by Rick Clark
There is no secret that will guarantee admission in a holistic review process. But there are ways to make your application stronger, so keep reading! You can still make good decisions, dare I say better decisions, as you craft your answers to your short essays, which will be beneficial both to you and to the admission committee.
So that we are all on the same page, I am not talking about the personal statement or main essay many colleges require. I am speaking to the additional short answer or supplemental essay questions that often ask you to talk about why you are applying to the specific college or to give your thoughts on a prompt (one that is separate from the main, long essay). Not all colleges or universities have supplemental questions, but if they do, you should take them seriously.
Supplemental essay questions can seem like the red-headed stepchild of the college application. Seminars, camps, coaches, teachers, counselors, and peers spend A LOT of time talking about the activities section and main essay prompts on the college application. Very little time is spent speaking about a short answer or supplemental essay response. This small but mighty paragraph plays a stronger role than you might expect in the holistic admission process. I want to give it the respect and time it deserves—as should you!
See it for what it is—an opportunity to keep talking!
If I asked a group of students to raise their hand if they wanted to have a cup of coffee with me and just talk, all the hands in the room would shoot up. If I ask the same group if they want to write another essay, most hands would go down. I might even hear crickets. I get it. Seniors are busy and tired. They are certainly tired of writing college essays. But a supplemental essay is another way to talk to the admission committee. Instead of rolling your eyes that, yes, you need to write something else, think about it like this:
- What have I not had a chance to say?
- If I don’t write this, what won’t they know about me?
- Wow, thank goodness I have a few more lines to talk!
Does it really matter what type of fruit I am?
You may get a really out-there supplemental question, and yes, you should still answer it well. I have seen all sorts of “creative” questions ranging from ‘How are you like a chocolate chip cookie?’ to ‘What three items would you want on a deserted island?’ and, the notorious, ‘If you were a fruit, what would you be and why?’
If you are tempted to not spend time on the answer or to get a little snarky in your response, don’t. Remember, this is an opportunity! Someone on the admission committee will read your response, so enjoy creating the answer. The purpose of this question is to understand how you think and give the committee a glimpse into your personality. Whether you think you are blueberry, you would die without sunscreen, water bottle and your cat, or–like a cookie in the oven–you turn out well under pressure, the answer itself does not really matter. At the end of the paragraph, they will know you better, and you don’t want to miss that opportunity.
Sorry to break this to you—you can’t cram for the “Why Our College?” question.
Many of these short answer questions will ask why you want to attend their college. It is understandable. A college doesn’t want to give up a seat in their class without discerning if a student actually wants to be there, or if they are just trying to collect acceptances. Scanning the college website to glean some key words or phrases to include in your answer is not enough. Any admission counselor worth their salt knows immediately if you are just regurgitating the first paragraph from the “about” section of the website.
To answer this question well, you need to research, and real research starts with curiosity.
- What intrigues you about this college?
- What made you search and click and dive deeper?
- What about this college piqued your interest to begin with and what have you learned that kept this college on your list?
- What research specialty, unique program or offering makes you want to know more?
Those thoughtful reflections are the “secret” to answering a question focused on the college itself.
Low Hanging Fruit
CHECK THE NAME! If you use the name of the college, university or institute in the supplemental essay, get the name right. Will “college” vs. “university” seal your decision fate? No. Will it reflect the time and care you put into your application? Yes! I have seen brilliant, perfect-test-scoring, straight-A students not spell or even come close to typing the correct name on a short answer question.
This gives me pause. Again, it doesn’t sink an application because most admission officers are not cruel people. We realize many seniors are worn thin and have many priorities on their plates. But it does plant the seed of doubt—are they genuinely interested? Since many times, supplemental essays are the last piece of an application reviewed, is that the impression you want to leave with the committee? Probably not. That being said, proof this writing piece as thoroughly as your main essay!
I tell every student who will listen, “Write your supplemental essay. Go to bed. Read it again the next day.” Students spend an inordinate amount of time stressing, dissecting and proofing their activities and main essays. Then at the end of the process, when they are exhausted, they throw something down for the supplementals and hit submit. Give that puppy a once over in the light of day to see if it well written.
This advice really aligns with my over-arching guidance for all high schoolers—take a beat! Yes, there is work you must do, but when you can, as frequently as you can, schedule a breather. I believe student work, and especially college application work, is better if you have a chance to review it with a clear head. So, if completing your college application just involved a Google search for “all the different kinds of fruit”, smile, take a deep breath and enjoy the process.