don't quit: supplemental essays and the college application processSupplemental Essays

As we venture deeper and deeper into fall, few topics take precedence in the college applicant’s mind over the ever-present thrall of supplemental essays. They can be short, or they can be long. They can be simultaneously meditative and pesky. They can be pretty much anything, actually. To give you an idea of how varied the prompts for supplementals can be, let’s do a quick case study. Here is the University of Michigan’s flagship “Why Us?” essay question:

Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests? (550 word maximum)

Is the college right for you?

Seems fair, right? It’s a way for admissions officers to push applicants to figure out if Michigan is right for them while evaluating their ability to research and convey information that (hopefully) feels meaningful to them. Now, here is one of the prompt offerings to answer the University of Vermont’s optional supplemental essay question:

Established in 1978 in a renovated gas station in Burlington, VT, Ben and Jerry’s is synonymous with the ice cream business. The company’s success and unique brand identity are due in part to their one-of-a-kind flavors. Which Ben & Jerry’s ice cream flavor (real or imagined) best describes you? (500 word maximum)

It’s quirky, it’s fitting, it’s fun. However, it is so completely different from a question like the one presented by Michigan, that oftentimes the oblong nature of the spectrum of possible answers presented by supplemental essays can discourage a student. Even just between these two examples (which, admittedly, are on the longer side) there is a potential for the writing of over 1,000 extra words. For a student who is already potentially feeling overworked in their college process, supplementals can be a real turn-off.

Tastefully Recycling Your Essays

But never fear! There is a way to (tastefully) recycle certain parts of supplemental essays that a student has already written, a process that can turn an arduous task into something that looks more like a rewarding puzzle. Here, I will provide a guide of Dos and Don’ts to recycling supplements, straight from the mind of an advisor who has seen them all.

Essay DO’s 

  • Take an initial survey of all of the supplements that you plan on completing based on your college list and group questions that seem similar. Some categories could be “Why Us,” “Tell Us About Yourself,” “How Will You Bring Diversity to Our Campus,” etc.
  • Write all of the essays that you feel most excited about writing first. This will produce the best, most targeted versions of potentially recyclable material. An enthusiastic writer is always best for these kinds of assignments. Ideally, there will be one or so in each group that fits this criterion.
  • Create your “template.” Identify parts of each essay that you’ve already written that you could potentially recycle. Copy and paste these elements into a “template” of sorts, using underscores or red-highlighted text to indicate areas where you will need to add more specific information about a particular school or change an area of writing that doesn’t fit the question that you are attempting to address.
  • Fill in your puzzles with the appropriate pieces!

Essay DON’Ts

  • Go in with the mindset that every essay will be recyclable. For instance, the Ben & Jerry’s essay above is unique, and for that reason it is fun for some students. Embrace it!
  • Stretch your essays too thin. For instance, if you are trying to convince yourself that an existing essay could maybe fit into a certain prompt. It can’t. Get writing!
  • Let your college essay fatigue get the best of you. Most students recycle rather haphazardly because they feel as if they simply cannot write one more word about how they are an empathetic person in light of some “small moment” that happened to them in high school. This fatigue is warranted; the college process is taxing. However, trust me. There is always more to write about, and taking the time and care to write new material might make the difference between students who get into their top-choice schools and those who don’t. Admissions officers can tell the difference!
  • Allow the idea of recycling supplemental essays to consume you. Yes, the process of recycling essays can be gratifying, and it can save you a lot of time. However, at the end of the day, it is only an ancillary tool that is no substitute for taking the time to write a new essay.

For students who have an unlimited supply of time and energy, I would always recommend treating each supplemental essay as its own piece. However, for all us normal folks, recycling can be a useful strategy to use in concert with diligent supplemental essay writing. If you have any questions about essay writing for college applications, please contact us.