How to Write Supplemental Essays

In addition to the central essay that you will write for the Common or Coalition Application, many schools require additional supplementary essays and short answer questions with their own specific prompts. While every school is different, we’ve broken down the three most common supplementary prompts into step by step answers.

The “Why This College?” Question

This question is the most straightforward of all the supplementary prompts: why do you want to go to this school? Nearly every school will ask you this, and for good reason: it’s the crux of your application. Which is why you should have your answer down pat for both your written materials as well as in casual conversation, as it’ll probably come up in other questions and during your interview.

The first step to this question is identifying what makes this particular institution unique. A few ways to do so include going to the school’s website and reading its mission statement, taking an in person or virtual tour of campus, or speaking with an admissions representative at a college fair. Regardless of whatever methods you choose to employ, the most important part of this investigative phase is to find something that makes this school stand out. Whether it’s a special program, professor, or value that the school offers, you want to compile a list of attributes that are specific to the institution as well as suitable to your own interests.

Once you’ve found the characteristics that set this school apart from others, you now want to think about how these distinct qualities apply to you. For instance, maybe the school’s mission statement mentions providing its students with the tools to solve current issues in the world. Perhaps you have a passion for learning foreign languages or are strongly interested in studying abroad, and therefore would like to attend a certain program that only this school offers in order to broaden your perspective from the viewpoint of other cultures. This thought process will also be the perfect segue into the second most common supplementary essay question.

The “Why You?” Question

Besides the “Why This College” question, the “Why You” is one of the most common supplementary essay prompts, and often schools will choose one or the other as their main supplementary question. In many senses, this question serves as a more specific version of the Common App essay, since it is the admissions committee’s first impression of you in the context of their school.

While you should also do some research on unique offerings at the school in order to answer this question, your main focus should be envisioning yourself at this school and explaining why you would be a good fit. In other words, if you were to arrive on campus in the fall, what would you plan to do? If you have a particular interest that you have cultivated in high school that isn’t mentioned in your Common App essay, now’s your chance to take that interest and apply it to the specialties of this school. For example, maybe you were a part of a robotics team in high school and would love to continue working with robotics in college.

In addition to this application of your interests, you should also hone in on the intangible qualities of a school that makes it suitable to you. In the robotics team example, perhaps your love for your robotics team was closely tied with your love of working with others. In that case, you can broaden your answer from your own specific interest to talk about the campus culture as a whole. That is, the central point of your essay would be that you would be a good fit for this particular school because you would thrive in its environment of collaboration and teamwork. In this way, the “Why You” is really just an expanded version of the “Why This College” question that pertains to your own experiences.

The “Why This Major?” Question

This question may feel daunting, since it seems to require some in-depth thought as to what you want to pursue as your career. But don’t worry, nobody has everything 100% figured out: that’s what college is for! Schools just want to see that you have a sense of direction and learn more about what you are potentially interested in majoring in.

The key to answering this question is approaching it as a story. After all, few people have a eureka moment when they suddenly realize what they like or dislike. Rather, it happens in stages. Therefore, in order to fully answer this question, isolate key moments in your life that led to your current choice of major. These moments don’t have to be huge milestones; maybe you loved reading Harry Potter as a kid, and that love of reading led you to now want to be an English major. Or perhaps you liked gazing at the stars in your backyard, and now you’re interested in Astrophysics. Whatever the case, try and break down the most important snapshots in time that demonstrate your interest in a discipline from past to present.

Now this simple approach begs the question: What if I don’t know what I want to study? Rest assured, even if you don’t know exactly what you want to study, you can still write a compelling and convincing response. First, go to the school’s website, look through all of their offered majors, and choose 1-3 departments that would be your potential choices. Next, hone in on the different qualities that make you particularly attracted to these fields of study. For example, maybe you are interested in Visual Studies because you enjoy expressing yourself creatively, but also like Mechanical Engineering because you love to work with your hands. If anything, not having a straightforward answer to the “Why This Major” question gives you a great opportunity to demonstrate how multifaceted you are, so take this chance to show off the unique parts of your personality that make it difficult to choose just one major.

Need any more help? Sign up for a session with a Harvard student mentor to talk about your own applications and work one-on-one!