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Articles / Applying to College / Common Application Supplemental Essays

Nov. 6, 2014

Common Application Supplemental Essays

Many schools that require the Common Application also require “supplemental" essays, which are essays in addition to the one appearing in the Common Application. The reason they require these extra essays, in addition to providing an extra measure of torture, is to (in most cases) dig deeper into who you are and how you think.

Keep in mind that I have always been harping on that phrase “who you are and how you think." That's the chief purpose of college application essays. So, when you check the supplements that your candidate colleges have provided for you, don't get frustrated, get motivated — motivated to show that particular school just what goes on inside your head (if anything).

In today's post, I thought that I would show you some examples of the kinds of supplemental essays that have proven successful for some of the applicants with whom I've worked over the years. I'm on an essay-knowledge binge lately here because some of you may be looking for insights into how to handle the writing requirements for your Common Application schools. So, I thought that seeing some outstanding essay samples would get your creative juices flowing.

Here are some examples of how to be creative while capturing a number of key aspects of (here it comes again) who you are and how you think. First, here are responses to three shorter essays for Stanford University:

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experience (150 word limit).

I'm very well balanced. At age three I started off on three wheels. I advanced to two at six, and finally graduated to one at nine. That “one" is a unicycle. Quite a challenge. I taught myself how to ride it after I joined my elementary school's Circus Club in 4th grade. Taming the unicycle is no easy feat. It took me weeks just to learn how to mount it. As someone told me, “When you're practicing, you aren't actually riding; you're falling!" A lot. I have since moved on from riding in the Junior Rose Parades to off-road unicycling. Now there's a challenge. I can now tackle formidable park trails. The one thing I have yet to master, though, is juggling while unicycling. So far, unicycling is my outdoor activity, while juggling is for study breaks. Balance and juggling—metaphors for negotiating life!

Stanford students possess an intellectual vitality. Reflect on an idea or experience that has been important to your intellectual development. (250 word limit).

Malaysia stretched my intellectual boundaries. We browsed shops along the narrow cobbled streets of Melaka, then hopped onto a pedal-powered trishaw and headed to St. Paul's Hill. Twenty minutes after a rocky, undulating ride, we reached Porta De Santiago, one of the remaining gates of the A'Famosa. Our guide told us that the A'Famosa was a Portuguese fortress, built after they colonized Melaka in 1511, and 130 years later the Dutch defeated the Portuguese and turned it over to the British. It's one of the oldest surviving European architectural remains in Asia.

I felt like a time traveler; the present seemed like a far-off future dream, shrouded in mysterious mist. I grew increasingly excited as I climbed a series of steep steps to reach another historical site—St. Paul's Church, which is surrounded by majestic trees and overlooks the city and the Straits of Malacca. The Portuguese built the church, now in ruins, and only its hefty bricks remind us of its magnificent architecture. The monumental tombstones leaning against the walls dwarfed us as we took in the imposing sight around us. Our guide explained to our surprise that after building a new church, the Dutch used St. Paul's as a burial site for their nobility. Before getting back into my rolling time machine, I stood on the Padang Pahlawan where Malaysia's Independence Ceremony from Britain took place in 1957. I was at once entranced and reluctant to leave this place where time stands still and return to the present.

What matters to you, and why? (250 word limit)

Conserving water matters to me. My Dad brushes his teeth two feet away from the sink, as a Niagara Falls of water gushes from the faucet and blasts straight down the drain. That really bothers me. So, I step in front of him and turn off the faucet while he brushes and then turn it back on when he rinses. You would think that he'd get the message after a couple of my intercessions. It's a work in progress. This reminds me of that Sesame Street short about a fish named Frank and a boy who leaves the faucet on while brushing his teeth. Frank's pond keeps getting lower and lower as the boy leaves the water running. Finally, Frank phones the boy and pleads, “Turn it off!"


I have lots of other examples that I could share, but I hope that you have the idea from reading the above statements. The important thing to remember about supplemental essays is that they are an opportunityrather than a burden. Try to understand how many thousands of applications your colleges have to wade through each year. Many applicants have the same or similar academic and EC profiles. What makes the difference in many cases are the essays that reveal insights of uniqueness about you. I don't have to mention my essay mantra again, do I?

So, take some time to consider how to approach your supplemental essays. Use the examples above to stimulate your thought process and set the stage for your expositions. It's worth every effort you put into it.


Check College Confidential for all of my college-related articles.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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