Deborah Davis featured in U.S. News & World Report

Prospective students are usually aware that they’ll have to write an essay as part of the college application process. But they might not know some schools will ask for additional essays.

These writing supplements are usually shorter than the main college essay, but they’re no less important, experts say.

“Every word counts in getting your story across,” says Deborah Davis, president and founder of Davis Education & Career Consultants LLC, based in Ridgefield, Connecticut.

[Know how to apply to the right number of colleges.]

Some colleges ask for just one supplemental essay, while others may require several.

For example, Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, had six additional questions for prospective students to respond to on its 2018 undergraduate admissions application. However, a couple of the questions asked applicants to write lists – for instance, a personal top 10 list – rather than a full paragraph or two.

Supplemental essay prompts come in all shapes and sizes. In some cases, schools let applicants choose between several different options. For instance, the University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill‘s fall 2018 application included four prompts – such as, ‘What do you hope will change about the place where you live?’ – from which prospective students had to select two prompts.

Davis says two of the most common prompts she’s seen are, “What do you want to major in?” and “Tell us about a favorite activity.”

[Learn how to incorporate jobs and hobbies into college applications.]

While word counts for supplemental essays vary, they tend to be limited.

Wake Forest has a 150-word limit for each of its supplements, says Tamara Blocker, senior associate dean of admissions at the university. UNC caps applicants’ short answer responses at 250 words each, according to the school’s website. In contrast, the main essay on The Common Application, a platform that allows students to apply to multiple colleges at once, has a 650-word limit.

These types of written responses are more like vignettes or snapshots, rather than full-blown essays, says Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at UNC.

“I think – I hope, anyway – that students feel the opportunity maybe in the shorter responses to worry less about form and just be a little more open with us,” he says.

To help prospective students familiarize themselves with supplemental essays, U.S. News obtained an example from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts. Ryan Sheehan, who hails from Wallingford, Pennsylvania, wrote the short piece and is now a member of the class of 2021, majoring in computer science.

As part of his application, Sheehan responded to the following prompt: “There is a Quaker saying: ‘Let your life speak.’ Describe the environment in which you were raised – your family, home, neighborhood, or community – and how it influenced the person you are today.”

“As the son of two journalists, I have grown up under a lifelong inquisition: How is your room such a mess? Can you please stop chasing the cat? Will you come down from the tree already? Granted, those are all from this past year, but the point still stands. Like any good journalists, my parents have also always had a propensity for uncovering the truth. On the third night that I had my license, I decided to go to the library to study. Before 15 minutes had passed, I noticed the librarian peering at me through the shelves before quickly averting her eyes and whispering, “He’s here,” into her phone. Even so, regardless of how many spies they’ve hired over the years, I have always looked up to my parents immensely. However, I have found my inherited inquisitiveness to be a trait most useful in a place far from the realm of reporting: the robotics lab. After four years of spending almost more time in the lab than at home, I have learned that nothing is more important than asking the right questions. As a programmer, I need to be able to communicate with my builders. Come press time, if I don’t interview them properly, our robot will invariably end up as a hunk of unresponsive aluminum. To make a machine, the team must work as one. So although I may be writing source code instead of a breaking story, I am glad I had such nosy parents after all.”

Karen Richardson, dean of undergraduate admissions and enrollment management at Tufts, explained via email why she liked this response: “This is a great essay because, in just 250 words, it shows rather than tells the reader who Ryan is and the things that matter to him. It gives us a sense of his family life and academic interests, and it even shows us he has a sense of humor. As an admissions committee, we learned a lot about Ryan in just one paragraph.”

Here are five additional tips to help prospective college students craft strong supplemental essays.

1. Answer the question. This may seem obvious, but applicants should carefully read a prompt and make sure they understand what it is asking before answering it, Richardson says.

Prospective students may want to reuse an essay they wrote for another college, but that doesn’t always work because supplemental questions tend to be more tailored to an individual institution, she says.

2. Start with an outline. Applicants may have their own writing process, but Davis encourages those she works with to create outlines. She says prospective students should brainstorm the personal qualities, skills or experiences they would like to convey in their supplemental essays.

3. Offer something new. Supplemental essays are a chance for applicants to give more information to an admissions committee to further show why they are a good fit for a school, Davis says. So prospective students should make sure they aren’t repeating something that’s already been covered in their main essay.

[Learn common reasons why college applications get rejected.]

4. Narrow your focus. Probably the biggest mistake applicants make in supplemental essays is choosing a topic that’s too big, Farmer says. For example, he says prospective students may attempt to settle a complex political issue in just one paragraph.

“I think it’s better to do something small and do it well than to do something big and skate over the surface,” he says.

5. Maintain your voice. It’s a good idea for applicants to ask another person for editing help, but too much input can be detrimental to an essay, experts say. If lots of people – teachers, parents, peers – read and weigh in on an essay, they can weaken how clearly a student’s voice comes through in the writing.

“It’s great to read something that sounds like it was written by an 18-year-old and not by a machine,” Farmer says, “or by someone who’s trying to be prematurely middle-aged.”

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