The Five Biggest Mistakes in College Application Supplemental Essays

When you apply to college, just about every school will receive the same transcript, test scores, essay, resume, and Common App info. Supplements, then, are your place to stand out. Not every college has a supplement, but for those that do the supplement is a key piece of our application since it’s the only place that’s just for them.

If you’re applying to more than a handful of schools, the supplements can quickly become overwhelming. If you approach them strategically, you’ll do just fine, but there are a few things we warn students to avoid. Here are our top 5 worst things you can do in a supplement.

Mixing up schools in your “why this school” supplement

The most popular question colleges ask is some variation on “why us?” It’s a good question, but it can also be frustrating to answer the same question over and over. Finding ways to repurpose supplements is key to keeping yourself sane, but be very careful. Every year, countless students submit an application with the wrong school’s name in the “why this school?” supplement. Sounds stupid, we know, but it happens. Proofread a million times and be careful with ‘cut & paste’. Don’t let a stupid silly mistake like sending a supplement advocating for why you want to go to Stanford to Northwestern.

Not knowing the school you’re applying to in and out

This next one ties into the much-too-common mistake of mixing up schools. One of the things that can cause a school-name-mixup is not customizing the “why this school?” supplement to fit each school you are applying to.

Research is king. A large part of the purpose of the “why this school?” supplement is to test whether you know anything at all about the school. If you say you want to major in Business, but it's really called Economics, that’s a big red x on your application. And you also probably shouldn't apply. If you don’t name a specific program, a few classes you want to take, and an extracurricular you’d like to be involved in, that’s also a red flag. For bonus points, mention a professor you’d like to work with too. Unsure of what you’re majoring in—today you’re not. You know, you’re passionate, and you know the details of their program.

These supplements do range in length from a small 100 words up to a full 650, so you’ll have to scale the amount of detail to fit the size, but the bare minimum checklist is:

  • Major
  • Class (and why you think it would benefit you)
  • Extracurricular(s)

Being vague so you don’t have to work hard

You’ll notice that all of these mistakes tie together, and this one isn’t any different. The third worst thing you can do in your supplements is the opposite of being well researched: it’s being vague. If you’ve read our posts before, you know that we’re all about detail and specificity. Inch wide, mile deep. Trying to make one supplement work for multiple colleges can corrode good writing. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t find ways to make pieces multi-functional, but you’re going to have to do better than writing a vague 300 words and changing a sentence or two so it works for both “What is your favorite book?” and “What inspires you?”

Instead, when you see an opportunity to reuse a piece of a supplement, copy and paste those specific sections into the new document, rearrange them, and fill in the gaps with new stories, details, and images to create a custom fit with the question.

Being redundant and only showing one side of yourself

We know, you want to look perfect, but perfect is boring. If you spend your college essay trying to look amazing, then your supplements trying to look amazing, you’ve created an application that’s tedious to read through. The supplements should be a place to continue to apply layers of nuance and unexpectedness to your application. This means no repeated stories, but it also means consciously focusing on how you can reveal more about yourself in ways that feel organic.

Before you start writing your supplements, make a list of traits you want your application to show. As you write, keep those traits in mind and, once you think you are done, check each supplement to verify that you’ve hit every mark.

Only answering the question

The last truly egregious mistake that we see kids make is doing exactly what they were taught to do in school—answer the question, avoid fluff, and don’t say more than the bare minimum.

That may work in a history class, but that doesn’t work here. The question does need to be answered, yes, but only answering the question is like giving them a bacon, egg, and cheese, but leaving out the bacon. It might still taste good, but it’s not what they’re looking for.

Stories are what makes supplements readable after weeks of pouring over applications. Scenes are what pull readers in and get them to share an application with their colleagues, saying “you’ve got to see this!”

Whether it’s a sentence in a 100-word response or a few paragraphs answering a 500-word prompt, never lose sight of the story.

Bonus: Thinking “optional” supplements are optional

One last quick one. When it says “optional” that means “we dare you not to do it.” Supplements are not optional unless you are trying not to get in, in which case we say “huh?”


Want to avoid all these silly mistakes? We’re pros at helping kids writing stellar supplements.