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Supplemental Essay Synopsis

You’ve written your Common or Coalition App essay. But now you need to delve into supplemental essays – and there are way more than you thought there were.

What do you do?

First, if you haven’t checked it out already, take a look at our companion article on writing a good college essay; this piece is focused on optimizing your process through the supplemental essays, and isn’t as focused on the philosophy of what makes an essay “good” or “bad.”

The Overview

Most colleges ask for somewhere between one to three supplemental essays, which often have wordcounts in the 150-to-500-word range. If you’re applying to, say, six colleges, this can add up fast; instead of just writing 650 words for your main essay, you might now need to write another 5,400 words’ worth of essays!

Our primary goal is making sure that each of these essays are as polished as they can be… but our second goal, right behind, is to minimize the amount of work that we actually have to do. Coming up with good topics for a college essay is tough, and actually writing them is even tougher – we want to minimize the amount that we have to do of either. And the key to that is organization.


Before you start to write a single supplemental essay, you should gather all of the prompts that you’re going to answer. From there, we want to group them into common question types, where we can write a single essay that can answer multiple prompts (from different colleges, of course! Never send the same essay twice to the same college).

Some common categories are:

  • Why this major?

What do you love about the subject(s) you selected as potential major(s)? If undecided, share more about one of your academic passions.

Pomona College, max 150 words

  • Community

Reflect on a time when you have worked to enhance a community to which you feel connected. Why have these efforts been meaningful to you?

Yale University, max 400 words

  • Diversity

What life perspectives would you contribute to the Rice community?

Rice University, max 500 words

  • Extracurriculars

Describe one community service action that you have participated in that has changed your view on a particular social issue.

Georgia State University, max 350 words

If any of these show up 2+ times among your supplemental essay prompts, then congratulations: you’ve just cut a few essays out of your workload!

Once you’re done categorizing your essays, it’s time to divide your strong topics among said essays. Even if you have different prompts, and need to write different essays to answer them, you can still use the same thematic material to answer them. Organization is key here, since you need to ensure that you don’t repeat topics with any given college. If you’re having trouble with this organization, consider scheduling a session or two with us at Tailored Tutoring – we can absolutely help you keep your essay topics straight (and give some feedback about which topics might not be so strong)!

The Problem Essays

However, some essays absolutely cannot be reused between colleges. You’ll have to write a completely new essay for each and every college – there’s just no way around it.

The most common of these is the “Research the college” essay. You’ve indubitably seen it before; it runs something like this:

Why do you wish to attend Colorado College and how would the Block Plan serve your educational goals?

Colorado College, max 200 words

These essays serve one major purpose: the admissions officers want to learn how interested you actually are in their college. If you’re accepted, are you actually going to sign on?

Generally speaking, you want these essays to show that you’ve done the work. Go out there. Research the college. Find out what’s cool about it – and what actually gets your blood going. Does the college let you pursue a double major in music and physics? Is there a vaunted professor in your field of choice? Is there a particular course, unique to that college you want to take? Learn why you might want to go to that college and communicate that to the admissions team.

Tragically, there are also other essays that can’t be shared between colleges… and they’re usually so idiosyncratic that you’ll really have to write a different essay for each college. Colleges might ask you to respond to a quotation, write a letter to your future roommate (even odds on if they ever actually show it to them), give you three or four 50-word essays, or even ask you to describe yourself in just 3 words!

These quirky prompts are some of the hardest essays to write. They’re often very short, so every word needs to count, and they’re offbeat enough that minimizing work is difficult. But your quality isn’t allowed to drop on these essays, or colleges will think that you’re phoning it in on your application. It’s a tricky situation to balance!


If there’s one thread to take away from all of this, it’s that organization and scheduling is the most important part of your supplemental essays. They can require a prodigious amount of work, so minimizing your workload and finishing it promptly is key – if you’re not careful, three months can pass in the blink of an eye.

Want expert assistance with any part of the process? Shoot us an e-mail at, and we can set you up with as many sessions as you’d like, whether you’re looking for brainstorming, writing, or organizing and scheduling your essays. Good luck on your essays – stay specific, talk about your passions, and blow those admissions officers away!

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