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?”

What is a supplemental application for college? | Image

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 context is helpful. The admissions officers who review your application are often the same people who give daily public information/zoom sessions, organize campus tours, and generally welcome you to campus. By citing specific things highlighted in your visit, you are not only providing feedback to the admissions office, but you are conveying your understanding and enthusiasm for the particular university you are applying to. These need not be formal mentions, though they could be. If you visited on a sunny day and were delighted to see many classes being held outside, write about your observation and why you are excited about this prospect (remember, always connect to past experiences).

Supplemental Essay Tip 4: What NOT to do. The above 3 tips should set you on a good path regarding where to begin and what to write for your supplemental college application essays. Equally as important is what NOT to write. Some of this may seem obvious, though as any current or former admissions officer can tell you, there are certain things that commonly appear in supplemental essays that can negatively impact you.

  1. Do NOT write about the “prestige” of the university. Colleges want to know what you hope to learn from them and what you plan to contribute to the community. Prestige is not something you will learn. Writing that you want to attend based on the prestige of the school or its faculty implies you want to ride the coattails of their success and you are less interested in the day-to-day work of serious learning that a college education entails. Omit all mentions of prestige in your college essays.
  2. Do NOT use broad language without providing specific examples related to your own experience. For example, it is not enough to write “the quarter system appeals to me”. You must go into detail and provide an example from your life as to why the quarter system appeals to you.
  3. Do NOT misspell the name of the college! This should be self-explanatory.

We hope the above article has helped you understand what college application supplements are, why colleges ask for them, and how you can write strong supplemental essays for your college application. If you feel you may still need help with your supplemental essay questions, consider working with an experienced college application consultant who will be able to provide personalized guidance. Contact us for more information!

All of our blog posts are written by Former College Admission Officers who serve as members of our admission consultant team.

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