and both should talk about your personality. Also, if you’re applying to Wharton and you’re applying to Ross, there are going to be some similar things that you’re attracted to those schools. So, feel free to reuse your own frameworks. It just takes organization. There’s also something really nice about seeing all of the work you have in front of you in one place. That way, when you begin to chip away, you have a sense of knowing how far you have left to go and can feel proud of all you’ve checked off of your to-do list.

One thing: while you can totally double-up on some info. from supplement-to-supplement, do not make the mistake of writing “why I want to go Tufts” for Barnard. You will get rejected.

Need help identifying the personality traits you’d like to flesh out in your essays? Reach out to us here. We’re great at helping students articulate why they are great candidates for their top-choice schools.