After the Common App essay, supplements are the second-most creative part of the college application process. Actually, they’re really the only other creative part. Grades and test scores are quantitative, and recommendations are out of your control once you’ve requested them. The essay and the supplements are the places you get to speak in your voice and to be yourself. But where the main essay needs to work for every school you apply to; your supplements need to be tailored. Reuse a story, sure. Copy and paste a supplement, though, and you’re setting yourself up for failure. (We’ve all heard horror stories of when a supplement about Hamilton is accidentally sent to Middlebury, and it happens more often than you’d even imagine.)
The fun of supplements is that they offer many opportunities to explore the myriad of ideas that didn’t work for your essay, but that are compelling nonetheless. One of my favorite supplements of 2018 came from just this sort of process. Faced with the “Additional Information Section,” —which, for the record, isn’t optional—we wanted to show a totally different side of the student. He is a successful athlete and a curious academic, but what we felt was missing was a view of him at home. What happens in the ‘off-hours’? What, we asked him, happens in the kitchen?
As soon as he mentioned that he makes a particular dish with his father on special occasions, the pieces started falling into place. He was passionate not just about dumpling making, but about the culture behind the food, and the time he got to spend with his dad in the making of it. This also gave us an opportunity to bring his Korean-American heritage into the application, without making it a central piece of it.
The first step was to set the scene. We are passionate about writing pieces that are stories, so he started...
“My dad and I make sujebi on special occasions. The last time we made it was this past Sunday when it snowed. It very rarely snows in Seattle so it was indeed an occasion worth celebrating.”
It’s a simple start, not overworked, and it flows into what is truly a recipe, although with a more narrative structure. Steps form the frame of the piece, with the story weaving in and out between adding salt or bringing a pot to a boil. If they wanted, an admissions official could use it as a recipe.
This is what we mean when we advocate for writing about small things. This piece of writing is simple, but it isn’t simplistic. It uses a small moment, making dumplings, to touch on a variety of topics, from the passing down of traditions to father-son bonding, to the particular importance of Electric Light Orchestra to the sujebi-making process.
He writes, “turn on Electric Light Orchestra to set the mood. If you’ve never listened to them, put on their greatest hits.”
There is a definite joy in keeping something interesting when it is so simple and small...
“The beginning is slow and methodical. Break down the chicken, separating the bones and the meat. When your dad isn’t looking, eat a piece of chicken. Refrigerate the rest. Pour the stock into a pot, add the bones and water until the bones are completely covered. Bring it to a boil, reduce by half, then add more water (six times). Sip occasionally, season if necessary, but, otherwise, don’t touch it. There’s no science to when it’ll be ready, but you’ll develop a gut instinct for when the broth is done.”
This essay is intimate not just because it peers into the students home-life, but because it does so through a universally understandable point of connection—the kitchen. No matter where you live or what recipes you use, there is no need to translate the emotions that comfort foods elicit. It doesn’t need to be explained, because everyone has their version of it.
In the end, the student wrapped the piece up without overworking the imagery or stretching towards a profound meaning that doesn’t need to be explicitly stated.
“Fried chicken, mac and cheese, bacon anything, pancakes. Every culture, and every family, has a comfort food. Yes, the food is good, but the recipes are often shockingly simple for the amount of enthusiasm the dishes elicit on the table. Comfort food is as much about taste as it is about memories. Memories of ripped up brontosauruses, nearly burnt hands, grandmother’s kitchen, dad at the stove, and always picking a spoon over a fork, even though either will do.”
We loved this supplement so much that we modified it to work for multiple applications. Not a copy and paste job, but a strong example of how good writing can be reused if you take the time to do it right.