5 Supplemental Essay Mistakes -- If a College Requires a Supplemental Essay, Avoid These Common Errors
Supplemental essays for college applications can take all kinds of forms, but the majority of them are actually asking a very similar question: "Why do you want to go to our college?" The question sounds simple, but college admissions officers see the five mistakes below all too frequently. As you write your supplemental essay for your college applications, be sure to steer clear of these common blunders.
1. Vague Language - The Essay Is Generic and Lacking Detail
If a college asks you why you want to attend, be specific. Whatever school you are applying to, make sure your essay addresses the particular features of that school that appeal to you.
2. Length - The Essay Is Too Long
Many prompts for the supplemental essay ask you to write a single paragraph or two. Don't go beyond the stated limit. Also realize that a tight and engaging single paragraph is better than two mediocre paragraphs. The admissions officers have thousands of applications to read, and they will appreciate brevity.
3. Lack of Focus -- The Essay Doesn't Answer the Question
If the essay prompt asks you to explain why the college is a good match for your professional interests, don't write an essay about how your friends and brother go to the school. If the prompt asks you how you hope to grow while in college, don't write an essay about how much you want to earn a bachelor's degree. Read the prompt multiple times before writing, and read it again carefully after you've written your essay.
4. Faulty Tone -- You Sound Like a Privileged Snob
"I want to go to Williams because my father and brother both attended Williams..." A better reason to attend a college is because the curriculum matches your academic and professional goals. Essays that focus on legacy status or connections with influential people often fail to answer the question well, and they are likely to create a negative impression.
5. Faulty Tone -- You Sound Too Materialistic
The admissions counselors see a lot of essays that are honest to a fault. Sure, most of us go to college because we want to get a degree and earn a good salary. Don't over-emphasize this point in your essay. If your essay states you want to go to Penn because their business majors earn more money than those from other colleges, you won't impress anyone. You'll sound self-interested and materialistic.
The application to Duke University's Trinity College offers applicants the opportunity to write a supplemental essay that answers the following question: If you are applying to Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something in particular at Duke that attracts you? Please limit your response to one or two paragraphs.
The question asked here is typical of many supplemental essays. Essentially, the admissions folks want to know why their school is of particular interest to you. Such questions often generate a lot of remarkably bland essays. The example below is one example of what not to do. Read the short essay, and then read the discussion of the mistakes made by the author.
I believe the Trinity College of Arts and Sciences at Duke is an excellent match for me. I believe college should not be merely a gateway to the work force; it should educate the student in a variety of subjects and prepare him or her for the range of challenges and opportunities that lie ahead in life. I have always been a curious person and enjoy reading all kinds of literature and nonfiction. In high school I excelled in history, English, AP psychology, and other liberal arts subjects. I have not yet decided on a major, but when I do, it will almost certainly be in the liberal arts, such as history or political science. I know that Trinity College is very strong in these areas. But regardless of my major, I want to receive a broad education that spans a variety of areas in the liberal arts, so that I will graduate as not only a viable job prospect, but also as a well-rounded and learned adult who can make diverse and valuable contributions to my community. I believe Duke’s Trinity College will help me grow and become that kind of person.
Critique: The sample supplemental essay for Duke is typical of what an admissions office frequently encounters. At first glance, the essay may seem just fine. The grammar and mechanics are solid, and the writer clearly wants to expand his or her education and become a well-rounded person.
But think about what the prompt is actually asking: "discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something in particular at Duke that attracts you?" The assignment here is not to describe why you want to go to college. The admissions office is asking you to explain why you want to go to Duke. A good response, then, must discuss specific aspects of Duke that appeal to the applicant. The sample essay fails to do so.
Think about what the student says about Duke: the school will "educate the student in a variety of subjects" and present a "range of challenges and opportunities." The applicant wants a "broad education that spans a variety of areas." The student wants to be "well-rounded" and to "grow." These are all worthwhile goals, but they don't say anything that is unique to Duke. Any comprehensive university offers a variety of subjects and helps students to grow.
As you write your supplemental essay, take what I call the "global replace test." If you can take your essay and substitute the name of one school for another, then you have failed to address the essay prompt adequately. Here, for example, we could replace "Duke's Trinity College" with "the University of Maryland" or "Stanford" or "Ohio State." Nothing in the essay is actually about Duke.
In short, the essay is filled with vague, generic language. The author demonstrates no specific knowledge of Duke and no clear desire actually to attend Duke. The student who wrote this supplemental essay probably hurt his or her application more than helped it. The supplemental essay for college admissions can be a stumbling point for a lot of applicants. Many students put significant time into their longer personal statement but then rush off the shorter supplemental section of the application. The admissions officers want to know if there is something "in particular at Duke" that makes the applicant want to go there. A bad essay (such as this example) never discusses features that are unique to Duke. A good essay gets specific and shows particular knowledge of the school.
The strong essay below was written in response to the application to Duke University's Trinity College. The guidelines for the optional supplemental essay ask, "If you are applying to Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, please discuss why you consider Duke a good match for you. Is there something in particular at Duke that attracts you? Please limit your response to one or two paragraphs."
When I visited the Duke campus last fall, I immediately felt at home. The Gothic architecture and tree-shaded walks created an atmosphere of peaceful but serious reflection. The place is at once Southern—which, as an Alabamian, is important to me—and universal as it reflects the traditions of Europe and the classical world. The Trinity College liberal arts curriculum also reflects this unique pairing of the modern South and the global past. For example, I am considering a major in history, and am very interested in the combination of geographic and thematic areas of study offered by Duke’s history program. The combinations of areas offer seeming endless areas of specialization. One interesting possibility is a focus in the geographic area of the U.S. and Canada, combined with a thematic study of Women and Gender or African Diaspora. By juxtaposing and intertwining these two foci, my understanding of the American South — and much more—would be greatly enriched. This innovative and flexible approach to both traditional and non-traditional subject matter is greatly appealing to me. I know by reputation and from a friend currently enrolled in Trinity College that the liberal arts curriculum is very challenging, but also rewarding. I believe I am more than prepared for these challenges, and that I will thrive in this climate. Duke University’s campus already feels like home; I believe that its academic opportunities will also provide a stimulating environment in which I feel I belong.
Critique: The sample essay succeeds on this front. Although the essay is just a paragraph long, the author presents three specific features of Duke that make her want to attend:
The attractive campus with its Gothic and Southern appeal
The flexible nature of the history curriculum
The fact that she has a friend at Duke
This last point doesn't matter much in the admissions process and the writer was correct to mention it only indirectly. The first point has moderate importance. Many colleges have impressive Gothic architecture, so the feature isn't unique to Duke. However, the writer connects the campus to her own Southerness. She also demonstrates that she has visited the campus, something that is not true of many applicants who haphazardly apply to a long list of prestigious schools. The second point about the history curriculum is key to this essay's success. This applicant knows what lies beneath the university's surface. She has clearly researched the curriculum. She is not applying to Duke simply because of its beauty or its reputation, but because she likes how the university approaches learning. Admissions officers will certainly take note of the fact that this applicant has done some research and has thoughtful reasons for wanting to attend Duke.
The sample supplemental college essay below was written for Oberlin. The essay prompt reads, "Given your interests, values, and goals, explain why Oberlin College will help you grow (as a student and a person) during your undergraduate years."Essentially, the admissions folks want to know why their school is of particular interest to you.
I visited 18 colleges over the past year, yet Oberlin is the one place that most spoke to my interests. Early in my college search I learned that I prefer a liberal arts college to a larger university. The collaboration between the faculty and undergraduate students, the sense of community, and the flexible, interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum are all important to me. Also, my high school experience was greatly enriched by the diversity of the student body, and I am impressed by Oberlin’s rich history and its current efforts connected to inclusiveness and equality. To say the least, I’d be proud to say I attended the first coeducational college in the country.
I plan to major in Environmental Studies at Oberlin. After my campus tour, I took some extra time to visit the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. It’s an amazing space and the students I chatted with spoke highly of their professors. I became truly interested in issues of sustainability during my volunteer work in the Hudson River Valley, and everything I’ve learned about Oberlin makes it seem the ideal place for me to continue exploring and building upon those interests. I am also impressed by Oberlin’s Creativity and Leadership Project. I’ve been a bit of an entrepreneur ever since second grade when I made a dollar producing and performing The Runaway Bunny for my extended family. I’m drawn to a program that supports the move from classroom learning to creative hands-on, real-world applications.
Finally, as the rest of my application clearly demonstrates, music is an important part of my life. I’ve been playing the trumpet since fourth grade, and I hope to continue performing and developing my skills throughout college. What better place than Oberlin to do so? With more performances than days in the year and a large group of talented musicians in the Conservatory of Music, Oberlin is an ideal place for exploring my love of both music and the environment.
Critique: To understand the strength of the essay, we must first look at the prompt: the admissions officers at Oberlin want you to "explain why Oberlin College will help you grow." This sounds straight forward, but be careful. You're not being asked to explain how college will help you grow, but how Oberlin will help you grow. The essay needs to include specific information about Oberlin College. The first paragraph makes several important points. First of all, we learn that the applicant has visited Oberlin. This may not seem like a big deal, but you'd be surprised how many students apply to a large number of colleges based on nothing but the schools' reputations. Also, the student notes that she wants to go to a liberal arts college, not a larger university. This information isn't really specific to Oberlin, but it does show that she has thought about the options available to her. The final point in this first paragraph gets more specific -- the applicant is familiar with Oberlin and knows the school's socially progressive history.
The second paragraph is really the heart of this essay -- the applicant wants to major in Environmental Studies, and she is clearly impressed with the program at Oberlin. She has visited the Environmental Studies building, and she knows of some of the unique opportunities offered at Oberlin. She has even talked with Oberlin students. This paragraph can't help but make a favorable impression on the admissions folks -- the applicant is drawn to Oberlin and she clearly knows exactly why she likes Oberlin.
The final paragraph adds another important dimension to the application. Not only does the student find the Environmental Studies program attractive, but her love of music makes Oberlin an even better match. Oberlin has a top-rated music program, so the applicant's dual love of music and Environmental Studies makes Oberlin a natural match for her. Admissions officers can't help but feel that Oberlin is a great match for this applicant. She knows the school well, and her interests and goals line up perfectly with Oberlin's strengths. This short essay will certainly be a positive piece of her application.