Surviving Supplemental Essays
It's that time of year again: high school seniors are so exhausted from writing college essays that post-secondary institutions that looked *amazing* to the students just a few months ago are quickly being taken off of application lists because of the volume of extra writing required (and it is REQUIRED - don't be fooled by any "optional" designation!). I completely understand! Think about it: schools are asking 17 and 18-year-olds to encapsulate "their essence" in 650 words (can YOU do that easily?), keep up good grades in their regular classes, and THEN continue writing additional 500-1000 word essays on the meaning and value of a Jesuit education or on how the student would "convert" Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech into a tweet and why (both are real prompts, the latter coming from the University of Vermont this year). Every year, we ask more and more from our high school seniors, and, by this point in the process, burnout is very, very real.
Yet, it doesn't have to be! Yes, students will need to generate some extra new content writing these supplemental essay answers, but there are things that every applicant may do to make this task less onerous. Here are some tips for surviving the "supplementals:"
- Most colleges and universities actually DON'T want to torture students with endless bizarre essay questions (I'm looking at you, University of Chicago, and your annual wacky, student-generated prompts!). In fact, if you write down the supplemental essay prompts from every school on that application list, you may begin to see a certain level of repetition. By this, I mean most of these schools will want to know the answer to "Why College X?" In other words, they will want an essay explaining what about this particular school appeals to you. DO: research the school online and find things that are SPECIFIC to that school - are there super-cool professors doing research that you want to do, too? Is there a particular program of study or center on campus that matches up with your own interests? The goal is to not only show that you have actually cared enough to research the particular school, but also to paint a picture of how you will fit in on campus. Do the legwork for the admission team reading your application: connect those dots and make it easy for them to see that you "get" this school AND that you will become part of that specific community easily. DO NOT: write that your parents are making you apply there, that the food seems good, or any other plethora of boring and generic answers. Do not repeat back statistics and facts about the school - the admission readers already know all about the size of the undergrad population and that the school offers a gazillion different majors. They care more about what YOU find amazing and awesome about the particular school. And if you can't find a single thing that gets you excited about this institution, why are you even applying there??
- Another very popular prompt across the board is the ubiquitous "Why do you want to study [insert your chosen major here]?" This one generates much anxiety, and understandably so. I'm here to tell everyone to take a deep breath! If you are undecided, that's OK! Use this space to discuss possible academic/career interests. The school does not expect high school seniors to have detailed "road maps" of their anticipated future lives! The admission officers just want to see that you've given some serious thought to what interests you academically, and to get a sense of possible directions for you (just make sure that what you write makes sense within the context of your entire application - for example, if your transcript and extracurriculars all demonstrate a passion for and commitment to the humanities and the arts, do not, then, write that you plan on becoming an engineer without having taken even pre-Calculus in high school). If you DO have some idea about your major, then don't worry about changing your mind. As I tell my students over and over again, there are no Application Police! No one is going to track you down on campus next year and ask why you aren't taking X, Y, and Z courses because you wrote about them in an application essay!!! Relax - write about what interests you and why, and see if you can connect some school-specific resources to your particular academic interests.
- RECYCLE!!! You do not have to reinvent the wheel every time you start a new supplemental essay! Feel free to copy/paste bits and pieces of one essay for College X and integrate those fragments into a brand new essay for College Y. Especially when answering the "Why this major?" question, you can easily remix your answer from a previous version of that essay - just tweak it so that it is specific to that particular school (after all, your academic interests aren't really changing here, but the school-specific resources ARE different). A word of caution: PROOFREAD! You should be doing that anyway, but it becomes even more important when recycling essays! The last thing you need is to write about your passion for studying biology at Vassar and then mention your excitement to work with Professor Z who is on the faculty at NYU.
If you use the advice above, the supplemental essay writing experience should feel more manageable, and stress levels should go down. If you find yourself still struggling, check out College Essay Guy's advice on writing supplemental essays, or shoot me an e-mail with your specific dilemma, and I'll see if I can offer some suggestions. Putting effort into writing your supplemental essays is worth it, even if you feel you're running out of steam. As John F. Kennedy once said, "Every accomplishment begins with the decision to try."
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Maruta Z. Vitols is an independent educational consultant in the metro-Boston area. When not helping students achieve their dreams, she enjoys hanging out with her dog, exploring new places with her husband, and doing yoga.