Don’t just write off that supplemental college essay

The Boston Globe

By Ellen Ishkanian
October 30, 2015

After weeks of brainstorming, writing, editing, and rewriting, that frightening personal statement essay is finally done.

But don’t exhale just yet.

For a majority of colleges, particularly the most selective, additional essay questions are also part of the application process.

Some seem simple, such as “Why Tufts?” or “Why Brown?” And some are quirky, such as “Hashtags trend worldwide. Give us a hashtag you wish were trending. Why?” asked by Wake Forest University, or “Tell us about spiders,” at the University of Richmond.

But make no mistake: There is nothing simple or frivolous about these questions that more and more colleges and universities are using to help in the selection process.

“It’s another way to tell students apart,” said Dr. Kat Cohen, founder and chief executive officer of IvyWise, a Manhattan-based educational consulting company.

Cohen, who has worked as a college counselor for the past 17 years, said these are the questions that can make or break an applicant’s chances of getting into a top-notch school.

“These questions are aimed at trying to get students to reveal something about themselves that’s not obvious from all the other information they’ve provided, and to show their intellectual vitality,” she said.

That’s exactly what Richard Nesbitt, director of admissions at Williams College, is looking for.

“Who is this student? What are their values? What’s important to them? What makes them tick,” he said.

Nesbitt said he prefers calling the essays “personal statements,” because they should not be written in the same style as essays students are used to writing for most high school assignments.

“These need to be in a student’s own voice, in a conversational tone,” he said. “These are not something we grade, it’s more about completing the picture of who this student is.”

At Williams, the supplemental question asks students to think about the Oxford-style tutorial classes that are a distinct and important part of the academic philosophy of the small, liberal arts college.

In the weekly tutorials, one student writes a paper about something the professor has chosen for them to read, for example, while the second student is asked to write a two-or three-page paper reaction.

So the supplemental question asks: “Imagine yourself in a tutorial at Williams. Of anyone in the world, whom would you choose to be the other student in the class, and why?”

Students have 300 words in which to answer.

And Nesbitt says students should remember that this is their opportunity to tell their story.

So, if Ben Franklin is the person a student chooses to take a tutorial with, not many of the 300 allotted words should be used on Franklin’s biography.

“The answer should be telling us more about the student than about Ben Franklin,” he said. “It isn’t really about who the student chooses, but about how they handle it.”

And here’s another helpful bit of advice.

While it may be tempting to skip the supplemental questions marked “optional,” including the one asked by Williams, don’t do it.

“Very few of our applicants don’t choose to write it,” Nesbitt said.

Those few, he said, may be sending a “self-selecting” message that Williams probably wasn’t their best choice.

Cohen said another mistake students make is to spend months refining their long essay, and then leave a week to throw together their answers to the supplemental questions, which often ask for very short answers.

“You need to be thoughtful about every answer, even the short answers,” she said.

Especially, she said, because these are the places where students who have done their research and taken time to think outside the box can really distinguish themselves.

For example, Cohen said a supplemental question used by the University of Southern California recently was, “What’s the greatest invention of all time?”

The answer “computer” or “internet” — or something else obvious — is going to be used by hundreds, if not thousands, of applicants.

Cohen tells students to take every opportunity to tell their personal story.

“A student I was working with loved photography, so he wrote about the daguerreotype, and another student from Southern India wrote about air conditioning,” she said.

Another example where students can fall into a trap is the most commonly asked supplemental “why this school” question.

Even if the question must be answered in just 100 words, use details.

“Write about specific courses you may be interested in taking, about professors, about research opportunities, about the community,” Cohen said, warning against the general “the campus is beautiful, and I love the academic rigor” type of generalities that could be cut and pasted into any application.

At Tufts University in Medford, the supplemental questions are added “to personalize the Common Application and, in our case, showcase a student’s personality more clearly,” according to Lee A. Coffin, dean of admissions and enrollment management.

The questions are written each year by the admissions staff, according to Coffin.

This year’s questions instruct students to “think outside the box: take a risk and go somewhere unexpected. Be serious if the moment calls for it but feel comfortable being playful if that suits you, too.”

In addition to “Why Tufts,” the application also asks students to explore their background by writing about a Quaker saying, “Let your life speak.” Students are then asked to answer one more question from a list of six that range from, “Celebrate the role of sports in your life” to a Nelson Mandela quote followed by the question “Describe a way in which you have made or hope to make a difference.”

Tufts includes examples of what its admissions office considers “past essays that mattered” on it’s website at

Whether students are writing the Common Application essay, or specific supplemental essays for particular schools, there are a few things that always matter, according to Nesbitt.

Grammar counts, he said.

And, he said, tell your own story, don’t try and guess what the admissions department might want to read.

“It doesn’t have to be about any earth-shaking event,” he said. “Tell a story that lets us know what’s important to you.”

Nesbitt suggests students should edit their essays out loud.

“It should sound like you, it should be in your own voice,” he said.

And reading words out loud lets you hear if there are redundancies, or words that you would never actually say, but wrote to try and sound impressive.

Nesbitt, a Williams graduate who has been in college admissions for 31 years, echoed what many other people who make admissions decisions have said.

Essays are important, but they are just one part of the overall picture that is being evaluated.

“Honestly, sometimes students can over-think it,” he said.


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