If you’re applying to USC, Stanford, the Claremont Colleges, the Ivies, Pepperdine, or Occidental College, there is a good chance you’ve already come face-to-face with the Common Application.
While some of the 488 Common Application member schools, such as Trinity College (Hartford, CT) and Washington University (St. Louis. MO) have no supplements (you just submit online the main application, which contains one short, about 130 words, and one long, maximum 500 words, essay, along with your activities, awards, and general information) most of the other colleges do have supplements. Many require a number of essays (with the University of Chicago’s essays being particularly challenging).
One type of essay on the supplement that challenges students is the matchmaker essay: a persuasive essay in which you tell the school why you love it, and why it should love you. Yale gives you 500 characters (100 words) to respond to, “What in particular about Yale has influenced your decision to apply?” Swarthmore is more direct, “Why Swarthmore?” and gives you 2,000 characters.
Northwestern University is more elaborate with its matchmaking prompt on its 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?” No word limit is given, but if you go much beyond 600 words, you better have something very interesting to say. The Northwestern admissions department read over 32,000 applications from entering freshmen for the fall of 2012; it appreciates concision. In any case, this essay prompt 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.
An effective response requires you research the school and your possible major requirements and options. Doing this well requires several hours reviewing the school’s website, the curriculum of a department of interest, and understanding the Northwestern school of choice core curriculum. Many students fade at the prospect of doing their due diligence. That’s a shame, because it’s a good idea, regardless of the supplement, to know the school, and what it offers for an annual cost of attendance (COA) of $60,000.
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 support your endowment of both with 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 this supplemental essay question.
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. 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.