When it comes to college applications, you likely know that you will need to write (a lot of) essays.
Luckily, most schools accept the Common Application, which means you can write a single essay and submit it to most schools. However, Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and many others will ask you to fill out various supplemental (or secondary) essays. Some universities will ask you to complete one additional essay; other schools will ask you to complete multiple essays. In addition, the essay lengths will vary from school to school and from prompt to prompt.
Some students think they should treat their personal statement as the main “essay question” on the test, whereas they consider the supplemental essays as “short answer” questions. While it’s true that your personal statement almost always allows you the most space to share an aspect of who you are, you must treat your supplementary with the same rigor.
In order to make sure you have plenty of time to brainstorm, write, and edit your essays, we recommend starting as early as possible. As Nguyễn Hải Nam – our College Compass alumni – used to share: “Many friends of mine become discouraged with the college essays, as they wait until the second semester to start writing them – but it’s also when you have so many other things on your plate: extracurriculars, researches, theory of knowledge for the International Baccalaureate… I was so lucky as the College Compass team helped me to craft the essays in the summer already; therefore, I have more time to refine them without feeling overwhelmed.”
So before the fall semester rolls around, take this summer as a time of freedom in which students can find space and quiet to simply start working on your college prep, especially the essay!
This article will introduce four main types of college application essay prompts to give you a few topic ideas for free writing and begin the essay writing process. Let’s take a look at each type and strategize how you should tackle each one.
Type #1: “Why Our School” Essay
The actual supplemental essay prompt may look a little different. Still, ultimately it comes down to the college asking you to explain why you are applying to a specific university or program.
Here is a typical example from the University of Northwestern:
“Other parts of your application give us a sense of how you might contribute to Northwestern. But we also want to consider how Northwestern will contribute to your interests and goals. In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.”
This is the most common supplemental question asked by universities. The point of this essay is to be specific about why that program, in particular, would be an excellent fit for you because of your unique interests, talents, and abilities. The more specific you are when writing this essay, the more likely the school will agree with your assessment.
After you determine the answers to these questions, you have the first piece of the essay, and can then add in the second: how does the school fill your specific needs?
Here are a few quick tips to help you write a great response:
READ THE QUESTION CLOSELY
For each school, the question may differ a little. Some schools ask, “why our school?” while others ask, “why our community?” or “why our curriculum?” Tailor your answer to the specific question for a more thoughtful, thorough response.
DO YOUR RESEARCH
Colleges want to know that you are genuinely interested in attending their school. Research the college through their website or campus visits and mention their specific courses, professors, research projects, organizations, or values in your response.
First, to illustrate your compatibility, determine what makes a college a good fit for you, beginning with academics. What specific programs do they offer? What majors? Are there specific faculty members with which you might want to work? What research opportunities does the school provide?
SHOW HOW YOU WILL FIT IN
Talk specifically about why you are a good fit for the school because of their curriculum, campus life, or values. Even if you bring something unique to the table, show how that will contribute to their university.
You can – and should – also mention non-academic factors, but they should not be the core of the essay. For example, both Berkeley and Brown have vital programs, but they are very different. Brown is a small, private college with no core curriculum in the Ivy League, while Berkely is on the opposite coast, a large public institution with a strong athletic tradition. These are myriad factors to consider outside of academics. You do not have to mention all of them, but again, determine what matters to you and describe how the school fills those desires.
Type #2: Extracurricular Activities and Academic Interests Essay
The schools you apply to will have your resume. However, they often use the supplemental essay to learn more about an activity or interest of yours by asking you to go into more detail.
Here’s an example from Princeton University:
“Briefly elaborate on an activity, organization, work experience, or hobby that has been particularly meaningful to you. (Please respond in about 150 words, maximum 200 words)”
These essays ask you specifically about an extracurricular you have participated in. While your personal statement and other essays can and should draw you from the experiences in extracurriculars, this essay focuses exclusively on one.
Here are quick tips to help you write a great response:
GET TO THE HEART OF THE MATTER
This type of supplemental essay usually includes a short word count (about 150 words). So include what matters: the activity, why it matters to you, and how it reflects your character or future goals.
To give you an idea, let’s take a look at the passage below – an excerpt from a supplemental essay written by Nguyễn Văn Chiến for Princeton. Chiến is our College Compass student who just got accepted into Princeton this 2021 summer.
“Coming from a financially struggling family, I know the challenges facing poverty-stricken ninth-graders. I understand how pressures pile up as the exam day approaches and they have to convince themselves that the outdated torn-apart books they have would stand them in good stead in a cut-throat competition for a seat in prestigious high schools – one that could change their lives’ trajectories. I want to offer a source of help that would reinforce their persistence in pursuit of a better future.”
Listen to Chuyện du học podcast with Nguyễn Văn Chiến to learn more about essay tips that got him into Princeton:
SHOW A DIFFERENT SIDE OF YOURSELF
If you already talked about an extracurricular in your personal statement or another supplemental essay, then avoid using it again unless you have something truly unique to say about it for another essay. Speaking about multiple different extracurriculars across different essays provides greater depth to your application and tells colleges things they would otherwise not know about you.
Just because the essay is short, this doesn’t mean it needs to be boring! Use figurative language, vivid details, and active verbs to illustrate your story.
Type #3: Community Contributions and Solving of Global Problems
This type of supplemental essay gauges whether you are a person who gets involved in your community, thinks critically about societal issues and works effectively with others to solve problems.
Here’s an example from the Yale University:
“Reflect on your membership in a community. Why is your involvement important to you? How has it shaped you? You may define community however you like.”
This essay comes in many guises; for instance, Stanford has a prompt that inquires about society’s problems; Brown’s prompt asks students about “a place you call home,”; while the above example uses the example of a local bridge to talk about messages. However, these questions all share one fundamental similarity: they are determining your values. Whether your answer focuses on racism, global warming, a community you care about, or a message you want to share, this supplemental essay explores an idea or cause that you value – something you think is essential.
Here are quick tips to help you write a great response:
ROOT YOUR ANSWER IN AN EXPERIENCE
Some schools will ask you to focus on an experience; others, a future opportunity. However, no matter how the question is framed, you should ground your answer in your own experiences if you want it to be exciting and authentic.
Here are good and bad examples of how to answer a question that focuses on societal problems:
“I’m very passionate about combating racism. Racism is a problem our country has faced for far too long, and our policymakers need to do more about it so that everyone can enjoy equal opportunities.”
>> Good example:
“I have had the privilege of going to a top-tier magnet school in my state. But to do so, I had to leave my community and go to a school where neither my teachers, counselors, nor classmates resembled me. And while I am grateful for the education I received, I want to use that education to go back to my community so that in the future, other African-American students won’t need to venture outside of their neighborhood schools to receive a quality education.”
These answers are not complete but notice that the first response is generic, impersonal, and not memorable. The second answer is personal, specific, and interesting. This essay should describe your growth as an individual through your contributions to the greater whole and how you improved the group. Admissions officers are trying to build a community in their admitted class and want to be sure you will be a vital part of that community.
Type #4: “Quotation”
These essays ask students to interact with and respond to a quote. The quote in question will (usually) relate to the school, its mission, or its values somehow. This essay aims to use the quote as a lens to discuss yourself and your possible ties to the school community.
Here’s an example from Amherst College:
“Translation is the art of bridging cultures. It’s about interpreting the essence of a text, transporting its rhythms and becoming intimate with its meaning… Translation, however, doesn’t only occur across languages: mentally putting any idea into words is an act of translation; so is composing a symphony, doing business in the global market, understanding the roots of terrorism. No citizen, especially today, can exist in isolation– that is, untranslated.” – Ilán Stavans, Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College, Robert Croll ’16 and Cedric Duquene ’15, from “Interpreting Terras Irradient,” Amherst Magazine, Spring 2015.
This type of essay offers students a chance to demonstrate not just who you are and what you value but how you think. Here are quick tips to help you write a great response:
UNDERSTAND THE QUESTION:
The first step in breaking down these prompts is to decode what the speaker means. It’s essential to do this first rather than just running with an idea; you want to ensure that you are actually responding to the quotation rather than just running with a view you had related to one or two keywords in the prompt. In that sense, there is a certain degree of reading comprehension involved in crafting your response. For example, “the art of translation” as above is a fairly broad topic, so it should not be just about linguistics majors, but any translation in your life can form a good story angle to tell.
BRING SOME ASPECTS OF YOURSELF TO LIGHT:
The beauty of this prompt is that it’s wide open in terms of potential topics. Identity, background, family, culture or community—you’re bound to have an exciting story to tell (or likelier, several). And the odds are high that it’ll be unique to you, which is a great way to stand out. As you think through your options, ask yourself: “Which best allows me to speak to my identity and isn’t something I’ve already shared in my application?”
Approaching this topic, Lê Mỹ Hiền – College Compass alumni 2020 – shared that “the art of translation for me is bridging the differences between different cultures. I wrote about Psychology – a subject that really interests me. For me, Psychology is translation: we need to put ourselves in the other’s shoes to understand their thoughts and feelings, then ‘translate’ back into our own thoughts and feelings. That way, we can communicate well with others using love and empathy. I told Amherst that I wanted to pursue my ‘translation’ mission, especially amidst this chaotic time where the world is divided by so many things.”
Mỹ Hiền is also a successful case of College Compass who got full-ride scholarships from Harvard, Duke, and Amherst.
Listen to Chuyện du học podcast with Lê Mỹ Hiền to see how she tackle this interesting topic in her answer to Amherst:
This article covers the most 4 popular types of essays that you may bump into when applying to colleges, but some schools will have their eccentricities or oddball questions they throw at you. In that event, remember the core lesson: supplemental essays serve to tell the school more about you, the information they could not learn in any other way.
Writing a college essay is like opening the door to a larger conversation with the reader. At the end of the day, your essay must have the power to make the school admission officer think: I” want to have a conversation with this student.”
At College Compass, we develop a solid system to help students understand deeply about themselves, brainstorm potential topics, and roof you all the way long to craft the best essays!
College Compass is a college admission consulting program by Everest Education. We offer strategic solutions to help aspiring high school students (Grade 9-12) and gap year students get into the best universities and colleges in the world.
Our program is led by experienced admissions counselors/coaches who graduated from top US universities (Harvard, Stanford, MIT, UPenn…) and thoroughly understand the US education system. Our students have been accepted to many top universities globally, including Harvard, Stanford, Cornell, Duke, Williams, Amherst…
We offer a personalized pathway and strategies for you, including school selection, standardized testing, extracurricular activity guidance, essay writing, scholarship applications, etc. No matter which phase you are in, we offer a tailored package to your age, preferences and study goals to help you achieve your dreams.