The Myths and Truths About Supplemental Essays

The following piece was written by Rachel Korn. Rachel has been featured in our Admissions Expert series and is a former University of Pennsylvania admissions officer, as well as the founder of her own admissions consulting firm.

Aside from the required, main college essay, many colleges and universities often ask for at least one more essay or short answer question. Though instructions for these supplemental essays can vary greatly, the essays usually have the general theme of “why are you applying to us?” The schools want to check that you are sending thoughtful, well-reasoned applications – that you are not just throwing an application their way because of their strong name or location near you, for example.

How do you write these essays? Here are some myths and facts about them to help you succeed.

Myth: I can write one essay and just modify it for all my schools.

Fact: Admissions officers know when you do that. Really. You know you have not written a deep enough answer if you can replace the school’s name with another school’s name and it is still 100% correct.


Myth: I have not been able to visit a college due to time, finances, or distance. I cannot possibly know enough to write something strong for these essays.

Fact: Not true! You can interact easily with current students via the schools’ websites, attend college fairs and speak to alumni, or read websites and other materials to successfully get a feel for the schools and then find great, unique reasons why you like them. With proper research, you can “get” the schools enough without stepping a foot on the campuses.


Myth: I can just copy & paste from the college website. I can spend five minutes surfing and find a class in my major or a professor’s name in my field to cite and show something personal about the school.

Fact: Admissions officers are not impressed by web-surfing skills. In fact, they expect you to be surfing. They are impressed by the students who dig deeper to say what things actually mean to them.

Is that school you want a specialist in your field, or does it send many graduates into the job you may seek after college? Does the school not just have successful sports teams, but strong team spirit and a tradition of campus unity at home games in big stadiums? Is there a special tradition there that you find interesting? What are unique academic or extracurricular programs at that school that match the activities and interests you show in your application? What is the “feel” of the school that you like? Does it specifically support creativity or intellectuality; is it a particularly liberal or conservative campus; does it have an emphasis on an interdisciplinary education; is it especially diverse or does it have a particularly large number of international students; is it small and community-oriented so you can get to know everybody or is it a large place where you can constantly meet new people? 

These things go deeper. Show why you like the things you cite. The information should be necessarily unique with each school.


Myth: These supplemental essays are not so important – I don’t have much time and I can just throw some ideas down.

Fact: Your admission may depend on these essays! At the competitive colleges at which I worked, my colleagues and I have advocated for wait-listing students whom we loved and thought belonged in the class – just because they wrote poor supplemental essays. We would be disappointed, and even a bit angry, because we really wanted to enthusiastically admit the students. Sometimes we did, but sometimes we didn’t.


How did those students fail? They wrote essays far shorter than the suggested word limits, used interchangeable general ideas that could have applied to many colleges (especially to our competitors – and the competitors’ names may have even appeared in the essays), and used language significantly different from and weaker than the main essays (clearly not spending time editing the supplemental essays). These are all signs that students did not take care to make thoughtful, targeted applications. 

So, we asked ourselves if these students liked us beyond our reputation. We fought about admitting them. Did such students, even if they were superstars, deserve spots in the class over those who proved they understood us and might be more likely to accept our offers of admission? At the end of the day, remember, admissions officers ideally want to admit students who hopefully will attend. You can prove that they have a shot at you through well-written supplemental essays.

As you can see, these essays directly reflect the seriousness of your application. These essays are your one chance to say to the admissions committee, “I researched your school and found out that I really like it and would love to be there!” They may be the last things admissions officers read in your application, so after the readers fall in love with you, don’t leave them on a sour note. Give these essays as much time, attention, and revision as your main essay and give yourself your best chance at admission.

Visit Rachel’s Admissions Consulting site.

The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Varsity Tutors.