Three students have a discussion in the lounge of the Gottwald Center for the Sciences

Tips for Writing Supplemental Essays

July 17, 2020

Ah, those pesky supplemental essays. Just when you think you’ve got your college application pretty much all together, you realize that several colleges where you’re applying want you to write another essay. How should you approach this additional task?

In most cases, supplemental essays are either as important or more important than your Common App essay. Colleges use them in different ways – sometimes to draw out a different side of your personality, sometimes to gauge your level of interest in their institution, occasionally to evaluate some specific quality that is important to their community. Usually, the college’s intent is pretty clear in the questions they ask (so don’t worry about trick questions or reverse psychology). But in every case, the fundamental purpose of a supplemental essay is for an admission committee to learn more about you.

Here are some tips to consider as you craft your supplemental essays:

  1. Write your Common Application essay early. Most of you will be applying to multiple colleges that accept the Common App, with its choice of seven essay prompts. If you haven’t already begun to craft your “main” essay, now is the time to do that. I recommend having this one more or less finished before your senior year begins – which will leave you more time to focus on your supplemental essays as application deadlines get closer.
  2. Strategize the order you write your supplemental essays. Research ahead so you know which colleges require supplements and when they are due. Start with the most immediate deadlines (often Early Action or Early Decision), and move to the later deadlines from there.
  3. Spend just as much time writing and polishing your supplemental essays as you do your Common App essay. This is the biggest pitfall of supplemental essay writing – and admission officers are not impressed when they see evidence you didn’t put as much time and effort into your second essay. (At some colleges, this could even lessen the competitiveness of your application, if they perceive it as a lack of interest on your part.) Plan ahead and give yourself the time you need to brainstorm, draft, edit, and proofread.
  4. Tell your story. Supplemental essays have the same purpose as the standard ones – to give you an opportunity to share something about yourself. Even if the question is focused on the college, don’t just use this as an opportunity to show your knowledge about the college; use your knowledge of the college to tell your own story. Consider this a second opportunity to share something meaningful about yourself, and consider how you can use this essay to complement your Common App essay and provide a fuller picture of who you are.
  5. Don’t just list off a bunch of things you learned about the college from their website. While some colleges are looking to see that you’ve done your homework and are familiar with their institutions, you should consider that a secondary purpose for your writing. This is still a personal essay, and needs to be fundamentally about you. (When colleges ask about your fit at the institution, they’re not looking for an essay about the institution – they’re looking for an essay about your fit. That means it’s got to be about you at the core.)
  6. Answer the question/prompt. It’s okay to repurpose other essays you’ve written, if they are generally in line with the question – but be sure to tailor them, carefully, to ensure they answer the prompt seamlessly. You don’t want an admission officer thinking, “Yep, this student copied and pasted this essay from somewhere else and rewrote the first and last sentence.”

With a little planning and some careful consideration of the advice above, you shouldn’t have any problem delivering some excellent supplemental essays with your college applications. And if you're ready to begin crafting your supplemental essay for Richmond, you can find our Richmond Question prompts in the Application Materials.