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7 Tips to Ace Your Supplementary Essay

Supplemental essays offer a more intimate glimpse into the multifaceted dimensions of your persona, moving beyond the numerical data of grades and test scores. These essays are means through which admissions officers can gain a deeper understanding of your character, motivations, and aspirations. 

Your goal? 

Show why you in particular are a perfect fit for the school. 

What is the difference between a personal statement and a supplemental essay?

Unlike your Personal Statement, which has a broader scope and is sent to all schools to which you apply, supplemental essays are tailored to each institution. Whether it's delving into your intellectual pursuits, elaborating on your involvement in extracurricular activities, or articulating your visions for the future, these essays provide a platform to illuminate your individuality and resonance with a particular school.

Why should I work on a supplemental essay while applying to universities?

Many schools are concerned about yield rates — the percentage of admitted students that enroll — as this is factored into school rankings and can complicate the admissions process if an insufficient number of students decide to attend. So, it's crucial to demonstrate a high level of “fit” with the institution — do you truly want to attend, and are you an ideal candidate for the school? 

Approaching these supplementary essays strategically is key — they’re a vital opportunity to not only showcase your qualifications but also express genuine enthusiasm for a specific school. Crafting thoughtful, well-targeted responses demands introspection, research, and a deep understanding of what makes each institution unique. When executed well, these essays transform your application into a compelling narrative that resonates with admission committees, building a connection between your profile and the ethos of the college.

1. Create a strategy for common supplement topics: 

When faced with recurrent themes like "Diversity," "Community," "Why School," and "Why Major," it's essential to approach them strategically. While you can't recycle essays verbatim, establishing a general plan with universal information is a smart preparation tactic. Having a blueprint in place allows you to incorporate overarching ideas across various applications while tailoring specifics to each institution. This approach enables you to present a cohesive narrative that resonates with the core values of each college.

2. Do your research: 

Thorough research into each college's programs is key. Many institutions inquire about why you've chosen a particular major at their school. Simply stating a general interest in research opportunities won't suffice; you need to articulate precisely why their program aligns with your goals and how your presence could benefit their academic community. Moreover, accurately referencing majors and unique terminology specific to each institution, such as Brown University's "concentrations," demonstrates your genuine interest and attention to detail.

3. Don’t copy-paste (or do so carefully): 

While collaborating on essay themes can be beneficial, copying essays verbatim is rarely appropriate. Each essay prompt necessitates a nuanced and individualized response, especially when highlighting specific aspects of a school. Steer clear of the extra pitfall of mentioning the wrong school name—such mistakes can be detrimental to your application's credibility.

4. Hit the “key points”: 

Essays addressing why a particular school or major appeals to you should emphasize four main areas. Discuss your relevant experiences, highlight accomplishments that prepare you for the program, and delve into the specific features of the institution or program that make it an ideal fit for your aspirations.

5. Be creative: 

Supplemental essays offer a canvas to exhibit your personality beyond academics and extracurriculars. Strive to make your writing engaging by infusing personal anecdotes, employing creative prose, and showcasing your sense of humor. While maintaining an academic tone is important, these essays also serve as glimpses into your unique character and passions.

6. Have someone try reading your application in 5 minutes: 

Given the limited time admissions officers have to review applications, it’s crucial to make your supplements memorable and high-quality. Ask a reader to skim your application and inquire about any anecdotes they remember from your essays or specific school/program features you discussed. If they struggle to recall these essential points, revisions to improve clarity and memorability may be necessary.

7. Don’t overthink “fun” questions:

Short-answer questions about favorite foods, movies, or songs are meant to provide a glimpse into your personality. Avoid feeling pressured to provide strictly academic answers—authenticity is key. These queries allow you to showcase your genuine interests and quirks, providing a more holistic view of who you are beyond your academic pursuits. Strike a balance between honesty and appropriateness in your responses without overanalyzing them.

In the whirlwind of college applications, supplemental essays stand as pivotal opportunities to personalize your journey. They aren't mere add-ons but windows into your unique story, offering colleges a deeper understanding of your passions, aspirations, and fit within their community. 

Navigating these essays strategically—crafting each response thoughtfully, showcasing your personality, and aligning with the ethos of each institution—can transform your application from a compilation of achievements into a compelling narrative that resonates with admission committees. 

So, embrace the challenge, infuse creativity, and approach these supplements as invitations to paint a richer, more vibrant picture of who you are beyond the confines of grades and accolades. With dedication and authenticity, these essays can be your voice in a competitive sea of applicants, making your application truly stand out.

One other option – Lumiere Research Scholar Program

If you are interested in doing university-level research, then you could also consider applying to the Lumiere Research Scholar Program, a selective online high school program for students that I founded with researchers at Harvard and Oxford. Last year, we had over 4000 students apply for 500 spots in the program! You can find the application form here.

Also check out the Lumiere Research Inclusion Foundation, a non-profit research program for talented, low-income students.

Stephen is one of the founders of Lumiere and a Harvard College graduate. He founded Lumiere as a Ph.D. student at Harvard Business School. Lumiere is a selective research program where students work 1-1 with a research mentor to develop an independent research paper.



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