Common App: Supplement Strategies

Phoebe Keyes, Director of Admission Aug 2021

A few days ago, colleges released their supplements through the Common Application. While the personal statement looms large over the application process, supplemental essays are just as—if not more—important. Here’s what you need to know. 

Add schools to your “My Colleges” section. It’s important to do this early. While colleges can’t see your application until it’s submitted, they are privy to two important pieces of information:

  • They’re notified when you add them to your “My Colleges” section. Even if your list isn’t final, add every school to which you might apply. This shows “demonstrated interest” and proves to those schools that you’ve been interested in them for a while. 
  • They’re notified when you select (or change) your application round. Leave this question blank—for now. If you select “Early Decision” and then change your mind, the college knows they fell somewhat in your esteem. 

This is the only question you should skip until the last minute. Which brings us to… 

Do NOT jump immediately to the essays/writing section. Sometimes, colleges hide essays in other sections of the supplement. (An essay on your extracurriculars, for example, might be buried in the “Activities” section.) More importantly, some essay prompts won’t appear until you answer other questions. (For example: you might have to fill out the “Academics” section to trigger an essay prompt about your intended major.) 

“Optional” (almost) never means optional. Treat optional essays as required—with only a few exceptions: You can skip an essay only if it clearly doesn’t apply to you. Examples:

  • Prompts that allow applicants to explain anomalies on their transcript: don’t use this section to make excuses about a B- in math. It applies only to students with major red flags on their transcript or whose grades fell because of a death, serious illness, or other extenuating circumstance. 
  • Prompts that invite students to write about their experience as part of a marginalized community: if it’s not immediately clear this applies to you, skip it. (Don’t strain to find content that fits—even if you have a clever idea. This is not an opportunity to write about your experience living as a redhead or with a peanut allergy). 

Strategize (and self-plagiarize). Take stock of every essay you’ll need to write. Find the overlaps. It’s rarely possible to completely repurpose one school’s essay for another’s, but that doesn’t mean you need to reinvent the wheel each time. 

  • Write the longest essays first. An 800-word essay will likely cover your academic interests, extracurriculars, and intellectual goals—all topics relevant to other school’s prompts.
  • If you’re allowed to choose from a range of prompts, pick one that overlaps with another school’s. 

Be specific. It’s essential to modify essays—even when the prompts are identical. If two colleges require 300-words about your academic interests, the bulk of each essay—about 200 words—can mirror the other’s. But the remaining 100 should relate those interests to the school’s specific pedagogy, opportunities, and departments. 

Remember, supplemental essays are your best chance to prove to a school that you’re a good fit. Admissions committees should be able to imagine you on campus. Do your research, but don’t just paraphrase the school’s website or mission statement—embody it. Show colleges that you understand their pedagogy by relating specific features to your own interests, experiences, and goals. 

And, as always, let us know how we can help

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