How to Write a Killer College Supplement
Often seen as extra work, supplements are essential to your applications - and can even help you select the right school.
In the heat of the college admissions process, it’s all too easy to lose sight of the end goal: finding the colleges that are the right fit for you. Thankfully, writing college supplements provides the perfect opportunity to refocus your camera lens.
Supplements are distillations of colleges. There’s a reason admissions officers are asking you to do extra work—whether an Ivy League university, a small liberal arts college, or state school, there are distinct things about each college, and as excellent as your Common Application essay may be, it doesn’t demonstrate precisely why you’ll thrive at a given school.
The most common form of supplement is the “Why [fill in college name here]?” essay, in which admissions officers ask you to share why you belong at their college. You’ve already identified the schools that are right for you, and now it’s time to tell them why you’re right for them.
The key to writing the perfect supplement is thorough research. For so many students, when the research is top-notch, the supplement almost writes itself. Don’t think for a moment that you’re wasting time by scouring colleges’ websites: when it comes to supplements, there’s almost no such thing as too much research. For this reason, it’s best to start the supplement process early; if you start writing at 11:00 p.m. and your application is due at 11:59 p.m., admissions officers will know.
What should you be looking for? Think of a “Why ___?” supplement as a plate to fill with four classic components that are distinct but complement each other: meat, potatoes, vegetables, and gravy.
The Meat: Academics
Almost every college offers easily Googleable department websites. Spend some time perusing departments of interest to you—maybe you’re curious about English, maybe Computer Science, maybe Biology, maybe Art History. Departments often publish their major and minor requirements, as well as their general academic missions. Sometimes, you’ll find profiles of students, which will help you understand what academic life is like at the school you’re writing about.
Admissions officers know that colleges’ academic structures are different from the high school structures you’re used to, so they’ll be impressed if you do the work to start learning what new opportunities you might want to take advantage of as an undergraduate. Prompt yourself with questions to get you excited, and to transform that excitement into tangible goals: Do any professors have fascinating profiles that spark your interest? Do you see any courses you’re dying to take? If you spy a professor who’s researching something that matters to you, would you ask to join them?
If you already have a direct connection to the school, having attended a summer program or established an academic relationship with a professor, the supplement would be a place to highlight this and how it has fueled your desire to continue your studies at the school.
The Potatoes: Study Abroad
In recent years, more and more colleges have enhanced their study abroad programs (well, before COVID-19, anyway!) Many colleges allow you to view the programs they offer, and you can even search for programs by region, language, subject, requirements, and other criteria that will help you narrow down your myriad options.
Don’t just write a sentence in your supplement sharing where you want to study abroad, though; tell the admissions officers how your experience will enhance your overall undergraduate growth.
The Vegetables: Extracurriculars
Academics aren’t everything—at college, not even close! Most colleges offer comprehensive lists of student groups, also easily Googleable. Many offer links to groups’ websites or Facebook pages, where you can learn more about their missions and recent events. In your supplement, share a few groups that appeal to you.
Like many of the best college admissions essays, great supplements both highlight your passions by expressing your commitment to delve deeper into certain interests, and show your openness by expressing your excitement about trying new things.
The Gravy: College Culture
Every college is more than the sum of its parts. As you know from your research—which hopefully includes an in-person or virtual tour of campus—each college has a distinct flavor derived from innumerable factors: location, size, history, student body, traditions, and more.
You won’t be able to perfectly capture the entirety of any college’s culture, but you should share why certain aspects of that culture make the school a good fit for you. You don’t have to slap this assertion on at the end of your essay or blurt it out at the beginning; the best supplements weave your knowledge of college culture throughout.
Remember, you don’t have much space—sometimes only 100 words!—so make sure every word counts. Try editing your supplements like a poem, reading them backwards to make sure that no term is superfluous. Good luck!