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How to Complete Supplemental Essays for every college on your list

by Mimi Wilmerding, on Jul 24, 2021 6:23:14 PM

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When I started the process of completing supplements for 12 colleges, a year ago, I found it really overwhelming! These are the steps I used to get my supplements organized, under control, and finished in my own voice. If you follow these steps, you can do it!

What should I talk about in my supplemental essays?

The first step is to make a long-ish list of all the things you could write about in your supplements -- you can think of this as your story portfolio. If you're really struggling to find topics, here are some tips to jumpstart your process!

Supplement Do's and Don'ts

Supplement Do's Don'ts
- Write about specific moments
- Show how you made an impact
- Show yourself in action
- Write the essay yourself
- Focus the essay on your character
- Start your essay with a
- Write about general experiences
- Show yourself as a spectator
- Allow everyone to critique your writing
- Over-edit
- Focus the essay on your achievements
- Start your essay with a preamble (Example: This is an essay about…)

Here's some more info about what NOT to do in your supplemental essays.

Research Each College that Requires Supplements 

It’s really important to learn about every college you apply to. Explore the school’s website; you can usually find online tours, course catalogs, and a lot of information about what the school has to offer. When I was applying to colleges, I would look for YouTube videos about student life and campus news. I also followed all their Twitter and Instagram feeds, so I could see what they were saying to the world. I was considering going there for four years, so I really wanted to get to know them! 

How to Organize and Complete Supplemental Essays 

As you add more colleges to your list, the number of supplemental essays you have to write will quickly increase. Before I started my writing process, I used this chart to visualize how many essays I had to write and when I had to finish them. 

Colleges Supplements Regular Decision
Due Date
Early Options
+ Due Dates
Duke University
- One required
- 2 optional
Jan 4, 2022 Early Decision
Nov 1, 2022
College Name

College Name


The 6 Types of Supplemental Essays 

  • Community: This helps admission officers envision the type of person you will be on campus based on the roles and impact you've already had in your various communities: school, family, neighborhood, work, faith-based organizations.  
  • Why This College? Use this supplement to show the college what life experiences have drawn you to that college and how you imagine spending your time there. 
  • What Major? This supplement is important because it allows the college to see how you connect your interests with specific college programs and to imagine what kind of work you will be doing in the future. 
  • Activity: Write about an activity that has made an impact on you or other people or one that has sparked curiosity! This could be about anything from playing tennis to working at your local bagel shop.
  • Influence: This essay shows colleges what has shaped you as a person. Talk about a person, book, movie, or big idea that has influenced you. 
  • Issue: This supplement shows how your commitments have been formed; perhaps how you've grown from a hard experience. You can also show how you've helped others based on what you learned. 

Although every supplemental essay will have its own unique prompt, most prompts can be categorized in one of these groups. So, if some of the colleges on your list require supplements with similar prompts, you can focus on completing one essay of each type, and then you can refine that for each college. 

Next, make a chart organizing all your supplemental essays by type. Here's a simple chart I created, with info for two of my 12 schools. Feel free to take it and use it! 

  Community Why this College? Why this Major? Activity Influence Issue
College name Word limit Word limit Word limit Word limit Word limit Word limit
Example: Dartmouth College   100 words   250-300 words    
Example: Wake Forest University 150 words     150 words 150 words  

After you fill in the chart, you can begin to work on specific essays. I recommend that you: 

  • Research all the colleges that require supplements before you start writing any of them.
  • Decide which college(s) you're applying to either Early Action or Early Decision and plan to get those supplements done at least a week before the early November deadlines.
  • Make one document that includes all the supplement essay options for all the colleges you're applying for, so you can pick the questions that best suit the stories you have to tell. 
  • Write the longest version of each type of essay first. 

Colleges are looking for students who are a good fit

The most important thing to show in your supplements is how you are what colleges call a good fit for that college. What does that mean? To show your fit for a college you want to show connections between the things you've already done and the things you'll do in college and afterward. 

For example, I was a math mentor in my local public school, and I also was a TA and tutor for younger students in math at my school. Additionally, I was a peer counselor in my dorm. All of that creates a picture of someone who is going to help younger students when she gets to college. 

But how could I use all those related activities in different ways for different places? 

  • Activity: When I was talking about tutoring in the local school, I showed how I got to know a shy student through Connect Four.
  • Major: In my own school, as a teaching assistant, there was a day when the teacher didn't show up and I had to take charge of the class, which really demonstrated my courage. It also shows how much I love teaching math!  
  • Influence; failure; community: In a variety of different contexts, I talked about a time early in high school when I'd made a mistake, got caught, and all I Iearned from that. 

This is really a game of matching what you've done and what people can count on you for with specific academic programs and extracurricular activities at each college. Write the longest version of each essay first, very focused on a specific college. From there, you can produce shorter versions for the different word limits, making sure to show specific connections with each college. 

Other types of essays for specific colleges 

If you run into a supplement that doesn't fit any of the six main categories, ask yourself, "What's the most important thing I want this college to know about me that I haven't already told them?" Is there a story that shows something important about you -- a moment of growth or change or learning -- that I haven't already used for my personal statement or for another supplement for this college that I could use here? 

For more information about college-specific essays read this

Video Essays 

Because many colleges are not able to interview everyone who applies, there's a trend toward "video interviews" and "video essays." Here's a step-by-step guide to complete those. 

Scholarship Essays

If the college requires essays for scholarships or other special programs, even if they are optional, we recommend you definitely take the time to complete those essays. Here's everything you need to know about scholarship essays

Essays for Honors Programs and Special Scholarships 

For many students, the honors college at your state university offers an incredible learning opportunity at a reasonable price. These honors programs allow high-achieving students to be part of a selective academic community. Generally, students receive access to special academic programs, research opportunities, scholarships, and even preferential housing. 

Some colleges require students to write a supplemental essay for consideration into an honors program. While every honors program or special scholarship essay prompt will be different, you should remember that the goal of these opportunities is to support high-achieving students who are poised to make a big impact on campus, both academically and in the community. You should focus your essay on stories that reveal how you will make an impact both as an honors college student and in the future, as an alumnus. You should also carefully review and proofread any honors program essays to ensure they are your best writing. 

For more info about college admission and scholarship essays and interviews, sign up for self-paced courses and our award-winning StoryBuilder writing platform FREE. Want to stay up to date on the latest tips and resources? Follow us @story2 on Instagram!

Mimi Wilmerding is a Hong Kong native and a graduate of St. Andrew's School in Middletown, Delaware. She'll be starting college at the University of Virginia this fall, where she hopes to major in psychology. She was the captain of her school's tennis team, a dorm counselor, and a math tutor and mentor at St. Andrew's and in Middletown public schools.

Topics:supplement essays