How to Crush the 5 Most Common Supplemental Essays

Ryan Kelly

Remember Valentine’s Day when you were a kid? If your grade school was anything like mine, we had to give Valentines to every other kid in the class.

The night before, I often ran into my classmates at the Hallmark store, buying packs of the Muppets/Harry Potter/My Little Pony collection, all with the same puns on them. “I’m ready to Kermit to you,” or “I Adumbledore you,” or “Valentine, you are Twilightlicious.”

After school the next day, you’d come home with a bag full of Valentines, all purchased from the same place. You didn’t know exactly which terrible pun would be scrawled on the card, but you knew roughly what was coming your way.

Supplemental essays are the same. Each school may strive to be unique, but they’re all shopping for the same information.

Wait, hold up - what’s a supplemental essay? Good question. They’re the school-specific essays you often have to do after submitting your main/primary application.

Just like Valentines, supplemental essays don’t change much from year to year. If you follow our guide below to the five most commonly occurring supplemental essays, then you’ll be ready to return them quickly and ease the overall writing process.

Just don’t send actual candy back with your supplementals.

Common Supplemental Essay Question #1: Why our school?

Even though it asks “why our school,” you’ll stand out most by focusing on yourself first. Use an example or anecdote to show your major values/accomplishments/goals. Then you can connect those to the school’s mission and opportunities.

Don’t just list things you think are cool about the schools. Make sure they get to know you, so that they understand why their programs are personally relevant to you.

Starting with yourself will allow you to reuse the same essay across schools without it looking so transparently like a template. To tailor their responses to different schools, some students might have to write two different openings about themselves (EX: one about clinical research for UCSF Med School and one about underserved primary care for UC Riverside Med School), but this just creates even more useful templates to use.

Common Supplemental Essay Question #2: How will you enhance our school’s diversity?

Pretend you’re in a conversation with your future classmates about the state of your field or profession. What unique experiences or point of view could you contribute to that conversation?

Race and culture are possible topics, but it’s wise to think beyond the traditional definition of diversity. Are you a dancer? An athlete? Had an unusual job? Did you major in something unique? What makes you different from other candidates?

Most schools will ask how your diversity will contribute to their incoming class, so you might as well include that part in your general templated answer. It’s also good if your answer shows you engaging with people different from yourself, since many schools focus their prompts around that idea. If you know all the ways the question is asked, you can kill as many birds as possible with the same stone. Save yourself a dozen rewrites by covering all bases from the get-go.

Common Supplemental Essay Question #3: How will you spend your gap year?

Be honest about what you plan to do. It’s okay if it’s just a plan at this point.

This prompt is merely looking for an explanation as to why you didn’t apply during your final year of undergrad. If that’s the case for you, just give a quick report of how you’ve spent this gap year. Without overstating your weaknesses, take a moment to justify your decision to wait and then highlight all the valuable experience you’ve gained as a result.

If you have a lot of small experiences during the gap, then present them as a catalog to show your wide exposure in a short amount of time. If you’ve put most of your energy into one activity or experience, then dive deep into all the responsibility and commitment it requires.

Common Supplemental Essay Question #4: Describe a Significant Challenge

Tact and honesty. On the one hand, there are certain challenges you should probably not admit to schools (psychiatric conditions such as depression come to mind). On the other hand, as long as it’s not something that raises a red flag, you should open up about something seemingly simple that was really hard for you.

Have you ever mediated a conflict between two friends? Helped a friend or family member through a serious issue? Try to choose situations which tempted you to give up, or scenarios that tested your ethics through a conflict of interest. Also, choosing times that you stepped out of your comfort zone or dealt with a learning curve can be a good approach for these prompts, since your shortcomings will be more forgivable.

Since many schools ask for a “failure” rather than a “challenge” or “problem,” it’s smart to work some kind of failure into your essay (just to save you time in the long-run when reusing material). Remember that a “failure” can be something abstract (like a misguided attitude, an oversight, or a missed opportunity).

Common Supplemental Essay Question #5: Is there anything else you’d like us to know?

Schools want to make sure they give you a chance to explain any problems in your application - poor grades, holes in your application, withdrawals from school, etc.

This is mostly for students with major weaknesses in their application that have not already been addressed adequately in the personal statement. It’s probably in your best interest to leave this section blank unless you have a glaring issue that wasn’t addressed elsewhere.

Other times, this prompt’s wording might blur the lines of a “disadvantaged” prompt, and if the school doesn’t ask for personal hardships elsewhere, this prompt can be a good opportunity to cover that topic.

Supplemental essays manage to be extremely redundant and highly variant at the same time (don’t ask me how, but it’s true). I can’t account for every detail, but I believe my advice can help you streamline the process. Remember: the advice is most useful when you have enough time to pre-write, so get started on supplemental essays as soon as possible!

- Ryan

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For over 11 years, Ryan Kelly has guided hundreds of students towards acceptance into top colleges and graduate schools, with an emphasis on standing out while also staying true to themselves. Read more about Ryan here. Or book a free intro meeting with him here.