Supplemental essays: tailor your strengths to each university
26th June 2017
The bulk of a student’s time spent on their US university applications will not be taken up with shortlisting universities, filling in the Common App, or even working on the main Common App essay.
They will most likely spend the bulk of their time planning, writing, and tweaking supplemental essays.
When applying to top schools, these essays make all the difference between being a great candidate (just like every other student applying to a top school), and being admitted.
Here are 4 tips on acing the Supplemental Essays:
Colleges like to use the fairly ambiguous word “fit” when explaining how they decide to admit students.
Because they can be targeted at each university, supplemental essays are probably the most convenient way to showcase a student’s fit.
A good starting point is for students to first create a shortlist of what they believe each of their chosen universities is looking for in students.
For example, Stanford could be said to be looking for:
- Intellectual Curiosity
- Social Awareness.
Many key characteristics will overlap across multiple universities. For example qualities such as leadership and intellectual curiosity might be emphasised more by certain institutions, but are generally sought after by all. Encourage students to visit universities’ websites, read their mission statements, and even look at student reviews on sites to figure out which types of students are wanted by each of their universities.
Once a student has the list of key characteristics complete for every university for which they are preparing an application, they should consider times in their life when they showcased these qualities.
Let’s take Stanford as an example again. Let’s say a student displayed leadership twice in their life. Once, as a netball team captain, leading their team for an entire season and ultimately bringing home a trophy. Another time, by starting a small company that sold arts and crafts made by underprivileged children in their community and then using the proceeds to fund an education outreach programme.
Both activities are remarkable and show leadership and commitment. However, the latter shows entrepreneurship and social awareness as well, making it a more suitable choice to write about in a Stanford essay. Similarly, if the same student was applying to a school with an award-winning sports programme they might choose the former as an essay topic.
One more example. Let’s say a prospective engineering major is applying to Caltech and MIT. You might assume that since they are applying for the same program in two similar schools, their essays can be easily recycled. However, MIT has a high-ranking business school and places an emphasis on the link between technology and entrepreneurship. Caltech, on the other hand, emphasises theoretical learning and a scientific approach to everything. Let’s say this student spent a year researching a compression algorithm. When applying to MIT, this student should emphasise the real-world applications of their research, like the potential benefit to server farm efficiency that this algorithm might have. An essay on the same project directed at Caltech might be more successful if it goes more into depth on how the algorithm works, and which intellectual hurdles the student had to overcome to write it.
2. Sell yourself
Something that I found quite hard to do, and is perhaps frowned upon in European culture, is really trumpeting your achievements.
Americans are often much more comfortable with this, and to produce a more convincing essay, forego self-relativation or false humbleness.
The truth is that you have to play it their way! Students should really sell themselves, because their competition is doing exactly that.
Of course a student should avoid coming across as self-obsessed, but both the Common App essay and the supplemental essays should sound more confident than, for example, a UK Personal Statement.
For example, a common Personal Statement line is “I hope to pursue X”. Students should not be afraid to say “I will pursue X”. If a student did one of their activities working in a group, they might be inclined to use the pronoun “we” instead of “I” when describing the challenges they overcame. But for US essays, encourage them to use personal pronouns. Such small tweaks will make the essay more convincing.
3. Avoid the easy route
Lots of experienced counsellors recommend students to apply to about 8 different US universities (the maximum you can apply to on the Common App in one cycle is 20). Writing supplemental essays for all these universities can be daunting.
It’s not unusual for a university to have three or four supplemental essays, so across their applications that is tens of different essays to plan, write, and perfect.
However, many of these essays have the same prompts. For example, many schools ask a student to send them something along the lines of "Briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences”.
It is tempting to write one great essay for this prompt and then use it for every application, and I would be the last person to say this is inherently bad. However, as much as they can, students should fit what they write to school’s profile. Re-using essays is fine, as long as the subject matter still fits the school.
4. Give new information
It’s hard for a student to fully display everything that’s great about themselves in one long essay, a few short ones, a transcript and an activity list. So every opportunity should be used to give more information to the admissions officers.
If a student already wrote about how impressive they are at playing the piano in their Common App essay, coming back to that in a supplemental essay - unless from a very different angle - would be a waste of time.
The point is not to write a beautiful essay (although that definitely helps), but to give the admissions staff the information they need to decide whether a student will feel at home on their campus, and be an asset to the university.
So if it is possible to mention something in a supplemental essay that hasn’t been mentioned anywhere else in a student’s application, they should grasp that opportunity.
Elias van Emmerick is a Belgian student who completed his IB at 16 and next year is set to attend Pomona College, Forbes’ #1 Ranked College in 2015. He gained a great deal of experience with both types of applications by applying to both UK and US schools. He interviewed at Oxford, Stanford, Yale, University of Pennsylvania, and University of Chicago.
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