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US university application: how your students should approach their Supplemental Essays

Supplemental essays are the chance for applicants to explain why they're a good fit for their chosen university. So how can your students really impress admissions committees?

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If you have students who are applying to US university destinations, then they will most likely be well underway with their Common App and Coalition essays. Whilst these general essays are an important part of crafting a student’s personal brand in their US applications, they aren’t the whole story.

Most universities in the US will also ask students to complete a number of supplemental essays, which are unique to each particular institution. Supplemental essays serve a number of purposes for university admissions committees:

  • They allow universities to understand why a student is driven to study at this particular institution.
  • They help to gauge a student’s suitability for life at their chosen university, and how they can contribute to campus life.
  • They challenge students to think creatively and independently, and are another chance for them to tell a story about who they are, and what they want from a US university education.

Note: Different universities in the US application system won’t necessarily assess all of the criteria listed above – it’s important to remember that not every university has the same objective in designing their supplemental essays. 

Writing a compelling supplemental essay: top tips

Writing multiple supplemental essays along with their Common App or Coalition App submissions means your students need to be able to juggle the various priorities for different university application processes – this certainly isn’t easy.

So here are some top tips as your students begin to plan their supplemental essays.

Knowing the audience

Any and all preparation work in advance of writing the supplemental essays must begin with researching the university in question. As we’ve already discussed, each university has its own culture, its own traditions and its own expectations of what potential undergraduates should contribute to university life.

Supplemental essays can’t be generic. Students will need to be prepared to make a compelling argument as to why they’re a strong candidate for their chosen university.

So as you guide your students through the process of writing their supplemental essays ask them these two questions: – How will you make your chosen campus a better place? And why does your skill-set make you a good fit for this university?

Consulting prospectuses, websites and available literature on relevant universities is crucial. The foundation of a standout supplemental essay is a good knowledge of the university, and the audience you are writing for.

Creating a portfolio of achievements and interests

Perhaps more than any other university system in the world, the US university application process requires students to present a fully rounded picture of who they are and what they’ve achieved.

Various supplemental essays will ask students to explore different aspects of their lives and their academic record. It’s important for your students to have a wide portfolio of achievements that could be applicable to different university applications.

We’ll explain more about why this is important in the next tip…

Supplemental essays can’t repeat themselves

It’s important to remember that US universities will want your students to give a fairly comprehensive account of their personal and academic achievements in their Common App or Coalition App essays.

So when it comes to their supplemental essays, students can’t afford to recycle material from their general application. Supplemental essays require students to draw on fresh experiences and reflections, adapted to meet the demands of each particular university’s application process.

Remember the importance of word count

Supplemental essays have fairly strict word counts, ranging from 150 to 500 words, meaning that responses need to be as concise and considered as possible. The form and structure of each essay will have to vary dependent on the word count.

Understanding the different types of supplemental essay 

As we discussed earlier, universities have no one single objective in how they design their supplemental essays. With this in mind, there are several different types of supplemental essay, each assessing a different aspect of a student’s potential contribution to a particular university.

Supplemental essays can loosely be grouped into the following categories. Look out for these when researching different universities’ essay requirements.

Note: While it’s possible to pinpoint a few different types of supplemental essays that applicants may be asked to write, it’s of utmost importance that your students check each individual university’s requirements carefully.

‘Why us’ essays

These essays are designed to assess why a student wants to apply for a particular university or field of study, and how it fits with their academic, professional and personal ambitions. Let’s look at an example. 

Dartmouth University  Supplemental Essay Prompt 2018/19

While arguing a Dartmouth-related case before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1818, Daniel Webster, Class of 1801, delivered this memorable line: “It is, Sir…a small college. And yet, there are those who love it!” As you seek admission to the Class of 2023, what aspects of the College’s program, community or campus environment attract your interest? (100 words or less)

The question challenges a student to talk about the “program, community or campus environment”. This essay prompt is also grounded in the historical traditions of Dartmouth, offering students the chance to discuss what attracts them to the university, and why its culture and its identity fit with a student’s personal aspirations.

A generic checklist of why a student would like to study at Dartmouth is no good. Instead, an applicant should focus on a specific aspect of Dartmouth that inspired them, or triggered their desire to be part of the “class of 2023”.

It could be a subject they want to major in, an extra-curricular activity that Dartmouth offers, or a famous alumnus of the university. Whatever their answer to the “why us” question, it needs to be authentic and personal.

Finally, note the word count. 100 words isn’t a lot of time and space to cover such an expansive topic. Such a short response needs to be planned, structured and edited with precision.

‘Discuss your extracurricular activities’ essays

Let’s take a look at another Ivy League institution – Princeton University. This is one of Princeton’s recent supplemental essay prompts.

Princeton University Supplemental Essay 2018/19

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you. (150 words)

These extracurricular questions are designed for a student to illustrate how they might contribute to campus life, and to provide further insight into any skills or achievements which demonstrate a student’s ability to excel at university.

For students who are required to write an essay around this prompt, it’s worth encouraging them to think about extracurriculars which can demonstrate the following:

  • Leadership or mentoring ability.
  • A sense of community
  • Entrepreneurial spirit
  • An interest in your favourite subjects outside the classroom.
  • Time management.

Note: it’s important to read the phrasing of these questions very carefully. For example, Brown University asks students – Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated earlier in this application? You may share with us a skill or concept that you found challenging and rewarding to learn, or any experiences beyond course work that may have broadened your interest.

Whilst this question would appear to be about a student’s academic achievements, it’s also an invitation to discuss extracurricular activities. And all in 250 words.

‘What will you bring to this university’ essays

These questions are more focused on how a student will contribute to the wider university community, and will often ask students to draw on their own background. For example:

Duke University Supplemental Essay, 2018/19

“Duke University seeks a talented, engaged student body that embodies the wide range of human experience; we believe that the diversity of our students makes our community stronger. If you’d like to share a perspective you bring or experiences you’ve had to help us understand you better—perhaps related to a community you belong to or your family or cultural background—we encourage you to do so.” (250 words maximum)”

Prompts like this are fundamentally about how a formative moment, place or person in a student’s life has influenced who they are today, and how it will go on to inform their contribution to a chosen university.

The Duke University prompt above is quite specific, and encourages a student to think about their background or family. Other examples of this prompt are more generic. Take this example from Notre Dame.

“What is one thing you will definitely bring to college with you?”

This prompt is so much more open-ended, and a student could answer it in any number of ways. The ‘thing’ that a student brings to university could be a tangible item – their favourite novel, a photo of a friend or family member, even a stuffed toy. But what does this item mean to them, and what does it tell a university about who they are?

Alternatively, a student could interpret this question metaphorically. The ‘thing’ they bring to university could be an experience, a perspective, a hope or aspiration that drives them. Again, how has this made them the person they are today?

There’s no right or wrong way to respond to these kinds of prompt – that’s why universities ask them. The key to answering these supplemental essays is to be as imaginative and open as possible.

‘Talk about your major’ essays

These questions are, broadly speaking, asking a student to talk about their academic goals in applying to a particular university. A typical question might look like this:

Cornell University Supplemental Essay – 2018/19

Why are you drawn to studying the major you have selected? Please discuss how your interests and related experiences have influenced your choice. Specifically, how will an education from the College of Agriculture and Life Science (CALS) and Cornell University help you achieve your academic goals?

As you can see, this essay is similar to the “why us” essay questions, as it’s encouraging students to consider how their academic and personal ambitions make them a good fit for this university.

But this type of essay asks more than that. In writing about their choice of major, students are being encouraged to think more about their long-term academic goals and future career prospects.

There is a personal element to this essay question as well, since students are asked to consider their “interests and related experiences” Once again, this can be a lot of information to pack into a short essay.

Not all supplemental essays will expect students to have thought long and hard about majors. Unsurprisingly, a response to this kind of essay will vary greatly depending on which course, faculty or university your students are applying to.

‘Short take’ & open essays

US universities may also ask students to answer a series of shorter, more open questions, designed to test a student’s originality, and to give more of an insight into their personality. These include questions like:

  • If you could have any career, what would it be? (UT Austin)
  • What is your favourite word and why? (University of Virginia)
  • What motivates you to learn? (Emory University)
  • Briefly discuss a current global issue, indicating why you consider it important and what you suggest should be done to deal with it. (Georgetown University)

There’s no real way to predict questions like this. Your best strategy for preparing your students is to ensure they have a broad range of experiences, interests and reflections to draw on.

Preparing your students for their supplemental essays

  • Encourage them to be original and agile  – students have to adapt their responses to the individual requirements of each university.
  • Emphasise the importance of research – students need to understand the culture and community of their chosen institution.
  • Stress the importance of self-expression – the supplemental essays that truly excel are those which showcase a student’s personality.

And perhaps the most important question to ask your students: if this is the university of your dreams, then can you tell me why in less than 100 words?

 

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