Supplemental Essays Guide: How to Write, Tips & Examples

Student writing in on paper
March 11, 2024
15 min read


Reviewed by:

Former Admissions Committee Member, Columbia University

Reviewed: 9/11/23

Writing stand-out supplemental essays may be your ticket into your dream school. Follow along for our complete guide on writing perfect supplemental essays for college.

A student writing a supplemental essay

If you’re working on supplemental essays, you’ve already spent countless hours perfecting your application. However, even the perfect application must be followed by stellar supplementals to get you into your dream school. That’s right, supplementals are a highly important piece of the application process - so how can you perfect yours? 

In this complete guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about writing excellent supplemental essays, including examples from well-written essays, tips for common essay prompts, and each possible length. To top it all off, we’ve also included answers to the most frequently asked questions about writing stand-out supplemental essays.

Let’s get started!

What are Supplemental Essays? 

Supplemental essays are additional writing samples that you submit along with the rest of your college application. Many high-ranking schools ask for these essays, as they are intended to be more specific than your personal statement. It’s a chance for you to further demonstrate why you are a good fit for the school you’re applying to.

How Important are Supplemental Essays?

Two students talking

In short, supplemental essays are an extremely valuable part of your application. Your application allows schools to see the base of your work ethic through numbers (grades, extracurriculars, awards, and more), but it doesn’t give any indication of your personality. 

These essays are your first opportunity to give your university an idea of who you are and what you are passionate about. 

Excellent essays can tip the scales in your favor, especially for highly competitive schools where most candidates have excellent grades. An in-depth, well-written essay can set your application apart from others.

What are Colleges Looking For in Supplemental Essays? 

In supplemental essays, colleges look for honesty, specificity, and the ability to answer the prompt accurately and succinctly. We will look at several common prompts that colleges often use: 

  • “Why Us?”
  • “Why This Major?”
  • Adversity
  • Community/diversity
  • Extracurricular

Using these prompts helps college admissions get a better idea of who you are as an applicant.

How to Write Different Supplemental Essay Prompts

Every college has a unique set of prompts they distribute to their applicants each year. However, most prompts follow core formats. Here are some of the most common types of supplemental essays and how to write them.

The “Why Us?” Essay

The “Why Us?” or "Why This School?” essay is one of the most common prompts in circulation. Top schools such as Brown, Columbia, and Cornell have all been known to ask applicants to answer this prompt as part of their application. So, how do you write the “Why Us?” essay? Let’s talk about it. 

When a college asks you why you want to go there, the admissions committee wants to know a few things:

  • The specific things about this school that appeal to you (have you done your research?)
  • How you will contribute to this school’s college life
  • How attending this school will help you achieve short and long-term goals

With this prompt, avoid listing reasons you want to go to the school unless you are directly instructed to do so. This is an opportunity to show the admissions committee how much their school matters to you, what programs and courses most interest you, and how the school will help you develop your passion and achieve your goals. 

You should do thorough research on the school and consider what sets it apart from other colleges on your list. Avoid providing general reasons that could be said about any other college. 

Writing this essay is your chance to showcase why you are passionate about attending this specific school and why it matters to you. Finally, conclude your essay by explaining how and why attending this school will help your long-term goals. 

“Why Us?” Essay Sample from Columbia University:

“Computer science is at the core of my academic passions and my life ambitions. What I value in life is being around brilliant technologists. At Columbia, I have worked with and befriended the most driven and gifted programmers I’ve ever met. In January, I formed a team with three Columbia freshmen for MIT’s annual strategy-game-playing artificial intelligence competition. Ben, Ryan, Koh and I spent the month reviewing matches, debating approaches and tweaking our models. More than once we coded through the night. Their caliber was clear in the subtle insights that their multi-disciplinary backgrounds gave them and they gave me something to aspire to.
I have many interests that lie outside of my intended major but that I want to continue to pursue, and Columbia provides an environment for those diverse passions. Recently, while at a Columbia math club meeting with Ben, I ran into a political science major, Mathieu. He was elated to point out the insights that a love of math granted him in his courses and his conviction encouraged me to explore the peculiar intersection of the two fields.
I love teachers who love to teach. At Columbia, I’ve seen faculty who have a love for what they do and who care about students. While touring, I sat in on a quantum mechanics lecture. Professor Norman Christ strode into the room at eight on-the-dot and jumped into a discussion of WKB complex value approximation. For three straight hours, he guided us through the intricate world of QM without any notes. His enthusiasm brightened that drizzling Monday morning. That I could follow the lecture at all is a testament to his lucid explanations and extraordinary knowledge. When I came to him with questions afterward, he helped me truly understand a topic that initially felt years out of reach.”

Why this is a successful essay: In this essay, the writer starts by talking about their major and how Columbia provides an excellent program. They continue to add how they could positively impact Columbia if accepted. Take note of how the writer lists their key topic at the beginning of each paragraph and then connects Columbia to each topic. 

This student also mentioned that they enjoyed a Columbia professor's lecture, which is an excellent way of showing their deep interest in the school. Showing in your essay that you are passionate about the program and that you’ve done your research can be a point in your favor. 

The “Why This Major?” Essay

Although this prompt is very similar to the “Why Us?” essay, your answer should focus entirely on why you’re passionate about your degree. Think of this essay as an opportunity to tell the story of how you developed your passion. Try creating a timeline before you start writing to help organize your ideas. It should look something like this:

1. The first time I thought about pursuing this major was: __________________                              

2. I started to get more serious about pursuing this passion when:___________________

3. I’m now applying to this program so that in the future, I can: ___________________

Creating a timeline can help you easily convey how important your major is to you and the journey you’ve taken to build upon your passion. 

You can also include, if it applies, what specific things about your school’s program that drew you to your current selection. However, the main focus of this essay should be how you developed your passion for the subject and what you want to do in this field later on.

"Why This Major" Essay Sample from Yale:

“Literature and anthropology are telescopes into the past; philosophy, a prism into the mind. I want to ask the hard questions: Do I have free will? Is meaning lost in translation? Is there eternal truth? What is an “I”? Am I my mind, body or something more? Literature is an empathetic account of the past, anthropology a scientific documentation of human lives. I want to find commonality in lives separated by time and space, find meaning within them, partake in the collective memory of humanity, and interrogate what it means to be human.”

Why this essay works: 

In this short essay example from a Literature and Anthropology student from Yale, the student gets straight to the point. Demonstrating the questions they have that they hope to answer throughout their education is an excellent way to show that you’ve given your major a lot of thought. 

They’ve also captured the true essence of their major in the last sentence by stating they want to “partake in the collective memory of humanity” and “interrogate what it means to be human.” Whatever major you choose, write honestly about what calls you to the subject and demonstrate that you have a thorough understanding of the genre of material you’ll be studying. 

The Adversity Essay

As one of the most challenging essay prompts, the adversity essay presents students with the uncomfortable task of recalling a difficult life experience and explaining how they overcame it. 

For some, choosing an instance of adversity can be the most challenging part of this prompt. Keep in mind that adversity looks different to everyone. Your story doesn’t have to be overly tragic to write a good adversity essay; you simply need to approach your issue from a place of growth. 

One of the main mistakes applicants make when writing the adversity essay is thinking that their adversity story needs to be overly tragic or complex. Instead of focusing on the actual adversity, your essay should mainly focus on the steps you took to overcome the adversity and learn valuable lessons moving forward. 

If a school asks you to write an adversity essay, the admissions committee wants to know how you handle a challenge. If you buckle under pressure, you may not be able to handle the intensity of a heavy workload. 

Therefore, schools want to know that you are capable of facing challenges head-on and have the capacity to learn from your mistakes. 

Adversity Essay Sample from Harvard University:

“When I was a freshman in high school, I didn't care about school or my education. I couldn't see a future where it mattered whether I knew how to say 'how are you' in Spanish or how to use the Pythagorean theorem. Because I couldn't see the point of these classes, I found myself disconnected from the high school experience as a whole, which resulted in low grades. My parents expressed their disappointment in me, but I still couldn't bring myself to care; I was feeling disconnected from my family, too.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I was depressed. I stopped spending time with my friends and stopped enjoying the things I used to enjoy. I was feeling hopeless. How could I get through three and a half more years of high school if I couldn't even get through a semester? I couldn't stand the thought of feeling this way for so long – at least it felt so long at the time.
After a few failed tests, one of my teachers approached me after class one day. She said she also noticed a difference in my demeanor in the last few weeks and asked if I was okay. At that moment, I realized that no one had asked me that in a long time. I didn't feel okay, so I told her that. She asked me what was wrong, and I told her that I was feeling disconnected from school and classes and just about everything at that point.
My teacher suggested I visit my guidance counselor. So the next day, during study hall, I got a pass to visit with my guidance counselor and told her I was feeling disconnected from classes and school. She asked me what my interests were and suggested that I take an elective like art or music or a vocational tech class like culinary arts or computer coding. I told her that I wasn't sure what I was interested in at this point and she told me to take a couple of classes to see what I like. At her persistence, I signed up for art and computer coding.
It turns out art was not my thing. But it also turns out that computer coding is my thing, and I am not sure I would have realized that had I not gone to see my guidance counselor at my teacher's recommendation. After taking computer coding and other similar classes, I had something to look forward to during school. So even when I still dreaded taking Spanish and Geometry, I knew I could look forward to an enjoyable class later in the day. Having something to look forward to really helped me raise my grades because I started caring about my future and the possibility of applying for college to study computer science.
The best thing that I took away from this experience is that I can't always control what happens to me, especially as a minor, but I can control how I handle things. In full transparency: there were still bad days and bad grades, but by taking action and adding a couple of classes into my schedule that I felt passionate about, I started feeling connected to school again. From there, my overall experience with school – and life in general – improved 100%."

Why this is a good essay: In this essay, the applicant focuses on personal development. They begin by addressing their low grades and poor mental health at a younger age and how the experience affected them. The main focus of the essay, however, is how they found the motivation to get back on track and improve their grades. 

The student has taken this essay opportunity to not only explain the poor grades that Harvard will see from freshman year but has also proven that they have the ability to pull through when times get tough. Remember, the adversity essay should focus mainly on how you’ve learned and grown from a negative experience rather than focusing on the experience itself. 

Community/Diversity Essay

Essay prompts that ask about your experiences in your community help colleges to better understand your unique perspective. Many schools aim to cultivate a diverse environment to enrich the student experience and make sure students from all different backgrounds feel welcome on campus. 

Diversity can relate to your ethnicity, culture, birthplace, health, socioeconomic status, interests, talents, values, and many other things. There is no “correct experience” when it comes to choosing a topic here. In this essay, you have the opportunity to celebrate your unique perspective.

Think about experiences that are important to your identity. For example, you could write about your hometown, a family tradition, a community event, a generational story, or whatever feels most authentic to you. 

Keep this essay authentic; avoid fabricating a story or using someone else's experience. This story needs to come completely from you and let your school get some more information on who you are.

Community/Diversity Essay Sample from Duke University:

“The pitter patter of droplets, the sweet smell that permeates throughout the air, the dark grey clouds that fill the sky, shielding me from the otherwise intense gaze of the sun, create a landscape unparalleled by any natural beauty. I have gazed upon the towering cliffs of Yosemite, stood next to Niagara Falls as the water roars, succumbing to the power of gravity, and seen the beaches of Mexico basked in moonlight, yet none of these wonders compares to the simple beauty of an Arizona rainstorm. To me, our rain represents more than humidity and darkness; its rarity gives it beauty. The uncertainty of when the next day of rain will come compels me to slow down, and enjoy the moment.
Out of the three realms of time; past, present, and future, the present is the only one we can experience, and I take advantage of every moment I have. When I pause my running to enjoy a sunset that dazzles the sky with brilliant colors of purple and orange, when I touch my brush to a canvas and focus on my movements in the present, when I drive home after a long day of improving our robot, and decide to drive around my neighborhood to finish “Garota de Ipanema”, which just popped up from my playlist of 700 songs, I am taking advantage of the moment.
So next time it rains, step outside. Close your eyes. Hear the symphony of millions of water droplets. And enjoy the moment.”

Why this is a successful essay: This essay is an excellent example of pulling a unique experience from your life and expressing its importance. The applicant tells a compelling story about their unique perspective on rain in Arizona and does an excellent job of expressing how special the seemingly mundane event is to them. 

The language used here is visually descriptive, which makes the reader feel as if we are experiencing the event with the writer. This is an excellent way to get the admissions committee to feel connected to your story and get a better understanding of who you are and what you enjoy doing in life. 

The Extracurricular Essay

Many schools are interested in how you spend your time outside of the classroom. Extracurricular essays are quite common as supplemental essays, although students often struggle with how to make an entire essay out of their extracurricular activities. That’s why it’s important to brainstorm and create a story.

Think of a problem that arose while you were participating in one of your extracurricular activities, such as:

  • Your sports team lost an important player
  • You were injured during a dance recital
  • Your music group needed funding 
  • Your local soup kitchen was at risk of being shut down, etc.

The problem you choose can be big or small as long as it lends itself to a story. Think about the problem and how you took steps to solve it with your team or other members of your community. 

Use your extracurricular essay to show how your passion and motivation extend beyond the classroom. You can choose any activity to write about, as long as it was not during regular school hours or related to a specific course. 

Extracurricular Essay Sample from Yale:

Haunted romanticism, ravaged gaze, desperation bordering on lunacy, Saturn Devouring His Son first caught my attention as a bored nine-year-old wandering around a museum, and once again as a high-school student, after catching a glimpse of it in a textbook. 
Because after looking at angelic frescos after more Church frescos, I could not stop myself from flipping back to the tiny printing of this unholy piece. I sought to discover the story behind it—what caused this artist to create something so raw and naked, in the age of staid royal family portraits?
I became immersed in unraveling each bit of the story, how Goya had long transitioned from a royal painter, to a harsh, but veiled critic of society, the desolation that occurred during the French occupation of Spain, the corruption of Charles IV— who was really only a puppet ruler to Godoy. I learned how kingdoms rose and fell—and rose again, how art is unafraid to capture the seditious attitudes of the common people, and how it has endured to teach us of past mistakes.
I fell in love with dissecting the messages from the past, and discovering how we still have not listened to them.”

Why this essay is successful: 

The prompt for this Yale extracurricular essay was “Write about something that you love to do,” and the writer has certainly delivered. Here, the writer goes into detail about why they enjoy going to art museums outside of school. They’ve kept their essay focused on the meanings behind the paintings, giving the reader a deeper understanding of not only what fascinates them - but why it does.

The real key to an extracurricular essay is showing your passions outside of school. There is no right answer; you should simply focus on what interests you and explain why. Try to make the reader feel as if they are there with you. Think about the smells, the sights, and the feelings that surround your extracurricular interest and include them in your essay. 

College Supplemental Essay Length 

All of the essay types above come in different lengths. Some essays will ask only 150 words or less, while some have no word limit at all. Here, we’ll go over how to adjust your writing depending on your word count. 

Short Essay

There is a broad misconception that writing a short essay is “less work,” which we are unfortunately here to squash. Writing shorter-form essays (150 to 500 words) can be more challenging because you have less room to make your point, and your writing must be concise. 

To write an excellent short-form essay, start by brainstorming your ideas and move on to writing once you have a solid idea of the main points you want to include. Avoid fluff, repeating the question, reciting your resume, and run-on sentences. The best short essays are honest and to the point. 

If your essay is too long when you’ve finished writing, go through each sentence and ask yourself: “Could I tell this story without this sentence?” If yes, cut it completely. If you answered no, find ways to subtract unnecessary words. Having a friend help you edit is a great way to find out which parts are making the text longer without lending anything to the story. 

Medium Essay 

A medium essay is a sweet spot. Typically, a length of one to three pages flows easily and allows the writer to include all necessary information without repeating themselves or taking anything away. 

Because of this, make sure not to go over or under the word count. Most students do not struggle to keep their writing within these parameters, so it’s important to respect them. 

Although you have more room in a medium-length essay, your writing should still be concise and flow well without including excess information. It’s always a good idea to have a teacher, friend, or family member look over your story. 

Make sure that when they edit, they are looking for things like grammatical errors, run-on sentences, and unnecessary information. They shouldn’t take too much out of your essay because you don’t want the voice of the essay to change. 

Long Essay 

When tasked with writing a long essay (three pages or more), it can be challenging to continuously provide fresh information and avoid repetition. However, repetition and dragging sentences is the main thing you’ll want to avoid in a long-form essay. To do this, you should rely heavily on planning and your thesis statement.

Your thesis statement sets up your article, allowing you to break the information into parts and tackle each step individually. Brainstorming before you start writing is critical as it ensures you have enough relevant information to fill out the full length of your paper. 

How to Write School-Specific Supplemental Essays? 

It’s a good idea to tailor your supplemental essays to match the expectations of the school you’re applying to. Here are some guides on how to write outstanding essays for specific schools: 

These guides will help you write stellar essays!

FAQs: Supplemental Essays

Here are our answers to some frequently asked questions about supplemental essays.

1. Do Colleges Care About Supplemental Essays?

Yes, colleges care about supplemental essays. Your writing gives colleges extra insight into who you are as a person beyond your grades. Strong essays can give you an advantage in your application to many different schools. 

2. What to Include in Supplemental Essays?

Stick to the prompt. Your response should approach each aspect of the prompt while providing genuine information about your life experience. 

Each essay prompt is different, but admissions committees always love to hear a good story. Use descriptive yet concise language to get your points across while transporting the reader into your world.

3. When Should I Start My Supplemental Essays?

You should start planning your essays as soon as you receive the prompts for each. Once you’re confident in your plan, begin writing your essay as soon as you can to give yourself plenty of time to edit before submitting. 

4. Are Supplemental Essays Hard?

For students who are not strong writers, it can be challenging to get started on your essays. However, the most important part of your essay is to remain genuine, tell your story, and be concise. 

5. How Do I Start Writing My Supplemental Essay?

Before you start writing, brainstorm and create a solid plan for what you want to include. This will help you write with ease and remain on track while you’re writing your paper. You can also look at good essay examples for inspiration. 

6. Where Do You Submit Supplemental Essays? 

If using the Common Application, you can submit your essays in the Writing Supplements section. Generally, you will submit your essays along with the rest of your application.

Final Thoughts

Your supplemental essays are an important part of your application and should be given plenty of time and attention. No matter what essay prompts you are given, ensure that you are consistently speaking from the heart and telling a compelling story. 

Keep in mind that your experiences are what make you unique, and you do not have to exaggerate or fabricate anything to craft an excellent supplemental essay.

If you are still struggling with writing compelling essays, you can always seek professional help to get assistance with writing, editing, brainstorming, and overall crafting stellar supplementals. 

Good luck with your essays!

Access 190+ sample college essays here

Access 190+ sample college essays here

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