Alongside the personal statement, colleges want all kinds of essay questions answered, from the benign “What do you want to Major in?” to the more outlandish “What’s so odd about odd numbers?” Unfortunately, many applicants struggle with doing more work than is necessary for these essays, trying to write 10, 20, or even 30 different supplemental essays.
There is a better way. In fact, we’ll let you in on a secret: there are actually only nine* types of supplemental essays, and once you can recognize and understand these prompts, writing them becomes a much easier task.
*Terms and conditions may apply.
The nine types of supplemental essay prompts are:
- Why Us?
- Why Major?
- Short answer.
Here we’ll describe each kind of prompt, how to recognize it, and how to go about answering it.
“Other parts of your application give us a sense of how you might contribute to Northwestern. But we also want to consider how Northwestern will contribute to your interests and goals. In 300 words or less, help us understand what aspects of Northwestern appeal most to you, and how you’ll make use of specific resources and opportunities here.”
- Northwestern, essay prompt
This is the most common supplemental question asked by universities. Everyone wants to feel special, and admissions departments are no different. The point of this essay isn’t just to tell the college how great they are (they presumably already know that), but to explain why you would be a great fit for this particular college.
To illustrate your compatibility, first determine what makes a college a good fit for you, beginning with academics. What specific programs do they offer? What majors? Are there specific faculty members with which you might want to work? What research opportunities does the school provide?
After you determine the answers to these questions, you have the first piece of the essay, and can then add in the second: how does the school fill your specific needs?
In effect, you want the reader to be able to clearly understand the following formulation: “I want to major in X, so program Y at your school is great for me because…”
The “great fit for me, because” is key: MIT knows they have a great engineering program, so if you want to study engineering, it’d be a great place for you. The point of this essay is to be specific about why that program, in particular, would be a great fit for you because of your unique interests, talents, and abilities. The more specific you are when writing this essay, the more likely the school will agree with your assessment.
You can – and should – also mention non-academic factors, but they should not be the core of the essay. Berkeley and Brown both have strong programs, but are very different schools; Brown is a small, private college with no core curriculum in the Ivy League, while Berkely is on the opposite coast, a large public institution, with a strong athletic tradition; there are myriad factors to consider outside of academics. You do not have to mention all of them, but again, determine what matters to you, and describe how the school fills those desires.
That said, you do not have to write different “Why Us” essays for all your schools. Why? Because, most schools have similar programs or opportunities that overlap; thus, you can simply find each school-specific opportunities and fill them in accordingly. The important factor in a “Why Us” is the specific reason that the program or opportunity is a fit for you and the reason why such an opportunity is a good fit for you is unlikely to be different across the board for most schools. This is especially true if the programs and opportunities between schools are similar.
“Why are you interested in the major you indicated as your first-choice major?”
- UT Austin essay prompt
Not every school will ask this question, but it is one of the most common prompts, especially since some schools factor in a student’s desired major when making admissions decisions. The key to this essay is to avoid cliché and banality, while also not lying or doctoring your own personal experiences.
Which of these is more compelling:
“I want to major in business because I want to work in finance and be rich.”
“My mom worked in finance, and when I was young, we bonded while she explained her job to me when working at home. I want to follow in my mother’s footsteps and help other people manage their own finances, so they can thrive financially.”
Neither of these is a full essay, but each represents a central theme, which an essay may be built around. While there is nothing wrong with desiring wealth or success, there is also nothing terribly interesting or unique about them. Who doesn’t want an Olympic size pool of cash that they can swim in Scrooge McDuck style? Wanting to be rich for the sake of wealth alone is boring, and the last thing a college essay should be is dull.
This essay requires introspection. What led you to desire what you want to do? What were the formative events that caused you to want to enter a certain field, or study a particular topic?
The strongest ‘Why Major’ essays give a unique answer that could only be written by the applicant, clearly demonstrating to the reader an utterly personal reason for the choice of prospective major.
“Reflect on your membership in a community. Why is your involvement important to you? How has it shaped you? You may define community however you like.”
- Yale University essay prompt
This essay comes in many guises, but can be spotted by the word “community” appearing somewhere in the question. This is an essay you need to only write once, and then edit to meet specific word counts or details as prompts require.
So, what counts as a community anyway? Basically, any grouping of people you are a member of can be considered a community.
Any group where you can say: “There is an us, and I am part of that.” This may seem incredibly broad, and that’s because it is. The point of this essay is to tell admissions officers something about you they wouldn’t otherwise know.
For a community essay, describe how you impacted a community, and how it impacted you. Did founding a chess club, for example, teach you the joy of mentoring others to success? Or, perhaps, did being a part of a minority group give you a unique perspective that allowed you to make a difference in the world around you?
This essay should describe your growth as an individual through your contributions to the greater whole, and how you improved the group as well. Admissions officers are trying to build a community in their admitted class, and want to be sure you will be a strong part of that community.
“Describe an example of your leadership experience in which you have positively influenced others, helped resolve disputes, or contributed to group efforts over time.”
- University of California essay prompt
Leadership is a difficult quality to define; thus, some students find this essay prompt surprisingly difficult. What you should understand, though, is that there are two kinds of leadership, and demonstrating either will meet the requirements for this essay.
The types of leadership are de jure and de facto. These are fancy legal terms, and therefore in Latin, because terms in Latin make you seem more serious and important.
De Jure leadership is officially recognized and sanctioned leadership. For example, president of a club, member of student council, or Eagle Scout are all examples of de jure leadership. These all lead to an easy time writing an essay, because these positions all require skill at leadership and provide valuable experience in such. Each essay should talk about a concrete experience; a time where you truly made a difference based on the actions you took in a position of leadership. The difference may be small, but it should still be an observable impact.
De Facto leadership is leadership that arises out of a non-officially sanctioned role. People can display leadership even when they haven’t been officially put in charge of a situation. For instance, maybe you organized your friends to put together an apology when things went wrong in class, or maybe you independently organized a neighborhood soccer game or cookout to raise money for a local charity.
Whatever kind of leadership you exhibit, your essay should focus on a concrete event. First, determine for yourself what happened. What was the background? What were the stakes? What did you do specifically? What outcome did your involvement bring? This essay is meant to highlight one of your accomplishments by showing what precisely you have done. Avoid generalities, and give enough details to paint a vivid picture without overwhelming the reader.
“Rice is lauded for creating a collaborative atmosphere that enhances the quality of life for all members of our campus community. The Residential College System is heavily influenced by the unique life experiences and cultural traditions each student brings. What personal perspectives would you contribute to life at Rice?”
- Rice University, essay prompt
This essay asks students about diversity, and how they might fit into or contribute to a diverse community. Like the leadership essay, many students struggle with this essay, because they define diversity narrowly for themselves. It is important first to realize that diversity can mean many things in the context of college admissions. Diversity comes not just from ethnicity, but from nationality, socio-economic position, geographic location, intellectual positions, religious identity, and personal circumstances of all stripes.
Let’s break it down further. Ethnic and racial diversity are the first things anyone thinks of when diversity is mentioned, but some students worry that they don’t fit into any “valid” category to count as diverse here. However schools are also looking for a diverse set of backgrounds, experiences, and worldviews in their student population, and so more types of diversity are considered and accepted.
Nationality may not apply to all students, but for non-american students, or 1st or 2nd generation immigrants, nationality can be a major part of their identity, and this can contribute to the diversity of backgrounds and experiences on campus.
Socio-economic position describes how well off a family is, how much they struggled, or not, for resources. This too can cause a wide variety of experiences, some of which may be quite rare on college campuses, and thus count as diversity of experience.
Geographic location can be used as a factor of diversity at times, for instance students from Montana are quite rare compared to Texans or Californians, and so their backgrounds and experiences count as diversity for schools.
Once you have determined what form of diversity applies to you, think about how your lived experience has shaped you: how you view the world, react to it, and operate within a broader picture because of who you are. This essay is meant to describe how you are unique, and how your unique experiences and viewpoints will contribute to the campus community as a whole.
In many instances, this essay may also overlap with the community essay, which is closely related to the topic of ‘diversity’ in many ways.
“Every person has a creative side, and it can be expressed in many ways: problem-solving, original and innovative thinking, and artistically, to name a few. Describe how you express your creative side.”
- Apply California, essay prompt
These essays ask you specifically about an extracurricular you have participated in. While your personal statement and other essays can and should draw from the experiences you had in extracurriculars, this essay focuses exclusively on one.
As with the rest of the essays, the college wants to learn something about you, so the extracurricular should be used as a lens through which one of your facets is displayed.
This essay is less common, and here there is a bonus: essays written for other topics may be easily modified to fit these prompts. Leadership and community essays, if they discuss an activity you participated in, will fit this prompt very well with only minor editing. In this way, you get two great essays that say something important about you for the price of one.
NOTE: Don’t do this if the same school asks for both – that’ll just make you look lazy.
As a final note, if you already talked about an extracurricular in your personal statement or another supplemental essay, then avoid using it again, unless you have something truly unique to say about it for another essay. Speaking about multiple different extracurriculars across different essays provides greater depth to your application, and tells colleges things they would otherwise not know about you.
“Rita Dove, UVA English professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate, once said in an interview that ‘…there are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints.’ Describe a time when, instead of complaining, you took action for the greater good.”
- UVA, essay prompt
These essays ask students to interact with and respond to a quote. The quote in question will (usually) relate to the school, its mission, or its values in some way. The goal of this essay is to use the quote as a lens to discuss yourself and your possible ties to the school community.
This essay, like all supplemental essays, should say something about you in particular. Through your discussion of and interaction with the quote, bring some aspect of yourself to light. Good topics to use? Leadership, Community, and Extracurricular essays are usually good prompts to cross apply here. While editing will be required to more clearly fit these pieces to the specific quote, tying in previously written work will vastly decrease your overall workload.
The ultimate goal is to be lazy in a smart way. Working properly, precisely, and surgically will give greater returns for less overall effort. It is better to spend your time crafting a great essay that can do double, triple, or even quadruple duty than it is to use the same amount of time to quickly cobble together four totally different essays.
“List five books you have read that intrigued you. (Spaces have been left for you to include each book’s title and author and mark whether the selection was required or not required.)”
“Give us your top ten list.”
“As part of my high-school English curriculum, I was required to read _________. I would have liked to replace it with______. The required book I was most surprised I enjoyed was ________.”
- Wake Forest, essay prompts
These questions are more varied, and can cover any number of topics. When answering these questions, look first at the available word count, as this will shape how you should go about answering the question. A question asking you for your favorite book, and giving 50 words of space, probably wants more than the title alone.
While these questions won’t have the same space for details as other questions, a little effort can go a long way. If asked for your favorite book, don’t merely say what, but why, and take a sentence or two to explain what this book means to you specifically.
If you are asked for a list of books you’ve read over the past year, you may either use the whole word space for titles (which is respectable if you are being honest) or use the space to describe a few of the books you’ve read. This approach is recommended if you haven’t done much reading outside of school.
These questions seek to fill out details, and get a fuller sense of the applicant as a person and scholar. Oblige them by offering insight into your life and how you think about and react to the world.
“Cats have nine lives, Pac-Man has 3 lives, and radioactive isotopes have half-lives. How many lives does something else—conceptual or actual—have, and why?”
- University of Chicago, essay prompt
“Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the UVA culture. In her fourth year at UVA, Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore and why?” (UVA essay prompt)
These are the rarest form of question, but are some of the most difficult to answer. The primary perpetrators of such questions are Stanford and UChicago, both of whom pride themselves on occasionally preposterous prompts.
The trick with these prompts is to lean in, and embrace the weirdness. Many of these schools have a strong culture of idiosyncratic thinkers, which these prompts target by forcing applicants to think outside the box. Each of these prompts must be approached on their own, and most will not be able to overlap with other prompts.
Still, the same general guidelines apply; the essay should tell the college something they don’t already know about you, and give them deeper insight into how you think and approach problems.
This list will cover most types of essay, but some schools will have their own eccentricities, or oddball questions they throw at you. In that event, remember the core lesson: supplemental essays serve to tell the school more about you; information they could not learn in any other way. These are the nine most common types of supplemental essay questions, and while they will not cover every situation, they will leave you well prepared for whatever form of essay a college asks you to write.
At Ivy Scholars, we have a well developed system to cross apply essays, ensuring that the fewest number of unique essays need to be written. Use your time wisely to craft the best essays, not the largest amount of essays. “Work smarter, not harder” is a cliché, but it is an approach that could mean the difference between acceptance and rejection.