Writing the Supplemental Essays

Schools are conflicted. On the one hand, they flood your inbox with marketing flotsam about how superior they are. On the other hand, they ask you to answer prompts that ask you why you like them, as if they need reassurance. These schools are vulnerable, you see. Poor things. They need to know that you adore them. It's the same dynamic in any relationship; that's why my wife makes me lunch and I buy her roses (OK, not as often as she deserves, I admit). This post will give you some tips to help you tackle the supplemental essays.

Tip #1: Understand the Admission Officers' Secret.

Here's the secret: many admission officers read the supplemental "Why do you like my school?" essays first, even before reading through your Common App essays. In my visits to Pitzer, LMU, and USC, admission officers admitted to doing this, and I can't believe they're the only ones. They're like any little kid at his own birthday party, the one who doesn't have time to worry about getting pictures taken, reading some useless card, or even eating chocolate cake - the one who's thinking, "Let me open my presents! Let me get to the good part!" Admission officers want to get to the good part, too. They read first the essay that you write last: the supplemental essay. So don't think you can slack off just because it's a supplemental essay.

Tip #2: Prioritize Your Supplemental Essays.

Few of us assemble essays the way a robot assembles cars, each one at the same pace with the same quality. Most of us write essays the way we run - sprinting, running, jogging, shuffling, walking. Then stopping. Your energy is limited, so you have to plan out in advance the order you'll write the essays.

If you have a dream school, do that supplemental essay first. You don't want to wonder later whether you could have tried harder. Next on the list should be target schools: schools where your SAT scores are in the 25th-75th percentile range. When you're on the cusp, your essay has a bigger role in your admission than when you're a shoe-in or a long-shot. To get the most impact for your essay investment, you have to prioritize your supplmental essays by putting dream schools and target schools first in line.

Tip #3: Learn the School's Mission.

If you look at enough websites, read enough forums, and visit enough campuses, the schools start to blur together. That's natural. But remember, to the person reading your essay, her school has no substitute. She takes the school's "mission statement" or "core values" seriously. To her, they're more than hollow jargon.

To impress this reader, prove you understand why her school's values make that school special. Look at the school's website, and then call your admission rep. (Yes, the one assigned to your high school; if you don't know who this is, call the admissions office.) Ask how the school advances those core values in academic and social settings. Note any special programs the admission rep mentions, and then do more research. If you don't understand how the school implements its jargony values, you'll have a harder time convincing the reader the school's a good fit for you.

I'm not talking about any super-complicated research. At the USC info session, for example, the rep mentioned "large research university" several times and then noted the Summer Undergraduate Research Fund (SURF - even their acronyms are totally southern California). If you're applying to USC, might you want to consider what type of research you would want to do there? Might you want to look at the SURF application for more clues about what USC values? Yes, you might.

Tip #4: Find Your Academic Niche.

If you can't find even a single academic area of interest on the school's website, then I don't know, maybe re-think this whole college idea. Dude, you need to show at least a little curiosity. Most schools want to see how you'll fit in with their academic environment. By the way, that means more than just saying something like, "I can like totally see myself at University of Ivy studying Icons in Feminist Microeconomics with Professor Moonbeam." Congratulations. You can read a course catalog or a professor bio. That's the 10-minute effort most students give this question, and it's not enough to set you apart. In case you were wondering.

What about actually reading a paper that professor wrote? What about emailing that professor to request a copy of a paper? What about emailing that professor an informed question? If you're visiting the campus, what about asking the admission rep if you can sit in on that professor's class or visit office hours? If you're not willing to make that effort to find your academic niche at a school, then I'm not sure why you're applying. You'd be better off applying to 8 schools you've researched well than to 15 schools you can't tell apart.

Tip #5: Build a Bridge between Your Interests and the School's Opportunities, between Your Experience and the School's Values.

After you've done your research, you know your academic interests. Now you need to connect them to the school's opportunities. How will you take advantage of the school's opportunities to expore your academic interests? That's one bridge you can build.

You also know your past experiences. Now you need to connect them to the school's values. How will you advance the school's values? That's another bridge you can build.

Whether you focus on academics, values, or both will depend on the prompt. Whatever the case, you want to create the impression that attending the school is a natural next step for you. You're trying to leave the reader thinking, "Of course he would fit in here."

Good luck writing!


Jon Perkins holds a B.A. in English from Stanford University and a J.D. from Harvard Law School. He helps students with their college, law school, and medical school applications.