Guide to Essays and Interviews • Undergraduate

How to Write Supplemental Essays That Stand Out

POSTED ON 09/22/2023 BY The Red Pen

Person writing a supplemental essay.

On August 1 of every year, most US colleges release prompts for supplemental essays. These additional essays are college-specific and are usually shorter than the Common Application essay. They help admissions officers determine if you’re a good fit for their institutions. Supplemental essays are divided into five main categories:

  • The ‘Why College’ essay 
  • The ‘Why Major’ essay
  • The ‘Extracurricular Activities’ essay
  • The ‘Letter to your Roommate’ essay
  • The ‘Community’ or ‘Identity’ essay

The ‘Why College’ essay 

The ‘Why College’ essay is a common supplemental essay that many colleges and universities require as part of the application process. This essay allows you to explain why you are interested in attending a particular institution and how your goals, values, and aspirations align with their offerings. Admissions committees use this essay to gauge your fit for their institution and to understand why you believe their school is the right place for you to pursue your bachelor’s degree in the US. For details on what this essay entails, read our blog on How to Ace the ‘Why College’ Supplemental Essay.

The ‘Why Major’ essay

The ‘Why Major’ essay helps admissions officers understand the context and trajectory of your academic background and future choices. Moreover, this essay offers insight into your intellectual interests and how you use available resources. 

How to write the ‘Why Major’ essay?

Consider this prompt: “The Admission Committee is interested in getting to know each student as well as possible through the application process. Please respond to each of the following prompts. Please explain why you wish to study in the academic areas you selected above.* 150 words.” – Rice University, 2023-24

For this essay, use the following structure: 

  • What sparked your interest in the major?
  • What have you done to explore that interest further?
  • Why do you wish to study it in college? 

While the first answer sets the reader up to gauge who you are and what makes you curious, the second gives them an understanding of how you’ve pursued that curiosity. Finally, the third answer covers how studying this subject in college will help you achieve your future goals. 

Begin by writing about personal experiences, research projects, internships, or even a summer programme that sparked your interest in a particular subject. Reflect on how your past academic experiences prepared you for your ultimate goal. For example, if you are interested in studying palaeontology, write about what triggered your curiosity about the subject. Were you fascinated by dinosaurs as a child? Did you spend time in museums in middle school? Have you interned at one such museum to pursue research in high school? What do you plan to do next? 

Once you have established a past experience and a future goal, an excellent way to wrap up the essay is to connect the two elements by writing about how you intend to make the most of the major. Tie the subjects you are passionate about to any related work you have done. For example, if you are interested in psychology and English, write about what fascinates you and how you have pursued your interests through internships or a summer programme. Then, write about how you want to continue to explore them in college before deciding on a major.

The ‘Extracurricular Activity’ essay

While writing this essay, you must ask yourself whether it complements the rest of your application. For example, if you’ve mentioned community service in the activity section of your application, ensure that you write an essay on the same subject. The admissions committee wants to know which extracurricular activity you wish to continue in college while gauging the skills and values you will bring to the campus community.

How to write the ‘Extracurricular Activity’ essay?

Consider these three prompts: 

“Briefly discuss the significance to you of the school or summer activity in which you have been most involved. (approximately ½ page, single-spaced).”Georgetown University, 2023-24

“What is your most meaningful extracurricular commitment, and what would you like us to know about it? (100 words)*”Brown University, 2023-24

“Tell us what piques your intellectual curiosity or has helped you understand the world’s complexity. This can include a work you’ve read, a project you’ve completed for a class, and even co-curricular activities in which you have been involved. 150 words.Wake Forest University, 2023-24

​​Start by asking yourself why you enjoy an activity. Remember that you do not need to enjoy every aspect of the particular activity. Are there reasons you participate in this activity that help you accomplish something else that is rewarding? For example, weight training may not always be fun, but it can make you stronger. Baking cakes on order every week might be stressful, but the smiles your cakes bring to people’s faces can be motivating.

However, avoid writing about the same topic if you have already discussed it as an extracurricular activity in your common app essay. Instead, choose another extracurricular activity that gives your application greater depth. Doing so tells admissions officers things they would otherwise not know about you. 

Here are a few tips on how to write the essay:

  • Choose the correct activity: If you are wondering which extracurricular activity is the right choice for the essay, ask yourself what activity you’d miss the most if you couldn’t participate in it anymore. Your answer will most likely be an activity you’ve been involved in for several years.  You do not necessarily need to choose the extracurricular activity that seems the largest on your activity list unless it holds a special meaning.
  • Choose an activity, not an event: ​​​​An extracurricular is an activity you have repeatedly participated in for some time. Therefore, visiting Switzerland for a skiing trip is not an extracurricular activity. However, an annual scouting trip or a concert you organise at a nursing home twice a year are activities you could write about.
  • Consider taking one of your activities and giving it greater specificity and detail:  Maybe you mentioned in the activity section of your application form that you have volunteered at a hospital where you had several responsibilities. But perhaps there is one responsibility, in particular, you enjoy the most because it adds some value to your life. That one responsibility could be the focus of your extracurricular essay. 
  • Conclude with how you can continue an activity in college: An excellent way to wrap up your extracurricular activity essay is by writing about how you plan to continue them in college. You may do so by mentioning a student club or organisation that aligns with your interests. However, if there isn’t a club for your activity, you can write about how and why you would love to start a particular club. 

The ‘Community’ or ‘Identity’ essay

This essay comes in many forms, but ​​​​you can spot it by the word “community” or “identity” appearing somewhere in the question. So, what counts as a community anyway? A community is a group of people who share an interest, background, or experience. An identity describes how you see yourself as a member of a particular group or community. 

Admissions committees are looking to build a college community formed by people from all over the world. This essay helps them compare you to your cohort and understand how you will be a valuable member. Admissions officers want students who enrich campus culture through their varied backgrounds, experiences, accomplishments, activities, and behaviour. This essay tells them something about you that cannot be learned through your academic record or extracurricular activities: it tells them about you as a person.  

How to write the ‘Community’ or ‘Identity’ essay?

Consider this prompt: “Everyone belongs to many different communities and/or groups defined by (among other things) shared geography, religion, ethnicity, income, cuisine, interest, race, ideology, or intellectual heritage. Choose one of the communities to which you belong, and describe that community and your place within it. *Max 300 words ” University of Michigan

First things first, choose your community. It can be any group with whom you share interests or experiences. For example, it could be your neighbourhood friends, a pasta-lovers club, or your extended family that comes together every third Sunday of every month. 

Remember that the people who form your community are not the focus. What is important is how you’ve impacted the group and how it has impacted you. Did founding a chess club, for example, teach you the joy of mentoring others to success? Or, 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 group. So ask yourself: What specific facets of my identity do I intend for my reader to glean from this essay? Then, pick the community that will help you do this best. 

The ‘Letter to Your Roommate’ essay 

Institutions like Stanford University, for example, will ask you to write a letter to your roommate. ​​This essay is another way admissions officers understand how you will forge relationships with the community and fit in on campus. 

How to write the ‘Letter to Your Roommate’ essay?

Consider this prompt:  “Virtually all of Stanford’s undergraduates live on campus. Write a note to your future roommate that reveals something about you or that will help your roommate – and us – get to know you better. 150 words.”Stanford University, 2023-24

Make this space all about the quirks that define you. While the other essays and sections of the form list all the achievements you’ve acquired throughout high school, they do not tell the reader about who you are the night before the finals or your favourite midnight snack.

Remember, the intended recipient of this letter is likely to bunk with you for a whole year, which also means that they will see you through your good days and bad, your heartbreaks and celebrations, and so much more. What do you want them to learn about you? ​​It could be that you can break into a song whenever you want to or that you’ve never understood the relevance of popular music. Or, it could be that you are the type to sleep through weekends, but are also the person to make them a mean cup of coffee after a bad day. Write the letter after narrowing down the subject. If you feel tempted to, go ahead and play with the structure, be flexible. But don’t forget to be authentic and genuine in your voice. Avoid cliche statements like “We are going to have fun as roommates!” or “I can’t wait to meet you,” or “I’m a people person.” 

So, now that you have a more comprehensive idea of supplemental essays, it’s time you prepare for them. You can also read our blogs on writing a winning common app essay and nuances of how to apply to undergraduate US universities. For any assistance with your undergraduate application and essays, please get in touch. Our team looks forward to helping you.