While it’s common knowledge that most college applications involve writing an essay or two, it’s not as well known that many—but not all—also require you to answer some shorter questions. These are often referred to as “supplemental questions” or “supplemental essays,” because even schools that participate in the Common Application may ask you to supplement the common essay with some short questions specific to their admissions program. These questions usually ask for very short and concise answers, ranging from 50 to around 200 words. They’re not essays, but they’re more than just filling in a blank with objective information.
For example, Brown University has three supplemental questions for first-year applicants:
1. Why are you drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated earlier in this application? (You may share with us a skill or concept that you found challenging and rewarding to learn, or any experiences beyond course work that may have broadened your interest.) (250 word limit)
2. What do you hope to experience at Brown through the Open Curriculum, and what do you hope to contribute to the Brown community? (250 word limit)
3. Tell us about the place, or places, you call home. These can be physical places where you have lived, or a community or group that is important to you. (250 word limit)
When you come across these supplements, how should you handle them?
Give yourself time. The supplements are something that many people think they can handle quickly. They start using the word just, and that’s always a red flag that you’re not being as careful with something as you ought. “It’s just for this one school. There are just three questions, and they’re just 100 words each.” Putting these questions off until the last minute can be a huge mistake. Because of the conciseness required, these often take just as much time and effort to answer well as a full 650-word essay. It’s not going to be quick or easy, so give yourself plenty of time to work. (Today is October 29. If you’re reading this because you’re about to start your supplementals for a November 1st deadline, you will obviously need to skip this step.)
For each question, ask yourself: is this question about me, is it about the school, or both? Hint: it’s never just about the school. Some questions are only about you. For example, they may ask you to explain an extracurricular activity; they may ask you for commentary on your grades; they may ask you a personal question. Other questions may be about you and the school. They’ll ask you some version of “why are you applying here? What about us appeals to you?” They may ask you to explain with specific details how you think you’ll fit into the school community. With these questions it’s extremely important to remember that, while they’re asking you to talk about them, they’re also asking you to talk about yourself. These questions are about your potential relationship with the school, and that includes both of you. These questions are not trick questions meant to quiz you on how well you really know the school, nor are they asking for you to flatter them by telling them what’s so great about their campus. They’re trying to assess how well you fit into the school and your class, and the more you explain that, the stronger your response will be.
Ask people about your answers before you write them. Especially for questions that are about yourself, you should talk to people about the questions. Have discussions with friends, family, and teachers. They may have a better insight than you do about a response that would be good. It’s not against the rules or dishonorable in any way to discuss these. You don’t have to answer them in secret.
Answer the question. Answer the question they ask, not the question you wish they had asked. Be direct, and be honest. Use standard paragraph format, opening with a topic sentence that answers the question as simply as possible. Answer as if you can only write a single sentence, and then move on from there to explain that answer.
Dont’ be fancy. You haven’t got room to build up a narrative or show off your most flowery language. Follow Stephen King’s rule: “any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.” They really want you to be concise. They want to read through your answer quickly (sometimes very very quickly) and know something about you. They’re building a first impression, and you don’t want that impression to be that you never get to the point.
Don’t let anyone else write your answers. This should go without saying, but it needs to be said. You should answer the questions, not anyone else.
Ask people about your answers after you write them. When possible, read your answers aloud to people. Get their feedback. Look for patterns in their feedback. You don’t need to take every single piece of advice you get—especially when it contradicts someone else’s advice. Getting feedback and advice, even light editing, is not a problem. Letting someone else edit so much that it essentially becomes their writing instead of yours is a problem.
Answer the supplemental questions, even if they’re optional. Your answers to these questions are not going to be deal breakers. You’d have to write something extremely inept or offensive for an admissions officer to decide “I was going to recommend we admit this person, but now that I’ve read these 200 words I’ve changed my mind.” For the most part, letting them get to know you a little better is going to work in your favor, so don’t be so scared that you refuse to answer them.
Thanks for reading! College Vine has essay guides for at least 100 specific school applications if you want more detailed advice for your schools. Please share this with everyone you know, or at least with someone you think will find it helpful. There are lots of ways to get regular updates from Apply with Sanity: like me on Facebook and Twitter, get the monthly newsletter, or connect on LinkedIn.