Tell Us About Spiders Essay

What You Need To Know About College-Specific Essays: Advice From Admissions Officers

Supplemental essays can play an important role in the admission’s process.

Students spend lots of time and energy on their main common application essay or personal statement and sometimes rush through their college-specific supplemental essays without much thought or care. A recent presentation at the Independent Educational Consultants Association’s national conference in Boston offered insight into the increasingly important role that supplemental essays now play in the college application process. A supplemental essay is an extra essay beyond the personal statement or the primary application essay. It typically asks a creative question, such as, “You are writing an autobiography. Tell us what is on page 251,” or “Please tell us why XYZ College is a good fit for you and what specifically has led you to apply for admission.”

It is difficult to know what impact an essay will have on the admissions decision. According to Katharine Hager, admissions officer at Boston College, ninety percent of the personal statement essays BC reads are of average quality and generally support the admissions committee’s decision based on the student’s academic record.

“Five percent of the essays are amazing and lead to an accepted decision and another five percent are disappointing, leading to a denial,” said Hager.

In short, most of the time the personal statement does not have an impact on the admissions decision. That is one reason why the college-specific supplemental essay questions are becoming more and more important. College admissions officers also realize that students get more help on their primary personal statement essay than on their supplemental essays, so the latter are a better gauge of the student’s effort, writing ability and genuine voice.

Understand What Each College Represents and Offers 

Applying to college is a process of self-discovery and reflection. Students should spend time thinking about what they want in a college and why. Research the schools to which you apply; read the mission statement. Make a list of what makes each school a good fit for you and what you would bring to that campus to add value.

One college, The University of Richmond, plays off its mascot, the spider, in its supplemental essay question, “Tell us about spiders.” This is an example of a creative prompt that is looking for students to show an understanding of the college, its mission, and its programs. The expectation is that students will demonstrate how their own educational goals fit with what Richmond offers and that they will write a coherent, creative and thoughtful essay.

“Show that you’ve done your research. Get started early. Know yourself and our college,” said Gil Villaneuva, Dean of Admissions at The University of Richmond and President and Chair of The Common Application Board of Directors.

Mr. Villaneuva also cautioned students about choosing sensitive topics. “Don’t present yourself in a way that leads us to question your emotional health. If your story is one of struggle, be sure it has a happy ending. “

Admissions officers also warned against using the space to discuss a relative who attended the college unless that story somehow tells more about the applicant.

Understanding a college’s admissions process is key to writing a strong supplemental essay.

The Admissions Committee and Application Review

Every college has their own process for reviewing applications and how essays are used. Grace Cheng, current director of admissions at Wellesley College, also spent nine years in Harvard University’s admissions department. She says that admissions counselors, some faculty, and even some undergraduate students review applications at Wellesley. They have no cut offs in terms of GPA or test scores, and they read every essay.

The Wellesley required supplemental essay asks:

We know that there are more than 100 reasons to choose Wellesley, but the “Wellesley 100” is a good place to start. Visit the Wellesley 100 and let us know, in two well-developed paragraphs, which two items most attract, inspire, or energize you and why. (PS: “Why” matters to us.)

“Our Wellesley 100 supplemental question requires the applicant to significantly research our website,” said Cheng. “It’s a weed-out because the prompt is so unusual. Our site is pretty informal and cheeky so we expect less formality in students’ responses as well.”

In addition to students saying why they like the college, admissions officers want to know what each student will bring to their campus. Along those lines, the University of Richmond admissions officers measure a “personal quality index.” This may include attributes such as inquisitive, arrogant, fragile, a giver, risk taker, academic, or creative.

Link Your Academic Interests To Your Experiences

The take-away message: know yourself and what you want from college. If you are not sure about a major and are asked about academics, focus on the classic liberal arts and science curricula and be prepared to discuss what academic areas you want to explore in college and why. 

Start thinking about your supplemental questions early—the questions are usually available in August. Since admissions staff will review your responses carefully, your answers to these questions can significantly impact your admissions decision.

Also see: Every Essay Counts: How To Tackle The Why X-College Prompt.

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Tags: application, Boston, Brookline, College, college admissions, college application, college essay

Rebecca Kenneyacademics, Brookline, college admissions, college advising, college applications, Educational Advocates College Consulting, essays

by Maggie Shea, Writing Center coordinator

How would you approach an unusual writing prompt? Consider these:

      • What is square one, and can you actually go back to it?
      • Consider something in your life you think goes unnoticed and write about why it’s important to you.

Interesting questions, but hard to know where to begin, right? Many high school seniors are tackling these very questions right now, thinking deeply about spiders, musing on ‘square one’ with a friend, or examining their lives to find that perfect unnoticed element. All three are actual prompts on 2016 college applications: the first is one of two choices for the University of Richmond, the second is an option from a list of five equally quirky prompts for University of Chicago, and the last is required for all applicants to University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Each year, U Chicago solicits essay prompts from current students and alumni. They choose five “uncommon questions” to include on their application supplement. Some gems from the past include “So where is Waldo, really?” and “What’s so odd about odd numbers?”  One of my favorites is “So, how do you feel about Wednesdays?” The University says they hope to learn how students think–and how well they write.

At the Minnetonka High School Writing Center, we are honored to be part of the college essay process for many seniors. The prompts we see are often less eclectic than the trio listed above. Most questions ask “Who are you?” in one form or another. The Common Application, used by over 700 colleges, requires students to choose from five questions. Imagine what colleges learn about applicants from their responses to these two Common App prompts:

      • The lessons we take from failure can be fundamental to later success. Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what did you learn from the experience?
      • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

In college essay writing conferences, we listen to students’ ideas and ask questions to help focus their responses. They work through multiple revisions, refining sentences until the story represents something essential about themselves—in 650 words, or sometimes 500.

Every fall, we are inspired by these young writers on the verge of their adult lives. They write stories about challenge and resilience; passion for nature, music, or art; ideas for making the world a better place; love of family and dedication to friends. They can be dead serious and downright hilarious. Parents, grandparents and teachers out there: you are the subject of many college essays! Students value the lessons you’ve taught them. And students: hearing your stories and working with you gives us much hope for the future.


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