How to Write a Supplemental Essay

May 9, 2024
7 min read

Keep reading to learn how to write compelling supplemental essays for college applications. 

Supplemental essays are additional essay prompts required by colleges and universities as part of the application process. They allow applicants to show their qualities, experiences, and aspirations. 

Knowing how to write a supplemental essay effectively is very important for applicants. A good essay can greatly boost your college application and increase your chances of admission to your desired institution. 

In this guide, we will explore the types of supplemental essays and show you some examples when writing yours. Whether you're applying to an Ivy League school or a small liberal arts college, the examples we provide here will help you to have a stand-out essay. 

Types of Supplemental Essays

Supplemental essays come in various forms, each serving a different purpose in the application process. Understanding the different types of supplemental essays can help you tailor your responses effectively. Here are some common types:

1. The “Why This College” Essay

The "Why This College" essay is crucial to many college applications. It requires applicants to articulate why they are interested in attending a particular institution. This essay allows applicants to demonstrate their school knowledge and enthusiasm for joining its academic community.

Before you start writing, it's essential to thoroughly research the institution's programs, faculty, campus culture, and values. Applicants should identify specific aspects of the college that resonate with them and align with their academic and personal goals. 

This could include unique academic programs, research opportunities, renowned faculty members, campus resources, or extracurricular activities. For example, an applicant interested in an environmental science degree might highlight a college's strong environmental studies program and its commitment to sustainability initiatives. They could discuss specific research opportunities, such as partnerships with local conservation organizations or access to top laboratory facilities.

Students should also discuss how they can contribute to the college community and utilize available resources. This could involve discussing their career aspirations, academic interests, or leadership experiences and explaining how these align with the college's mission and values.

A compelling "Why This College" essay should be personalized, well-researched, and authentic. It should feel like it comes from your heart and be based on a genuine connection between the applicant and the institution.

Sample “Why This College” Essay From Columbia University

Length: 300 words

Computer science is at the core of my academic passions and my life ambitions. What I value in life is being around brilliant technologists. At Columbia, I have worked with and befriended the most driven and gifted programmers I’ve ever met. In January, I formed a team with three Columbia freshmen for MIT’s annual strategy-game-playing artificial intelligence competition. Ben, Ryan, Koh and I spent the month reviewing matches, debating approaches and tweaking our models. More than once we coded through the night. Their caliber was clear in the subtle insights that their multi-disciplinary backgrounds gave them and they gave me something to aspire to.
I have many interests that lie outside of my intended major but that I want to continue to pursue, and Columbia provides an environment for those diverse passions. Recently, while at a Columbia math club meeting with Ben, I ran into a political science major, Mathieu. He was elated to point out the insights that a love of math granted him in his courses and his conviction encouraged me to explore the peculiar intersection of the two fields.
I love teachers who love to teach. At Columbia, I’ve seen faculty who have a love for what they do and who care about students. While touring, I sat in on a quantum mechanics lecture. Professor Norman Christ strode into the room at eight on-the-dot and jumped into a discussion of WKB complex value approximation. For three straight hours, he guided us through the intricate world of QM without any notes. His enthusiasm brightened that drizzling Monday morning. That I could follow the lecture at all is a testament to his lucid explanations and extraordinary knowledge. When I came to him with questions afterward, he helped me truly understand a topic that initially felt years out of reach.

Why This Essay Works 

In this essay, the writer discussed their major and Columbia’s excellent program. They also added what Columbia would gain if accepted. This student also mentioned the lecture, which shows deep interest in the school. Showing that you love the program can be helpful in your essay. 

2. Academic Interest Essay

Academic interest essays prompt applicants to elaborate on their academic interests, intended majors, or areas of study. They allow applicants to show their passion for a particular subject and articulate why they are drawn to it.

When writing this essay, students should talk about their academic journey and explain how they developed an interest in their chosen field. This could involve discussing influential experiences that shaped their academic interests, such as coursework, research projects, internships, or extracurricular activities.

For example, a student interested in neuroscience might share how a high school biology class sparked their fascination with the brain and its functions. They could discuss any research experiences or volunteer work related to neuroscience and explain how these experiences solidified their interest in pursuing a degree in the field.

In addition, applicants should outline their academic goals and aspirations and discuss how they plan to leverage their education to make a meaningful impact in their chosen field. This could involve discussing future career plans, graduate school aspirations, or research interests.

A compelling academic interest essay should demonstrate a clear understanding of the chosen field, genuine enthusiasm for learning, and a well-defined academic trajectory. Again, it should sound like it’s coming from your heart

Sample “Academic Interest” Essay from Yale

Length: 100 words

Literature and anthropology are telescopes into the past; philosophy, a prism into the mind. I want to ask the hard questions: Do I have free will? Is meaning lost in translation? Is there eternal truth? What is an “I”? Am I my mind, body or something more? Literature is an empathetic account of the past, anthropology a scientific documentation of human lives. I want to find commonality in lives separated by time and space, find meaning within them, partake in the collective memory of humanity, and interrogate what it means to be human.

Why This Essay Worked

In this essay, the student demonstrated what they hoped to achieve in the study.This is an excellent way to show you know what you’re doing. They also talked about how they want to use the degree to impact the world by stating that “partake in the collective memory of humanity” and “interrogate what it means to be human.” Everything the writer wrote sounded like honesty. 

3. Personal Growth or Challenge Essay

Personal growth or challenge essays invite applicants to reflect on a significant personal experience, obstacle, or moment of growth. These essays provide admissions officers insight into the applicant's resilience, self-awareness, and ability to overcome adversity.

Applicants should choose a meaningful and authentic topic when writing a personal growth essay. This could involve discussing a personal setback, such as a health issue, family challenge, or academic struggle, and explaining how they navigated through it.

For example, an applicant might discuss their experience overcoming a learning disability and the strategies they developed to succeed academically. They could reflect on the lessons from this experience, such as resilience, perseverance, and adaptability, and discuss how it has shaped their character and outlook on life.

Applicants should also highlight the growth or transformation they experienced due to their experience. This could involve discussing newfound strengths, personal insights, or changes in perspective that emerged from overcoming the challenge.

Sample “Personal Growth” Essay from Harvard University

Length: 600 words

When I was a freshman in high school, I didn't care about school or my education. I couldn't see a future where it mattered whether I knew how to say 'how are you' in Spanish or how to use the Pythagorean theorem. Because I couldn't see the point of these classes, I found myself disconnected from the high school experience as a whole, which resulted in low grades. My parents expressed their disappointment in me, but I still couldn't bring myself to care; I was feeling disconnected from my family, too.
I didn't realize it at the time, but I was depressed. I stopped spending time with my friends and stopped enjoying the things I used to enjoy. I was feeling hopeless. How could I get through three and a half more years of high school if I couldn't even get through a semester? I couldn't stand the thought of feeling this way for so long – at least, it felt so long at the time.
After a few failed tests, one of my teachers approached me after class one day. She said she also noticed a difference in my demeanor in the last few weeks and asked if I was okay. At that moment, I realized that no one had asked me that in a long time. I didn't feel okay, so I told her that. She asked me what was wrong, and I told her that I was feeling disconnected from school and classes and just about everything at that point.
My teacher suggested I visit my guidance counselor. So the next day, during study hall, I got a pass to visit with my guidance counselor and told her I was feeling disconnected from classes and school. She asked me what my interests were and suggested that I take an elective like art or music or a vocational tech class like culinary arts or computer coding. I told her that I wasn't sure what I was interested in at this point and she told me to take a couple of classes to see what I like. At her persistence, I signed up for art and computer coding.
It turns out art was not my thing. But it also turns out that computer coding is my thing, and I am not sure I would have realized that had I not gone to see my guidance counselor at my teacher's recommendation. After taking computer coding and other similar classes, I had something to look forward to during school. So even when I still dreaded taking Spanish and Geometry, I knew I could look forward to an enjoyable class later in the day. Having something to look forward to really helped me raise my grades because I started caring about my future and the possibility of applying for college to study computer science.
The best thing that I took away from this experience is that I can't always control what happens to me, especially as a minor, but I can control how I handle things. In full transparency: there were still bad days and bad grades, but by taking action and adding a couple of classes into my schedule that I felt passionate about, I started feeling connected to school again. From there, my overall experience with school – and life in general – improved 100%.

Why This Essay Worked

Here, the applicant focused on personal development by addressing their low grades and poor mental health at a younger age. They also talked about how these circumstances affected them. After this, they talked about how they found the motivation to get back on track and improve their grades.

With this essay, Harvard will see that the applicant can pull through when times get tough. Remember, this essay should focus on your growth from a negative experience rather than the experience itself. 

4. Diversity and Inclusion Essay

Diversity and inclusion essays allow applicants to reflect on their experiences with diversity, equity, and inclusion and allow them to share their perspectives on cultural diversity, social justice, or advocacy efforts.

When writing a diversity and inclusion essay, applicants should reflect on their background, identity, or experiences, shaping their understanding of diversity and inclusion. This could involve discussing aspects of their identity, such as race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or socioeconomic status, and how they intersect with their experiences.

An applicant from a multicultural background might discuss how their experiences with multiple cultural identities shaped their values. They could reflect on their challenges and opportunities due to their diverse background and discuss their commitment to promoting diversity and inclusion in future endeavors.

Applicants should also discuss how they have created a more inclusive environment in their communities, schools, or workplaces. This could involve discussing involvement in diversity-related initiatives, advocacy work, or efforts to promote cross-cultural understanding.

Sample “Diversity and Inclusion” Essay from Duke University

Length: 300 words

The pitter-patter of droplets, the sweet smell that permeates throughout the air, the dark grey clouds that fill the sky, shielding me from the otherwise intense gaze of the sun, create a landscape unparalleled by any natural beauty. I have gazed upon the towering cliffs of Yosemite, stood next to Niagara Falls as the water roars, succumbing to the power of gravity, and seen the beaches of Mexico basked in moonlight, yet none of these wonders compares to the simple beauty of an Arizona rainstorm. To me, our rain represents more than humidity and darkness; its rarity gives it beauty. The uncertainty of when the next day of rain will come compels me to slow down, and enjoy the moment.
Out of the three realms of time; past, present, and future, the present is the only one we can experience, and I take advantage of every moment I have. When I pause my running to enjoy a sunset that dazzles the sky with brilliant colors of purple and orange, when I touch my brush to a canvas and focus on my movements in the present, when I drive home after a long day of improving our robot, and decide to drive around my neighborhood to finish “Garota de Ipanema”, which just popped up from my playlist of 700 songs, I am taking advantage of the moment. So next time it rains, step outside. Close your eyes. Hear the symphony of millions of water droplets. And enjoy the moment.

Why This Essay Worked

This essay tells a compelling story about the applicant's story on rain in Arizona and expresses how special the mundane event is to them. The writer used visually descriptive language, which makes the reader feel as if they’re in the event with the writer. This is an excellent way to let the committee better understand who you are and what you enjoy doing in life.

5. Extracurricular Activities Essay

Extracurricular activities essays prompt applicants to highlight their involvement in extracurricular activities, leadership roles, or community service. These essays allow applicants to showcase their interests, talents, and contributions outside of the classroom.

When writing an extracurricular activities essay, applicants should focus on meaningful and relevant activities relevant to their personal and academic goals. This could involve discussing involvement in clubs, sports teams, arts organizations, volunteer groups, or part-time jobs.

For example, an applicant passionate about environmental conservation might discuss their leadership role in a student-led environmental club. They could highlight specific initiatives they spearheaded, such as organizing campus clean-up events or advocating for sustainability.

Also, applicants should reflect on the skills, values, or lessons learned from their extracurricular activities. This could involve discussing leadership skills, teamwork, time management, or personal growth experiences.

Sample “Extracurricular” Essay from Yale

Length: 200 words

Haunted romanticism, ravaged gaze, desperation bordering on lunacy, Saturn Devouring His Son first caught my attention as a bored nine-year-old wandering around a museum, and once again as a high-school student, after catching a glimpse of it in a textbook. 
Because after looking at angelic frescos after more Church frescos, I could not stop myself from flipping back to the tiny printing of this unholy piece. I sought to discover the story behind it—what caused this artist to create something so raw and naked, in the age of staid royal family portraits?
I became immersed in unraveling each bit of the story, how Goya had long transitioned from a royal painter, to a harsh, but veiled critic of society, the desolation that occurred during the French occupation of Spain, the corruption of Charles IV— who was really only a puppet ruler to Godoy. I learned how kingdoms rose and fell—and rose again, how art is unafraid to capture the seditious attitudes of the common people, and how it has endured to teach us of past mistakes.
I fell in love with dissecting the messages from the past, and discovering how we still have not listened to them.

Why This Essay Works 

In this essay, the writer explained why they enjoy attending art museums outside of school. They focused on the meanings behind the paintings, giving the reader a deeper understanding of what fascinates them and why it does.

This essay achieved the aim of an extracurricular essay—showing your passions outside of school. There is no one-size-fits-all way to write an extracurricular essay. The most important thing is to make the reader feel what you felt. Talk about the tiny details, people there, smells, sights, and feelings surrounding your extracurricular interest.

FAQs: How to Write a Supplemental Essay

Here are answers to frequently asked questions on how to write a supplemental essay.

1. How to Write an Amazing Supplemental Essay?

An exceptional supplemental essay begins with thorough research into the university, grasping its core values, culture, and programs. Customize your essay to match the prompts, prioritizing authenticity, clarity, and insightful perspectives. 

Incorporate personal anecdotes, experiences, and aspirations that vividly illustrate your individuality and potential contributions to the academic community. Lastly, meticulously revise and edit your essay multiple times, focusing on clarity, coherence, and conciseness to ensure its effectiveness.

2. Which Colleges Require Supplemental Essays?

Many colleges and universities, particularly selective ones, require supplemental essays as part of the application process. Some renowned institutions known for this practice include Harvard, Yale, Stanford, MIT, Princeton, and Columbia. 

However, requirements can vary widely, so reviewing each college's application instructions carefully is essential to determine if supplemental essays are necessary. Additionally, the Common Application or Coalition Application platforms often list which colleges require supplements, making it easier for applicants to identify them.

3. Are Supplemental Essays Hard?

Supplemental essays can be hard, but they allow applicants to stand out in the admissions process. While the prompts may require introspection, research, and creativity, they allow applicants to express their genuine interests, experiences, and aspirations. 

4. How to Choose the Right Supplemental Essay Prompt?

Choosing the right supplemental essay prompt involves thoughtful consideration of several factors. Firstly, thoroughly read all available prompts and consider which resonates most with your experiences, interests, and values. Next, assess which prompt offers the best opportunity to showcase your unique qualities, accomplishments, and aspirations. 

Consider how each prompt aligns with your application narrative and the image you want to portray to admissions committees. Lastly, prioritize prompts that allow you to provide genuine, insightful responses while demonstrating your fit for the university's culture and academic community. 

Ultimately, selecting the right prompt should involve a combination of personal reflection, strategic planning, and alignment with your application goals.

5. Can I Reuse Supplemental Essays for Different Colleges?

It's not advisable to reuse supplemental essays for different colleges. Each college has its own unique prompts and values, so tailoring your essays to each institution is crucial for demonstrating your fit and genuine interest. Customizing your essays for each college allows you to highlight specific aspects of your experiences and achievements relevant to that institution, ultimately increasing your chances of admission.

6. How Many Supplemental Essays Should I Write?

The number of supplemental essays you should write depends on the specific requirements of each college you're applying to. Some colleges may require only one supplemental essay, while others might have multiple prompts. 

It's essential to carefully review the application instructions for each college to determine the exact number of supplemental essays required. 

Even if a college doesn't explicitly require supplemental essays, you may still choose to submit optional essays to strengthen your application and provide more insight into your candidacy.


Supplemental essays play a vital role in the college application process, offering applicants a platform to showcase their unique qualities and fit for each institution. By comprehensively researching each college and aligning essays with their distinct prompts and values, applicants can craft compelling narratives that resonate with admissions committees. 

Prioritizing clarity, authenticity, and creativity is crucial throughout the writing process. With meticulous planning and attention to detail, you can create supplemental essays highlighting your strengths and significantly enhancing your admissions prospects. 

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