Writing the Common Application Supplements

If you’re applying to the Ivies, Stanford, or many other selective schools, there is a good chance you’ve already come face-to-face with the Common Application. Some of the 414 member schools, such as Washington & Lee or Carleton College in Minnesota, have no supplements, in which case you merely submit the main application, with one short and one long essay and, from an essay standpoint, you’re ready to apply.  Some good advice on how to approach the main application essay questions such as, “Evaluate a significant experience,” or, “Indicate a person who has had a significant influence on you…” was given in a previous column which can still be accessed at /imported-20110121194859/2011/2/7/writing-the-college-essay.html. There is, however, another type of essay that challenges students, and it’s usually found in the school’s supplemental application. It’s a matchmaker essay, a persuasive essay where you tell the school why you love it, and it should love you.

Northwestern University, for example, had the following prompt in this year’s supplement: “What are the unique qualities of Northwestern — and of the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying — that make you want to attend the University? In what ways do you hope to take advantage of the qualities you have identified?” It doesn’t overtly ask you what you’re bringing to the party, but it does ask you how you’re planning to take advantage of the school. That’s almost the same question.  Most students, most people for that matter, find this kind of question difficult. It requires that you know a lot about the school and the department in which you’re planning to major. In short, this requires solid research. Done well, it might take several hours reviewing the school’s website, a major’s curriculum, or evaluating a core curriculum in a book, such as Choosing a College.  Many students fade at the prospect of doing the diligence necessary to answer this supplement question well. That’s a shame, because it’s a good idea, whether or not the supplement existed in the first place, to know why you want to attend a school, and what it is you want to get out of the experience, especially if this experience will be costing you around $50,000 a year.

When a school asks you how it will benefit from your presence on campus, it’s not asking for concrete achievements (after all they already have that information in different areas of your application), rather, it’s asking about your intangibles. Stanford, for example, wants to know about your ‘intellectual vitality’. If you define ‘intellectual vitality’ as a combination of intense intellectual curiosity and a solid work ethic, you then need to give specific examples. You might reference taking your AP US Government class and learning the responsibilities of the US Senate. You, however, took this assignment further by writing a detailed essay of the Senate’s evolution during the antebellum period up through the early 1950’s, culminating in the recitation of key portions of Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate: the Years of Lyndon Johnson. Naturally, if you had the foresight to get a recommendation from the teacher of this class, you’ve covered a lot of bases by your response to the supplement.

Do a lot of students successfully execute such an effort? No, because, frankly, it’s a lot of work and requires a lot of thinking. These are things in short supply in even the best of times. If, however, you prove to be the exception to the rule, and learn how to position yourself well with the school, you’ve learned a skill of incalculable value. This is the same effort required to find a job, acquire a residency, or secure a grant. There’s nothing supplemental about building such a skill. It should be much more common.