Learn how to impress admissions committees through any school-specific essay prompt
(Note: This article can also be found in our free, 110-page comprehensive guide to writing every college essay,How to Get Into America’s Elite Colleges: The Ultimate Guide.)
Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: From outlining to writing
The 600-word essay
The 500-word essay
The 150–250-word or other very short essay
Part 3: Types of secondary and supplemental essays
The “why us” essay
Tell us more about an extracurricular
Design a class/a major
Tell us about your major
Part 4: Frequently asked questions
Part 1: Introduction
If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably finished the most challenging part of your college application process, the Common App essay, i.e. personal statement. In that case, major congratulations are in order!
Now it’s time to address the various supplemental or secondary essays that schools like Harvard, Princeton, Yale, Stanford, and many others will ask you to write. Whereas some universities will require you to complete one additional essay, other schoolswill ask you to complete multiple essays. In addition, the essay lengths will vary from school to school and from prompt to prompt, ranging in length from 25 characters to 650 or more words.
Some students think they should treat their personal statement as the main “essay question” on the test and 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, it’s important that you treat your supplementals with the same rigor.
Admissions committees use your secondary essays to augment the story they have assembled about you as a candidate from your Common App essay and your recommendations. They are looking for more details that confirm and expand what they know about you, and which neither contradict nor repeat what they’ve already learned from your personal statement.
Let’s replace the “essay question” and “short answer” analogy we hear from students a lot with an interview analogy. Your Common App essay is the initial answer you get to give the interviewer when they say, “Tell me about yourself.” You deliver that with excellent posture and careful word choice. Now, as the interview continues, and the questions become things like, “Why would you like to attend our school?” and “What’s your favorite snack?” and “Can you elaborate more on your favorite extracurricular?” you don’t want to kick off your shoes, slouch in your chair, and develop a sudden drawl as you respond to your interviewer.
Realizing that the supplemental essays are, well, still essays that require outlining, planning, and editing, some students can freeze up. You’ve just completed a mammoth task of squeezing yourself into your personal statement and now you have to write more?
The good news is that the skills and rhythms you developed while writing your personal statement remain applicable for your supplemental essays. If you haven’t worked through our step-by-step guide to writing your Common App Essay or viewed our college essay examples, go do that now, and you’ll be well prepared for your supplemental essays shortly.
Part 2: From outlining to writing
In preparing for your Common App essay, you likely left some material “on the cutting room floor,” so to speak—meaning you probably thought about topics or experiences that moved you but weren’t “the one” for your personal statement. Now is your chance to make use of that excess!
The exercises and prompts we used to prepare for the Common App personal statement can serve as excellent material for addressing the many types of questions that come up in the supplemental essays. The difference is how you’ll apply them to the formats of your supplemental essays, which are generally shorter.
Here’s a general strategy for approaching essays of varying lengths. We’ll tackle examples of the essays themselves by subject matter shortly.
The 650-word essay
In this essay, a college may simply give you a chance to write another Common App-style personal statement.
Let’s take a look at some example prompts from Pitzer College: At Pitzer, five core values distinguish our approach to education: social responsibility, intercultural understanding, interdisciplinary learning, student engagement and environmental sustainability. As agents of change, our students utilize these values to create solutions to our world’s challenges. Please answer only ONE of the following prompts (650 words maximum)
Reflecting on your involvement throughout high school or within the community, how have you engaged with one of Pitzer’s core values?
Describe what you are looking for from your college experience and why Pitzer would be a good fit for you.
Pitzer is known for our students’ intellectual and creative activism. If you could work on a cause that is meaningful to you through a project, artistic, academic, or otherwise, what would you do?
Strategies for this essay: It’s the personal statement 2.0—so rinse, lather, repeat! Go through your materials from your Common App essay pre-writing phase, including the list of topics you made originally, and choose the one that almost made the cut for your personal statement. Outline it with the same rigor and attention that you gave the Common App!
This means you’re using your traditional five-paragraph essay tools. You’ll need an intro paragraph with a lede or hook of some sort, a billboard paragraph, two body paragraphs, and a conclusion. You will likely want to follow our personal statement model of linking your essay to at least one anecdote or specific story.
The 500-word essay
Here’s an example prompt from Rice University: Rice is lauded for creating a collaborative atmosphere that enhances the quality of life for all members of our campus community. The Residential College System and undergraduate life is heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and cultural tradition each student brings. What life perspectives would you contribute to the Rice community? (500 word limit)
Strategies for this essay: With just 500 words to work with here, we might want to think slightly smaller or more contained than a five-paragraph essay revolving around an anecdote or personal experience. Instead, let’s think in terms of the following units:
A topic or thesis statement that unites the question with your personal experience.
Some evidence, drawing on personal history, that supports the thesis statement.
The one-line zinger that ensures the committee knows you read the question and are answering it.
Here they are again, with examples based on our student Ramya, whom you met during the personal-statement-writing process.
A topic or thesis statement that unites the question with your personal experience
Ramya came up with a number of things that make her uniquely “her,” and which her friends, family, teachers, and counselors would all recognize as her. She’s planning on studying medicine but is a rabid sports fan, loves football and soccer, and is also a loyal friend. Ramya is also Indian American and comes from a small town in California where being Asian doesn’t actually make her a minority. So, while some students might choose to write about race or identity or other things we traditionally think of when thinking of “diversity,” Ramya’s mind doesn’t go there. Instead, she thinks about… Harry Potter. Hold that thought.
Here’s what she thought about when asked to consider what made her different:
I grew up in a community full of ambitious people, all of whom were told to be leaders. What makes me unlike them? I’m not the one who stands up at the front of the room to try to run things. I’m the one who makes them run, behind the scenes. In fact, I’m the dependable one, the loyal one...
Ramya's personal experience has shown her that this makes her different.
So, what about Harry Potter? Here’s how Ramya articulates this to her readers:
I was raised on J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series. As a kid, I remember friends choosing which house they thought they’d be sorted into: brave in Gryffindor, smart in Ravenclaw, ambitious in Slytherin, and… everyone else in Hufflepuff. Rowling says Hufflepuffs are the “loyal and true.” But when friends and I talked about landing up as a badger, it seemed like we were doomed.
Some evidence, drawing on personal history, that supports the thesis statement
Now, just as we used anecdotes and set scenes for readers while writing the personal statement, we want to do something similar here. But we don’t have time for Ramya to walk us through the room where her heart pounded as she revealed herself to be a Hufflepuff. We have to move more efficiently this time, without sacrificing specificity.
One way to do that is by writing in a list, as Ramya did here:
Strangely, though, as we got older, it was exactly my Hufflepuff qualities that my friend group seemed to depend on the most. “You might belong in Hufflepuff,” the Sorting Hat sings, “where they are just and loyal.” Hufflepuffs are “patient,” “true,” and “unafraid of toil.” It’s not a thrilling description! No bravery, no promises of ruling the world here. But those words all seemed to describe me. During my junior year, I found my friends turning to me after the loss of a classmate. We needed people to organize an assembly, a memorial, and a charity in the classmate’s name. My school was going through a difficult time, and everyone was trying to contribute in their way. But we were all young and new to grief, which meant we didn’t always know how to get things right. Some people were quick to speak or write about the classmate, believing that someone had to take a leadership role. Others felt uncomfortable and tried to move on past it entirely. I was quiet, as I often am, but when I saw how many ways people were trying to respond, I realized we didn’t need another “leader” to step in. We needed loyal followers and patient workers to follow through on the many initiatives that people were trying to start in the wake of this classmate’s passing.
During my junior year, I found my friends turning to me after the loss of a classmate. We needed people to organize an assembly, a memorial, and a charity in the classmate’s name. My school was going through a difficult time, and everyone was trying to contribute in their way. But we were all young and new to grief, which meant we didn’t always know how to get things right. Some people were quick to speak or write about the classmate, believing that someone had to take a leadership role. Others felt uncomfortable and tried to move on past it entirely. I was quiet, as I often am, but when I saw how many ways people were trying to respond, I realized we didn’t need another “leader” to step in. We needed loyal followers and patient workers to follow through on the many initiatives that people were trying to start in the wake of this classmate’s passing.
The one-line zinger that ensures the committee knows you read the question and are answering it
Because many essays are like opening a door to a larger conversation, it can be easy to wander through the door and begin pacing around the interesting room you have discovered on the other side. But don’t forget your manners! At some point you have to make sure you acknowledge that a specific door was opened. Leaving that metaphor before we wring it dry: in plain terms, remember that, unlike in the case of the personal statement, the supplemental essays often ask a specific question that you need to ensure you’ve answered. So make sure your concluding statement or one of your last few lines gets into that.
This Rice essay has Ramya musing on what makes her “different” (her Hufflepuff-ness) and has sent her into anecdotal territory, remembering her classmate’s loss. But she has to bring it home, and answer that question specifically, not just introduce the committee to something quirky and distinctive about her.
Here’s how she does it:
If there’s one thing I, and the generation of kids who grew up on Rowling’s series, learned from those books, it’s that you need all types of people, represented by all four houses. My personality, as a loyal, heads-down, sometimes quiet Hufflepuff, often made me think of myself as boring when I was younger. But for the past year, I’ve seen how it can be a strength, not just to me, but also to the community I belong to. I am applying to Rice early because it feels like a strong community. From the residential college system to the tight-knit campus, I can see myself giving my best Hufflepuff qualities to my classmates and peers during intramural sports tournaments, late-night study sessions, and more—in the face of both everyday trials and larger, scarier moments in life.
I am applying to Rice early because it feels like a strong community. From the residential college system to the tight-knit campus, I can see myself giving my best Hufflepuff qualities to my classmates and peers during intramural sports tournaments, late-night study sessions, and more—in the face of both everyday trials and larger, scarier moments in life.
Ramya has done a double-whammy here, telling us not only about what the community gets from her unique qualities, but also slipping in an answer to the “Why Rice” question that she’ll soon have one more chance to respond to in full.
The 150–250-word or other very short essay
An example prompt from Columbia University: Please tell us what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the areas of study that you noted in the application. (200 words or fewer)
Strategies for this essay: With a short amount of space to work with, we’re going to need extremely taut and clear sentences. This essay doesn’t need the fancy flourish of anecdotal hooks or ledes; in fact, you can’t back into this essay through narrative. Clarity and direct responses to this kind of question will win you the game.
The components of a successful answer to an essay of this length:
A topic sentence that explicitly answers the question that has been asked
Evidence supporting the conclusion (in this case, that neuroscience is the right major for Josh)
A dash of introspection to finish the day
Here’s what Josh, our pianist and soccer player, wrote:
I hope to double-major in neuroscience and behavior and film and media studies at Columbia. Though I may eventually attend medical school, I want to use the liberal arts curriculum at Columbia to explore multiple disciplines as an undergraduate. The combination of neuroscience and film studies might seem surprising to some, but together they pay tribute to the reason I love science at all. My elementary and middle schools didn’t have strong STEM programs, and so my teachers, seeing a student enthusiastic about science, used to put on science documentaries when I’d finished the homework. Watching Stephen Hawking, Oliver Sacks, and Neil deGrasse Tyson, I discovered things that couldn’t have reached me from the textbook. At Columbia, I hope to both take courses that prepare me for a career in neuroscience while also learning documentary filmmaking and production. I hope to intern at least one summer at a production company specializing in science documentaries, and to do a senior project that might eventually see screen time. Whether or not I go on to make films as a career, I know that learning how to communicate complicated ideas to the public will serve me well as a scientist.
Josh’s essay is successful for a number of reasons, but particularly because it not only answers the question (how did you come to your interests), it also specifies the types of classes he’d like to take, summer internships he’d like to pursue, and his eventual goals with both majors. It’s excellent because it’s tailored to Columbia, the asking school; like Ramya’s Rice essay, it serves as an additional mini essay proving Josh’s knowledge of and passion about the school.
Part 3: Types of secondary and supplemental essays
While you can face a number of different types of questions when tackling your secondary and supplemental essays, there are certain prompts and certain genres of prompts that come up again and again. It’s a good idea to be aware of the general types of secondary essays that can come up.
(On the other hand, the University of Chicago is a school that’s famous for coming up with new prompts inspired by its current students each year—a list of current and past questions is available here.)
You’ll notice that many of these secondaries touch on things that you scribbled about way back during your pre-writing phase, while others may ask you to do some thinking about the qualities of the specific college to which you are applying.
We’ve broken down the wild sea of supplemental essays into a few particular types of questions and come up with some strategies with which you can approach the next phase of your application.
The “Why us?” essay
Some colleges will ask you to explain why you’d like to attend their school.
Barnard College: What factors encouraged your decision to apply to Barnard College and why do you think the college would be a good match for you? (300 words max)
Dartmouth College: 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 2026, what aspects of the College's program, community, or campus environment attract your interest? (100 words or fewer)
Yale University: What is it about Yale that has led you to apply? (125 words or fewer)
Strategies for addressing the “Why us?” essay:
Work backward. Think about what your big dream is—what or who you hope to become—and identify a few specific things about each college you’re applying to, asking yourself how each one of those is going to help you get there.
Provide a “mini-thesis” for each school rather than a general list of qualities that the school meets for you. Anita, our humanities-oriented student, writes that she’s interested in studying history, and includes a tidbit in her “Why Yale” essay from the campus tour she was able to take about how Yale’s architects were so obsessed with the past that they built the campus to look even older than it is. This jives with her own interest and the fact that Yale has one of the best history departments in the country.
Go beyond the website, and be specific. Don’t restate the “About Barnard” section of the Barnard brochure to the admissions committee—they already know why they offer you a great opportunity. Talk about your experiences with the college you’re applying to—did you visit and hear something from a tour guide, admissions officer, student, or professor? If you couldn’t visit, did you do some online research that got you in touch with some of the big themes a tour guide or info session would hit? Is there a particular class you’ve heard of that’s legendary on campus? A tradition at the school? An alumna/alumnus of the college whose work has inspired you?
Here’s an example of a great “Why us?” essay, responding to Yale’s prompt. Our mock trial champion from our Common App personal essay guide, Anita, was admitted to Yale.
I hope to study history or English, and Yale's departments in both are some of the best in the world. I am drawn to the interdisciplinary humanities offerings, including the Directed Studies program and the Humanities major. A writer, I also hope to work on the Yale Daily News or the Globalist. But it isn't just the caliber of academics that draws me to Yale. It's also the sense that the campus itself is comprised of history and knowledge. From Sterling Memorial Library, literally constructed as a cathedral to knowledge, to the buildings the architects poured acid on to make them look older, I felt a sense of almost ancient respect for intellect when I visited.
Anita’s essay is extremely specific, citing history, English, a freshman academic program, a particular major, two campus publications she wants to write for, and two facts she learned on her campus tour (which you could also get from watching a number of YouTube videos or speaking with local alumni or meeting admissions officers at a local college fair, if you’re not able to visit schools). But it’s also successful because it has a thesis that conveys a dual passion: a personal passion for her own academic interests, and a passion for the school. She converges her personal plans with the spirit of Yale, and that shows the admissions officers that she’s a natural fit.
Tell us more about an extracurricular
Some colleges will simply ask for you to elaborate further on an extracurricular activity or class you’ve already mentioned on your Common App activities list. This is the only time you should elaborate further on something already in your application.
An example prompt from Princeton University: Briefly elaborate on an activity, organization, work experience, or hobby that has been particularly meaningful to you. (About 150 words)
Strategies for addressing the extracurricular essay:
Choose an activity that means something to you, or that could benefit from being livened up by your prose. Anita our mock trial champion, chose to write about a wilderness solo. But now would be a good time for her to talk about mock trial—the thing the admissions committee will already know her for, but which now she can add some humanity to, without making it the only thing that defines her.
Don’t write about the same thing you’ve written your Common App Essay on! Josh, who chose piano for his personal statement, will need to pick something else.
Here’s another of Anita’s essays, this one about her mock trial activities. Remember that mock trial is one of Anita’s most obviously impressive activities. She’s nationally competitive, and it will come up in her counselor and teacher recommendations and her national wins will show up on her resumé and lists of awards. But she hasn’t written about it yet. Her job is not to summarize her wins—her recommenders and CV will do that for her—but to tell the admissions committee something they can’t get from other portions of her application.
I spend several Saturdays a semester in front of a room full of people, acting out a story. It is one of the greatest adrenaline rushes I can think of. My role: I am an attorney, for a few hours. My motivation: simple. To win the case.
I’m not in the drama club. I’ve never been on a proper stage. I almost threw up as an eighth-grader at theater camp when I had to improvise a scene. And yet, I thrive as a member of the mock trial team. That’s because when my job is to make sense of a series of arguments, to cross-examine my way to the heart of the trial, and to articulate a clear and powerful closing statement, I am inhabiting my best self. I am Atticus Finch and Clarence Darrow, and, most importantly, me.
Design a class/major
Some colleges, especially those with a liberal arts foundation, will ask you to come up with a seminar or even reimagine an entire department.
University of Chicago: Due to a series of clerical errors, there is exactly one typo (an extra letter, a removed letter, or an altered letter) in the name of every department at the University of Chicago. Oops! Describe your new intended major. Why are you interested in it and what courses or areas of focus within it might you want to explore? Potential options include Commuter Science, Bromance Languages and Literatures, Pundamentals: Issues and Texts, Ant History... a full list of unmodified majors ready for your editor’s eye is available here. —Inspired by Josh Kaufman, Class of 2018
University of Notre Dame: During the spring semester, Notre Dame faculty gave 3-Minute Lightning Talks on exciting topics within their fields of expertise. While you don't have a Ph.D. yet, we bet you're developing an expertise in something. If you were giving a Lightning Talk, what topic (academic or not) would you choose? (200 words)
Strategies for this essay: This should be tons of fun—a way of getting to hear you geek out and be creative; it’s a chance for you to show your excitement at the chance to get a broad and varied education. The important thing here is to convey excitement for the reason the college is asking you to do this at all: you’re going to get a chance to study somewhere where your intellectual curiosity is valued.
Here’s Ramya’s answer to an Emory University prompt from a few years back:
If you could create an academic course that is in the Emory University spirit of collaboration, creativity, entrepreneurship and inquiry, what would it be? What impact would the course have on you and your classmates’ educational experience? (500 words)
Why do I love chocolate while my brother gags at the scent of it? Why are some people more attracted to Italian food than Mexican food? Why do we like some foods during the summer, and others during the fall? Can we predict what people might find enjoyable based on their background and attitudes? As an avid foodie, I have always wondered what it is that attracts each person to different tastes.
These are a few of the questions we would answer in my Freshman Seminar class on “Food for Thought.”
We would purchase, cook, and taste foods from all around the world and observe the neurological effects that each has. While there is common knowledge of the basic proteins, carbohydrates, and fats, along with how a good balance should be struck in order to maintain a healthy lifestyle, this new class would focus on the subtle differences in types of signals emitted by the brain when different foods are consumed. Students would be exposed to the theory and practice of neuroimaging techniques such as fMRI and PET scans. We would identify neurotransmitters emitted as a result of the food ingested and study if different parts of the brain “light up” in response to different foods.
Along with creating a brain-food map, students would learn how to use statistically sound methods to study how variables such as a subject’s ethnic background, age, gender, and social attitudes such as open mindedness, correlate with the subject’s likes and dislikes.
This class will also address cultural elements of food. When eating foods from around the world, in order to fully appreciate the dish as a whole, it is important to understand the context surrounding what lands on our plates. We would read short stories or passages and watch excerpts of popular film focused on food from the countries whose cuisine we are testing. Cooking and tasting food together are great ways to bring people together, as seen in many movies such as Ratatouille and The Hundred-Foot Journey.
Not only would this class be informative, but it would also be an engaging, hands-on experience, and would provide freshmen with two valuable experiences during their first year at college—forming community and rethinking their fundamental approaches to academics by introducing them to interdisciplinary thought. “Food for Thought” would expose freshmen to an integrated approach to science while providing a fun environment for freshmen to get to know each other. At the end of the class, all students would have a better understanding of neuroscience as well as an appreciation for different cultures and their unique foods.
Sign us up for Ramya’s class! This is such a vibrant essay for a number of reasons. She’s truly thrown herself into imagining an interdisciplinary topic that converges a fun, light part of her personality—food—with something already on her application—her interest in medicine and neuroscience. She’s also made a few expert moves here, whether consciously or not. By pointing to the “valuable experiences” students need freshman year, she has indicated to the admissions committee that she understands that being a part of Emory involves both community and academics. That’s the kind of person you want on your campus!
Tell us about your major
Some schools may ask you to apply to a specific professional school or track or having declared a major. Others may ask you to indicate an initial preference. Still others may expect no prior thought about majors.
Cornell University: Students in Arts and Sciences embrace the opportunity to delve into multifaceted academic interests, embodying in 21st century terms Ezra Cornell’s “any person…any study” founding vision. Tell us about the areas of study you are excited to explore, and specifically why you wish to pursue them in our College. (650 words maximum)
Brown University: Brown’s Open Curriculum allows students to explore broadly while also diving deeply into their academic pursuits. Tell us about an academic interest (or interests) that excites you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue it. (200–250 words)
Strategies for this essay: This is one essay hiding two in it—it’s a “Why us?” essay combined with an essay that wants you to state where you see yourself in 5–10 years.
First, apply the same strategies you did for the “Why us?” essay (specifics!)—go to the website of the undergraduate program or major you’re applying to/indicating interest in, and look at student or alumni profiles. Is there anyone who makes you say, “Yeah, I’d love to do that”? Write about them. Is there a summer program, a particular class, an internship, or anything else associated with this program that attracts you?
Second, talk about where you want to be in 5–10 years. Imagine your dream job and tell the admissions committee how this particular program or major might help you reach it. This is a time when you can and should be specific—because you’re not committing to the story you’re writing down. You’re just demonstrating that you’ve thought about it and have a passion or vocation pulling you in one direction or another.
Here’s an example in response to Brown’s prompt from our student Josh, who isn’t sure what he wants to study. But he’s generally interested in international affairs and global political issues.
I am interested in studying International Relations or East Asian Studies. My mother is Chinese and my father is American. When they met, their two countries could not have been more distant. But today, China and America have to increasingly understand one another, economically, politically, and culturally. I am able to stand at the crossroads of these two countries, and I hope to use my time at Brown to learn Mandarin and to study abroad in China. I am also excited about the East Asian Studies requirement to engage with countries beyond China; learning about migratory patterns and cultural conversations in the region and studying Korea and Japan will help me crystallize my sense of the region.
An essay that asks you what you bring to the college community can seem like it’s asking for you to explain the ways in which you bring “diversity” to the community. You can answer in terms of your identity—gender, racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, or otherwise—but you do not need to. Really, essays like this are asking for you to identify one way in which you’re different, and the way you make that difference a boon to others around you.
University of Michigan: Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it.
Duke University: 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 that would help us understand you better, perhaps a community you belong to or your family or cultural background, we encourage you to do so here. Real people are reading your application, and we want to do our best to understand and appreciate the real people applying to Duke. (250 words maximum)
Strategies for these essays: Go back to your pre-written prompts and think about what you noticed that made you different and unlike your peers. You’re often looking for something intangible to others but tangible to you. Think about what you wrote about your parents or siblings, your hometown or community.
We’ve given you Ramya’s response to this above, but here’s another essay, from Michael responding to the Duke prompt, who wrote about surfing with his grandfather for the personal statement. Though Michael has included his grandfather in his application already, he takes a different angle on him for this optional essay so it does not feel redundant. Especially because this is a non-required answer, that repetition is fine.
I was born and raised in a small town in southern California and attended a big public high school. Here, everyone is racially mixed-up. Black, Asian, Hapa, Hispanic, and other combinations mingle in our loud school hallways. I never had much of a reason to think about my ethnic heritage until recently. My maternal grandfather is Hawaiian, and he married a “haole,” or a white person. My paternal grandparents are white Californians. I look almost entirely white, and I get to move through the world feeling like any old white guy. But when my grandfather got sick and eventually passed away at the end of high school, I became interested in that part of my background.
I learned about the state’s history and the colonial presence that white people had. I also learned how many people in Hawaii now serve in the Armed Forces. This is a complicated history, and one I am interested in exploring more in college. Though I don’t know if I will ever live in Hawaii long-term, I want to study history or anthropology to write about this part of American history, which I never knew about growing up. I think this cultural background could bring something unique to the Duke community. I also think it can contribute to conversations about social justice, which are big in my high school, but which entirely white people sometimes struggle to contribute to. My sense of containing multiple racial identities now will shape me and the school I attend.
Some universities ask for your “short takes” on a number of things, limiting your response to 35 words or so.
Yale University (approximately 35 words each):
Yale’s residential colleges regularly host conversations with guests representing a wide range of experiences and accomplishments. What person, past or present, would you invite to speak? What would you ask them to discuss?
Yale students embrace the concept of “and” rather than “or,” pursuing arts and sciences, tradition and innovation, defined goals and surprising detours. What is an example of an “and” that you embrace?
Princeton University (50 words each):
What brings you joy?
What song represents the soundtrack of your life at this moment?
Strategy for these “essays:” Be authentic, original, and don’t overthink it. You might even have someone else read them aloud to you and answer instinctively. This is a chance for you to sound like the you your friends and family know and love. If you’re flexing here, trust us, the admissions officers will roll their eyes. They can smell it.
Part 4: Frequently asked questions
How much of a “theme” do I need to convey across my Common App personal statement and supplementary essays?
You want to offer one round story about yourself, while also giving the admissions committee an opportunity to discover you anew each time: first in your Common App essay, then in your recommendations, and finally in your supplementary essays. Stating major contradictions or trying to span too much—for example, saying you want to study English, biology, Chinese, and public health—might confuse things. Everyone is more complex and multivalent than they can seem on paper, but remember to keep sounding related notes without ringing the same bell over and over.
Are supplementary essays the place to explain away bad grades or holes in my academic record?
Some schools will give you a chance to elaborate on splotches on your transcript or weak points. If they don’t, remember that you have the chance to engage with your weak spots in any number of these supplementary essays, as long as you write narratively. Say your STEM grades were weak freshman and sophomore year. You might talk about how your middle school didn’t have a strong math or science program and when you switched to a good high school, you weren’t prepared. Then you’d want to explain what you did to improve them and how that taught you a lesson going forward.
It’s important to note, though, that it is rarely the right choice to talk about your bad grades in your essays. More often, you should try to be impressive on your own terms rather than risk seeming defensive.
Many supplemental essays seem to want me to “loosen up.” Is there such thing as going too casual?
Take your cue from the tone of the question. The Pitzer essays we mentioned in this post, for instance, have a serious tone and are basically invitations to write another personal statement. But the short takes, or Stanford’s famous “roommate essay,” are asking you to be creative, and that might mean more casual. But it probably means something more like “sound like you.” In any case, be deliberate and try not to slip too much into generational patois.
I’m applying to the University of California, which asks for 350-word essays, or another school system with short word counts on the essays. Can I use those as supplemental responses? Can I use my supplemental essays for the other schools?
Yes, definitely. It’s always a good idea to reuse your material as much as possible. You don’t have to reinvent yourself for every application. You’re presenting the same self at a slightly different angle based on the questions a given school chooses to ask you.
Always remember, though, that any essays you reuse across schools will probably have to be at least a little bit modified so that they directly answer the question that was asked. The question from the University of California that asks, “What would you say is your greatest talent or skill? How have you developed and demonstrated that talent over time?” is not the same question as “Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences that was particularly meaningful to you.”
That said, your answer might be the same or similar. Your greatest talent or skill might be mock trial or soccer; perhaps you’ve written about mock trial for the extracurricular supplemental essay. The trick now is to make sure you’re answering the “over time” element of the UC question. Your job isn’t just to say you did mock trial and why you liked it; you will also need to explain something about its arc and change in your life over a period of months or years.
(Suggested reading: How to Write Great UC Essays)
THERE'S NO REASON TO STRUGGLE THROUGH THE COLLEGE ADMISSIONS PROCESS ALONE, ESPECIALLY WITH SO MUCH ON THE LINE. SCHEDULE YOUR COMPLIMENTARY 30-MINUTE CONSULTATION TO ENSURE YOU LEAVE NOTHING TO CHANCE.