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Make Your Supplemental Essays Stand Out: Tips from a College Admissions Expert

In my last blog post, I provided students with four top tips for strengthening the written component of their college applications. I reviewed the purpose of the main admissions essay and how applicants can set themselves apart from the crowd.

My most recent post on HuffPost discusses the best way to approach the supplemental essays that will accompany your applications. Although these essays may sound less important than the main essay, they are just as critical to your application – and they can determine whether or not you’re accepted into your top school.


Tip 1: Don’t be afraid to get creative.

The average admissions officer reviews hundreds of applications every day during the application period. It can be a very tedious process, and so the best way to ensure your application is noticed is to really engage your reader. Creativity in your answers is key: if you can write something that will capture the admissions office’s attention, they’ll be intrigued by your application and view you in a more positive light.

For example, you may be asked to “Discuss your academic interests and how you would explore them at our college” in one of your supplemental essays. When responding, don’t just jump straight into your answer with something like, “I am interested in science and particularly passionate about conducting experiments in your well-stocked laboratories.” Instead, set the scene for your reader, as if you’re telling a story, with something like:

“Last week, my friends and I were sitting in the cafeteria at lunch. Since we’re all in our senior year, we were talking about where we want to go to college and how we’ve been feeling about our applications. I said that I’d really like to go to [college] to study [discipline], and one of my friends piped up to ask why. I explained that I’m impressed by your school’s fantastic resources in my academic area, including a library devoted to [discipline]. I also mentioned [faculty member], whom I have researched and would love the opportunity to learn from. I know that [college] is renowned for [chosen field] and also recognize that [city] is an excellent place to learn about, and expand on, my most passionate academic interests.”

This kind of answer will better demonstrate your passion for your area of study, and help the reader relate to you as an individual.


Tip 2: Discuss your unique positioning.

Supplemental essays are the best place for you to discuss your “application positioning” – that is, what makes you stand out as a unique and exceptional candidate. If you have a special talent, skill, interest or experience that sets you apart from your classmates, work to weave it into the answers in your supplemental essay. Almost every school has supplemental essay questions that they use to get a sense of potential students and what they might be like, so use this opportunity to show your dream schools how you’ll help to make their campus diverse.

Some questions may directly relate to your positioning, making it easy for you to bring up your most positive unique attributes. But if there doesn’t seem like an obvious fit, look for questions like, “What would you like us to know about you that’s not reflected in the rest of your application?” This is an ideal place to talk about what you have determined is specifically special to you.


Tip 3: Review the requirements first.

Finally, gather all of the supplemental essay application questions you will need to answer in your applications. When you have all of the supplemental essay questions in front of you, group like questions from different applications together. Begin working on your answers for each set of similar questions at once, making each answer as strong as possible and tailoring it to slightly different versions of the questions across your applications, if needed. Once you have finished with one set of similar questions, move onto the next one, until you have completed all of them. Conclude by reviewing each individual school’s application essay separately, to make sure it flows well and that your answers are not redundant.

Most schools should have their application information posted on their websites now, so you can likely start this process right away. If using the common app, the supplemental questions will be available once you add schools to your application. If applying to standalone schools like MIT, Georgetown or the University of Texas, visit their websites, click “Apply”, and you should be able to see their essay questions.


What next?

To conclude, you should approach the essay parts of your application in the following order:

  1. Gather all of the supplemental essay questions required for your chosen schools
  2. Determine what your main essay focus on
  3. Group all similar supplemental essay questions together and answer them at once
  4. Move onto distinctive supplemental essay questions and answer them one at a time
  5. Review your application essays for each school for clarity, consistency and comprehensiveness
  6. And remember to keep track of the deadline for each of your applications, prioritizing those that are due first

During your application, you’ll also need to prepare an activities and honors list – stay tuned for tips on how to compile a strong list in my next article.


On paper, I am by no means a perfect student. However, thanks to my Application Positioning, I was able to maximize the strengths that I bring to a college to compensate for other factors. Thanks to The Ivy Dean Team, I will be attending Princeton University, my dream school, in the fall.

Douglas R. – Princeton University

Dee provided excellent advice and guidance throughout the application process. Her overall expertise in admissions, professionalism and warmth made the experience a great one. I was thrilled that I was accepted to several of the most selective colleges in the country and will be attending Stanford in the fall.”

Laurel P. – Stanford University
It's my pleasure to inform you that I've been admitted to my first choice college: the University of Southern California. My dream is becoming reality! I am thrilled to get the chance to belong to the USC and to start a new adventure there. It is also thanks to your great help that I've been accepted, I'm very grateful! Thank you so much for everything.
Sonia G. – From Switzerland
Our son and daughter wanted to go to colleges in the same city but they had different interests and different strengths. She matched them each with their ideal college, one Columbia University and the other NYU, and worked to get them admitted. We couldn't have been more pleased.
Niki and Roger S.
I was a serious student but also wanted a university where I could continue competitive cycling. There weren't many schools that met my needs and fit my personality. From her experience, she was able to hone right in on what became my first choice school. I graduated last year and the entire college experience was awesome.
Colin J.
My parents and I didn't know how helpful it could be to have someone who understood things from the inside working with us. Ms. Blackman was able to identify just what would make me the most attractive candidate to colleges.
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