How to Write Supplemental Essays for College Applications

The main personal statement for the Common Application is one of the essays you will need to write for college admissions. Many schools include their own school-specific essays, also known as supplemental essays. These are additional pieces of writing that give admissions officers the chance to get to know you better.

What are Supplemental Essays?

Supplemental essays are additional pieces of writing required by many highly-selective universities, and they can be just as revealing and important as your personal statement. 

A supplemental essay gives you an opportunity to tell the admissions committee about something you weren’t able to cover in your main essay. These supplemental essays are usually shorter than the main college essay, but they are equally important. Some colleges ask for just one supplemental essay while others may require several.

For example, Wake Forest University in North Carolina had six additional questions for prospective students to respond to on its 2020 undergraduate admissions application. 

Supplemental essay prompts come in all shapes and sizes. In some cases, schools let applicants choose from several options. For instance, the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill‘s fall 2019-20 application included four prompts – such as “What do you hope will change about the place where you live?” – From which, prospective students had to select two. The two most common prompts that are seen are “What do you want to major in?” and “Tell us about a favorite activity.”

Tips for Writing Supplemental Essays

  1. Begin with an Outline. Every applicant has their own way of writing and is advisable to create outlines. You must brainstorm the personal qualities, skills, or experiences you would like to convey in your supplemental essays.
  2. Find which of your college choices require supplements. Check the essay list on the International College Counselors website and also on the college websites. From August onward, you will be able to see many questions on your applications as you add a school to your list and fill in your major. There will be prompts you’ll need to answer within the school’s supplemental sections.
  3. Carefully read the essay prompt.  Some schools ask the reason why you want to attend their college, while others ask about your interest in a particular program or your major.  
  4. Write about yourself. Your essay must present information about yourself that will make the college want you. Tell something positive about yourself.  
  5. Do not repeat. If you want to reveal something new about yourself in each essay, you can re-mention an activity. However, it must add something that can’t be found elsewhere in your app. Supplemental essays give you a chance to give more information to the admissions committee to further show why you are a good fit for a school. So make sure not to repeat things that already have been covered in your main essay.
  6. Do your homework.  When a school wants to know the reason for choosing them, give specific details like courses and programs of interest to you at that school. Make sure everything you mention, ties into your goals and interests. You should have a thorough knowledge of the college and what its admissions officers are looking for in their applicants. 
  7. Smart recycling of your essays. If two or more colleges have similar questions, don’t hesitate to re-use one of your stories. Do not be careless and paste.
  8. There are no optional essays even if a college says the essays are optional.
  9. Do not exceed the word count. Many schools do not allow you to submit essays that are over the maximum word count, while many others have minimum word counts which you will need to meet.
  10. Keep track of the essays you need to write so as not to miss one on the day of submission.
  11. Narrow Your Focus. The biggest mistake applicants make in supplemental essays is choosing an essay topic that is too big. It is better to do something small and do it well. There are essays with 600-words, 500-words, and 150–250-word or other very short essays.
  12. Take the help of College Counselors who can make it easier for you by guiding you on what to write and how to write the essay.

Common Types of Supplemental Essays

Colleges find a hundred different ways to ask a question, but ultimately, the prompt boils down to one of the following common essay themes.

  • Why this college?
  • Why this major?
  • Elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience.
  • Discuss a community you belong to that has impacted who you are today.

Why this College?

In the “why this college” essay, your answer should focus on qualities and programs specific to that school. Listing or name-dropping will not be enough. Instead, you need to specify why this college is important to you and how this plays out. Read more about How to Write a Great Supplemental Essay “Why This College”.

Why This Major?

The Most important thing to remember is that admissions officers are not looking for a résumé. This of course does not refrain you from discussing your activities and how they culminated in a passion for a specific major. 

Use these activities to tell a story rather than a mere list of achievements. And to do this, you need to share your thought processes as it is the thoughts surrounding an activity more than the activity itself that show the reader your journey to choosing a major.

Don’t ever say that your reason for choosing a major has money-making. Potential, rather tell about how this major will help you achieve your dreams. If you chose to keep it undeclared, that is absolutely fine. Just be sure to list a couple of potential majors, and explain your interest in those. Under no circumstances say you have absolutely no idea, as that will make you look like you don’t care. 

Elaborating an Extracurricular Activity or Work Experience

There may be an activity or work experience in your application that you have more to say about or a story behind it that you want to tell. Like – How did you become interested in this extracurricular? What is your role in the activity or work experience? Why do you do it? Have you experienced growth within the activity over time?

There are endless angles you can pursue here; but in short, you need to show your motivation behind participating in a certain activity or job. Do not repeat something that’s been said elsewhere. If you have already spotlighted an activity in another essay for a given college, don’t write about the same activity. The goal is to share new information and your breadth of experiences.

Discuss a community you belong to that has impacted who you are today

The community you belong to has an immense impact on the person you are today. The term ‘’Community” can mean many things, with many possible approaches to this prompt. You may respond with a community you are linked to through culture, sports, or a club.

You can stress your personal growth or other aspects of who you are as a person—that contribute to belonging to this community. The goal of the essay should cater to how being part of this group has changed or impacted who you are as a person.

Things to Avoid while Writing Supplemental Essays Around Your Community

You should not discriminate against other communities in your response. 

Avoid talking broadly about your community but focus on your place within this community. 

Never use your essay as a platform to complain but you may choose to talk about challenges in a certain community in a refined way. You can talk about how these challenges have shaped you as a person or how you learned to confront these obstacles in a productive way. 


Your essays are your opportunity to tell admissions officers how you want to be remembered by them. If your SAT results were not up to the mark, or you got a low grade on an honors paper, you can neither change your grades nor your scores. But here the essays are entirely in your control.

You have enough scope and freedom to tell your story and what makes you unique. The aim is to make the essay-writing as stress-free as possible. At the end of the day, your essays should leave the reader wanting to have a conversation with you.

You need to show that you’re a multifaceted, mature person with an interesting story to tell. 

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