Most college applicants fail to put adequate time into a supplemental college essay. The Common Application's personal essay allows a student to write a single essay for multiple colleges. The supplemental college essay, however, needs to be different for every application. Thus, it's tempting to dash off a generic and vague piece that can be used at multiple schools, resulting in a weak essay.
Don't make this mistake. The sample supplemental college essay below was written for Oberlin College. The essay prompt reads,
"Given your interests, values, and goals, explain why Oberlin College will help you grow (as a student and a person) during your undergraduate years."
The question asked here is typical of many supplemental essays at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Essentially, the admissions folks want to know why their school is of particular interest to you.
Sample Supplemental Essay
I visited 18 colleges over the past year, yet Oberlin is the one place that most spoke to my interests. Early in my college search I learned that I prefer a liberal arts college to a larger university. The collaboration between the faculty and undergraduate students, the sense of community, and the flexible, interdisciplinary nature of the curriculum are all important to me. Also, my high school experience was greatly enriched by the diversity of the student body, and I am impressed by Oberlin's rich history and its current efforts connected to inclusiveness and equality. To say the least, I'd be proud to say I attended the first coeducational college in the country.
I plan to major in Environmental Studies at Oberlin. After my campus tour, I took some extra time to visit the Adam Joseph Lewis Center. It's an amazing space and the students I chatted with spoke highly of their professors. I became truly interested in issues of sustainability during my volunteer work in the Hudson River Valley, and everything I've learned about Oberlin makes it seem the ideal place for me to continue exploring and building upon those interests. I am also impressed by Oberlin's Creativity and Leadership Project. I've been a bit of an entrepreneur ever since second grade when I made a dollar producing and performing The Runaway Bunny for my extended family. I'm drawn to a program that supports the move from classroom learning to creative hands-on, real-world applications.
Finally, as the rest of my application clearly demonstrates, music is an important part of my life. I've been playing the trumpet since fourth grade, and I hope to continue performing and developing my skills throughout college. What better place than Oberlin to do so? With more performances than days in the year and a large group of talented musicians in the Conservatory of Music, Oberlin is an ideal place for exploring my love of both music and the environment.
Understanding the Essay Prompt
To understand the strength of the essay, we must first look at the prompt: the admissions officers at Oberlin want you to "explain why Oberlin College will help you grow." This sounds straightforward, but be careful. You're not being asked to explain how college will help you grow, but how Oberlin will help you grow. Nor is the prompt asking how a small liberal arts college will help you grow. The essay needs to include specific information about Oberlin College.
A good way to see if you've responded to the prompt well is to swap out the name of Oberlin College (or whichever college you are applying to) with the name of another college. If the essay still makes sense once you do a global replace of the school name, you haven't written a good supplemental essay.
A Critique of the Supplemental Essay
The sample essay certainly succeeds on this front. If we were to substitute "Kenyon College" for "Oberlin College" in the essay, the essay would not make sense. The details in the essay are unique to Oberlin. Demonstrated interest can play a meaningful role in the admissions process, and this applicant has clearly demonstrated that she knows Oberlin well and her interest in the school is sincere.
Let's look at some of the essay's strengths:
- The first paragraph makes several important points. First of all, we learn that the applicant has visited Oberlin. This may not seem like a big deal, but you'd be surprised how many students apply to a large number of colleges based on nothing but the schools' reputations. Also, the student notes that she wants to go to a liberal arts college, not a larger university. This information isn't really specific to Oberlin, but it does show that she has thought about the options available to her. The final point in this first paragraph gets more specific-the applicant is familiar with Oberlin and knows the school's socially progressive history.
- The second paragraph is really the heart of this essay-the applicant wants to major in Environmental Studies, and she is clearly impressed with the program at Oberlin. She has visited the Environmental Studies building, and she knows of some of the unique opportunities offered at Oberlin. She has even talked with Oberlin students. This paragraph can't help but make a favorable impression on the admissions folks-the applicant is drawn to Oberlin, and she clearly knows exactly why she likes Oberlin.
- The final paragraph adds another important dimension to the application. Not only does the student find the Environmental Studies program attractive, but her love of music makes Oberlin an even better match. Oberlin has a top-rated music conservatory, so the applicant's dual love of music and Environmental Studies makes Oberlin a natural match for her.
Admissions officers can't help but feel that Oberlin is a great match for this applicant. She knows the school well, and her interests and goals line up perfectly with Oberlin's strengths. This short essay will certainly be a positive piece of her application.
A Final Word About Supplemental Essays
The content of your supplemental essay is extremely important, and poor decisions on this front can lead to a weak supplemental essay. But content isn't everything. You also need to focus on the presentation of your ideas. Make sure your essay is entirely free of any grammatical errors, and be sure to avoid common stylistic problems. The admissions officers need to conclude that you are sincerely interested in attending their school and that you are an excellent writer.