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What is a supplemental application for college?

The Common Application, The Universal Application, and Supplemental Applications for College

It’s mid-August before your senior year and you’re feeling pretty good about your college applications. After all, your Common Application Personal Statement or Universal Application main essay is complete, your activities filled out and your letters of recommendation have been requested. You might just be able to convince yourself you’re almost done! Until your best friend says, “That’s great, but have you started working on your supplemental applications?”


Aside from evaluating your friendships, your first move should be to fully understand what the supplemental application for college is, which colleges require them, and why.

First things first: all colleges require supplemental applications, but not all require supplemental essay questions. This article will review both in detail, and provide tips.

What is the college application supplement? This is the part of the Common or Universal Application that is personalized to the college, and every college has one. The college supplements ask questions that are specific to the particular institution you are applying to. These include a drop-down box for selecting your major/school (no 2 colleges have an exact match for all majors, so you need to select your specific major for each college), which term you are applying to, and which application program you would like your materials reviewed for (Early Action, Early Decision, or Regular Decision). These are questions every college application supplement will ask you. Other questions are even more specific to the particular college and can include things like residency questions for state-funded institutions, and questions about specific programs you may be eligible for. Typically, it shouldn’t take you more than 5-10 minutes to complete all of these questions on a particular college’s application supplement, as they are simply drop-down boxes.

What are college application supplemental essay questions? This is the part of the college application that most people think of when they think “college application supplements”. Supplemental essay questions are asked by all of the top 10 colleges in the US, most (but not all) of the top 50 colleges, and asked by many others. Occasionally, the supplements are optional (though as always with “optional” pieces of a college application, it is in your best interest to complete them). The number of college application supplemental essay questions can be 1-2 on the lower range or 5-7 on the higher range; the word count for each can vary significantly. If the prospect of answering these questions seems overwhelming, read on for specific tips to help get you started. If you feel you may still need help with your supplemental essay questions, consider working with a college application consultant who will be able to provide personalized guidance.

Why do colleges ask supplemental essay questions? The short answer is that supplemental essay questions help admissions officers to determine your fit (or likelihood of success) at a particular college. Quantitative measures like grades and testing are some determining factors to gauge if you will be able to handle the academic rigor of a college, though a residential college experience is so much more. Admissions officers want to be sure you will be successful academically and beyond, and the supplemental essay questions can help determine both.

If Admissions Officers are reviewing Supplemental Essays for fit, how do I demonstrate good fit in my supplemental essays? The answer can be summed up in one word: research. The strongest supplemental essays are ones from students who have invested significant time in researching faculty, culture, traditions, research opportunities, and other specifics offered by a particular college. The best supplemental college essays have not only researched all of these, but they provide detailed examples related to your past experience as to why this unique offering is to your benefit.

Supplemental Essay Tip 1: Find a specific feature and describe in detail how that feature is relevant to you. For example, if you are applying to a college that has a quarter system (in lieu of a semester system) and this is an attractive feature of this school for you, you should be able to explain a time in your past when focusing on fewer academic subjects allowing you to delve deeper into a specific subject area. Describe your work, process, and outcome during that time and create a parallel to the quarter system. Like all college essays, providing specific details that are unique to you will result in the strongest essays.

Supplemental Essay Tip 2: Many supplemental essay questions ask a version of “why this college, why this major”. Again, you will be able to best answer this question through research and include specifics from that research in your essay. To begin, research the departmental website of the college and note unique programs and faculty. In answering the supplemental question of “why this college, why this major” you may write about a particular faculty member you are excited to learn from or a particular lab, land resource, museum, or library you would be able to access as a student.

Supplemental Essay Tip 3: This tip is also related to research and fit. If you visited a college and did a college tour (or if you attended a virtual session) mention approximately when you visited in your supplemental essay. This need not take up a lot of words, you can simply write “When I visited the campus last fall…”. Providing this