Supplemental questions are a major tripping point for most college applicants. High school students, by and large, read the questions too literally, and/or apply their “You really need me” or, “This is an amazing school!” strokes that are absolutely the kiss of death to a reader.
A couple of the most common illustrate what you need to do if you want to stand out. We provide both the stock “wrong” and some really good “right” answers. Please do not copy the “right” answers. They are taken from past students who have done them well. They are just examples. Use your own voice. Plagiarism is not a good way to start with schools, many of which ask you to sign an honor-code pledge.
READ THE PROMPTS
A 101 of going to college: Can you read a question and respond to it properly. Nothing wounds an application worse than failing to read the prompt.
A sample prompt:
“With all of the information that comes to you over the Internet, what social media influences your view of the world most? Tell us how that has changed your point of view, or caused you to take action in your life as a reaction to it?”
If you then talk about how friends almost lost their home in Hurricane Irma, and how you helped them save their car from being pinned under a tree, it’s a great story, but it isn’t responding to the prompt.
When that happens, at a school where they read everything in depth, the whole answer is scored down. Given the few written questions which they ask you, that can hurt your overall scoring, and your chances of getting in.
Always good to make sure someone reads the supplementals and makes sure that you gave them the right answer to the prompt.
Also, that is not to say that you cannot “tweak” an answer that you’ve been using. If you said that you read a lot of stories on Reddit about how to help others in emergency situations, that can be good enough. Show how you took the information and migrated to prepare for worst-case situations to be a good samaritan, then, as long as the essay conforms to the basics of the question, it can go off in other directions.
DON’T REPEAT THE NAME OF THE SCHOOL OVER & OVER
“Carnegie-Mellon is the school that offers me the most opportunity because Carnegie-Mellon has the business major area that I want where other schools that aren’t Carnegie-Mellon do not.”
They know the name of their school. You maybe mention it once or twice, if that.
AVOID SHINY SUPERLATIVES, HYPERBOLES & WILDLY FALSE CLAIMS
Don’t go there. They want to know that you’ve done your homework. If they ask you about the CURRICULUM, you better go in and look at the curriculum. If they ask you what you get out of the school, being a famous alumni may be the truth, some day, but it isn’t what they want to hear.
“Harvard is my dream school,” and “I want to go to Michigan because you have graduated so many prestigious people in our field…” are, simply, kissing-up to the schools. They get a lot of that in the supplementals. It doesn’t sell them on you. They already know that they’re wonderful. They need to know why YOU are.
THE PURPLE RAIN OF PROSE
Hyperboles (Hy-per-bol-ees), exaggerated, overstated claims, also work against you.
WRONG: “I love school spirit and only [School X] has figured out how to have school spirit on a campus this big.”
RIGHT: “I walked around campus, after my tour, and talked to people, had lunch in Mann Commons, and watched the pep rally for the football team. I saw family, belonging, and people whom I could get along with.
THE FAKE STATEMENT
When they ask you to tell them what makes their school unique, research helps. When you talk about a professor’s work, or generic things about courses without name dropping a course, it works much better.
WRONG: “What distinguishes [School Y] is that they have the only Biology program worth attending.”
RIGHT: “The Schwimmer School, which advances state-of-the-art atomic biological science, was the first separate school for biological research at the atomic level, and has educators who have been at the cutting edge, which is where I would also like to study and, someday, work.
WRONG: “Everyone knows that [School Z] is where the experts on TV always come from to talk about earthquakes. If you don’t come from your school, then you really have no future.”
RIGHT: “I was impressed to read, in U.S. News, that [School Z] graduates more people who get terminal degrees in Geology with an emphasis in earthquake studies, than any other school in the nation. I want to be able to save people by modeling and predicting quakes, so you give me the best opportunity to work with faculty making breakthroughs in the science.
WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL US WHO YOU WERE WHEN YOU APPLIED?
Unless they are doing something horribly wrong, most schools turn out people who succeed. Telling them that you want to attend because someone is now famous reminds us of the story of the Dean of the Cinema School at USC asking Steven Spielberg: “Why did you never come to USC?” To which the legendary director replied: “I tried. Seven times. You wouldn’t let me in.” Spielberg went to Cal State Long Beach. “Why didn’t you tell us who you were when you applied?” Try to avoid naming off famous alumni. Instead, focus on how the school might help someone get the training to be able to succeed.
WRONG: “I want to go to Yale Drama because Meryl Streep went there.”
WRONG: “NYU Film has turned out ridiculously important people, and I plan on being the next one,.”
RIGHT: “NYU’s alumni in film are legendary, but they didn’t get that way simply by walking through the door to the school. Their hard work, focus, discipline are how they leveraged the program to their advantage, and that is the commitment that I know I have to make if I want to be a part of the department and, ultimately, the alumni family.”
MAKE THE WORDS COUNT
You can pad out 50 or 100 word short answers with a lot of “waste” words. The students who excel at using the space to come up with interesting ideas, use language well, and explain themselves clearly, win. Often there are synonyms of words that convey meaning better:
First Try: “We went to Los Angeles and Seattle by car up the coast.” – 12 words
Second Pass: “We traveled by car from Los Angeles to Seattle” – 9 words
Neither are wrong. It’s just a matter of being economical with the space that you have to write your essay. If the max is 250, 300, 500 words, you don’t have to hit the top count. If your answer is tight anywhere over about half or two-thirds of the word count, and has substance, says what it needs to say, then you are probably good. Wordiness is not your friend.
RESEARCH & MAKE NOTES
We told you, in both Want to Know Where to Go To School? Follow the Professors and Researching Schools: How to Research the Professors – Part II how to look at the faculty. That’s the key to these questions: KNOW YOUR DEPARTMENT, KNOW THE EDUCATION BEING OFFERED.
In addition to looking at the professors, look over the curriculum, and, where they tell you, the books being taught in the courses. Please don’t recite the course list back at the readers, but know the KINDS of courses that are offered. How does that impact what you will learn at Harvard vs. Yale? It does. If you can’t answer that question, why would you go there?
Make notes. Now, after reading that, that shortcut-loving side of your brain just probably whispered in your ear: “Hell no, I’m not doing that!” That’s a choice, to be sure, but since this is pretty much about the biggest life decision that you’ve made, and one of your Top 10 all-time life choices, do you really want to not be thorough?
THE “WHAT PROBLEM IN THE WORLD NEEDS SOLVING?” QUESTION
A lot of high school students aren’t up on current events, global politics, etc. There are two approaches to this. Study contemporary social and political issues, and find one to write about. Some issues, like global warming, know your audience. A win at a more liberal school may be a more taboo topic at more conservative schools and religious-based schools. Their website can give you clues as to how they are teaching students about public policy and world issues.
THE “WHAT DID YOU DO WITH YOUR SUMMER” QUESTION
On this one, if you attended a good summer program that is focal to what you intend to do as a major, or it showcases a talent, feel free to talk about it. Unlike the essay, where they’re trying to find out more about you as a person, here, in this kind of short answer, you have the ability to flesh out a key detail about something that you’ve done that might need either explanation or just enthusiastic amplification.
If you had a job, then talk about the job. What did you take away from it? It can be as basic as you enjoyed being a lifeguard to understanding that you never want to scoop ice cream again in your life.
Whatever you pick, how does it relate back to the choices that you are making relative to your school, and your future?
THE ‘WHY DO YOU WANT TO ATTEND OUR SCHOOL’ QUESTION?
This trips up many, many students. You are used to answering questions like this from high school teachers with what we like to call “Big Mac” answers. Full of words that occupy space, but say precious little. Junk food responses.
When the school asks the generic “What does [SCHOOL X] mean for your education? Or “What do you think you will get out of your time at [SCHOOL Z]? go big, don’t kiss their… feet, and don’t tell them what you think that they want to hear.
Look at what they teach in the major that you’ve chosen. If you’re undecided, what about the way that they structure their programs for undecideds will help you decide? Use your research of the faculty, and of the department where you want to major, to write about the strengths of the school for you.
Some samples of how it’s done wrong and how it’s done right:
“I think that going to a school that allows me to become a smarter person and a better actor. SCHOOL Z has turned out so many famous alumni, and offers courses like Introduction to the Theatre and Acting Method 101 which will be very necessary if I am to sing on Broadway. I am all about learning. I love it. Which is why learning at your school looks to be a great thing for me.” – Never cite specific courses. Talk about their content? Sure. Also, they know that they graduate people who’ve become famous. You wanting to be one is not a winning answer, because the famous people didn’t come in there to be famous. They worked hard to get that way.
“When I visited your school and heard the orchestra play, I knew that I had to be a part of that.” – While possibly true, it’s generic, and they hear it a lot. Where is your thumbprint in this answer? Nowhere.
“A school like [SCHOOL X] will make me smarter and much more talented. So many friends have gone there and said that they liked it.” – This was an answer from one of our students on a first draft. Not only does it violate the The Top 10 Reasons Not to Choose a College, but, again, it’s a superficial answer. Superficial does not get you into anything other than schools with such a volume of applications that they sample stuff like this. You need people fighting for you on the “maybe” pile? Be strong in all of your answers!
“I know that the education that I will receive at [BRAND J] will make me a stronger student and help me to achieve my goals.” – Generic, canned lines used hundreds of times, thousands of times, are clichés. Are you a cliché? No. This is your calling card.
Here are some better ones that we’ve plucked from past years:
“Colleges and universities are very much the people who educate you. The faculty in the Theater Department offers coursework that I feel will help me grow in my craft. The school overall will help me grow as a person. Professor Jones’ courses on the history of theater seem like they will give me a strong overview of the shoulders that I’m standing on as a future performer. Professor Sobieski teaches actors to prepare using Stanislavski’s method as a basis. That’s the method that I’ve been using in high school, so I look forward to working with a demanding educator who sets a high bar using it.” – Without rattling off course names, they’ve picked a couple of courses that suggest this is thinking actor who knows where they have come from, and what the school can do to advance their education.
“Being part of a broader liberal arts school is also an appeal of [SCHOOL X]. I don’t think a writer, without a knowledge of the world, can portray characters or the reality of life in a literary work well without it. The literature curriculum offered not only covers classics, but you offer courses that dive deep into African-American writers like Langston Hughes, Octavia Butler, and Alice Walker. Courses in the history of Ireland offer me the opportunity to examine their struggles for social justice, which I think may be an interesting parallel with the history of minority peoples in America.” – When we read these, we have a big overview of who you are in a very clinical sense. The essay tells us who you are as a person. Here, though, we get to see the kind of scholar that you want to be at our institution. Again, we see a thinking student who is trying to synthesize ideas into something that may become their own vision of the world. That is something that the admissions committee can have a very good debate about. It distinguishes you from your peers.
THE SUMMER BOOK/FAVORITE BOOK OF HIGH SCHOOL/BOOK YOU’VE READ QUESTION
Many schools ask you to:
- List the books that you’ve read over the summer;
- Write one sentence about a book that you’ve read over the summer;
- Write 200-300 characters about a book;
- Write 500 words about a book;
Why are they asking? They want to see how you use your summers educationally, true, but they’re more interested in what you’ve read and, most importantly, what you think about it.
“Huckleberry Finn is a book that I read about a young boy’s journey.” – You didn’t read the book or don’t care.
“I really liked the character development, setting and motifs of Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice. It made me feel like I lived in that time.” – High school “non-answer” answers might get you through barn-sized school admissions, where many read minimally, but it looks lightweight and gets marked down at good schools.
Personalize your answer and show you are thinking about the material. HAVE YOUR OWN TAKE THAT’S LEGIT. They want thinkers who consider the world outside of the box at schools of higher learning:
“I enjoyed Huckleberry Finn because Huck’s journey into manhood, down the river, hasn’t become dated, sucked into the eddies of literary history, but, instead, seems to still satirize the racism, power, and privilege that Twain understood, like the river, is what really divides America, and does to this day. – This was a great take, in one sentence, which is rich, visual, and firm in the writer’s point of view. ”
“Everyone sees Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice as some serious, dramatic work, but, to me, it’s a comedy, a parody, because Austin clearly understood that the only form of protest against a British society drowning in its own patriarchal cultural institutions, for a woman, as a writer, was subtle satire. Written the year before Charles Dickens was born, it set a tone that Dickens would amplify, to greater fame and fortune because he was a male, two decades later.” – We remember reading this student’s short answer and being totally wowed. She put together a historical perspective on Austin, who does actually precede Dickens, in a way that no one who read it had really considered before. That gets you gushing praise, particularly at schools that are now desperately seeking students who THINK OUTSIDE OF THE BOX.
We will post up more answers, but you can see the drill: You want to showcase yourself as a thinking person, not provide them generic, stock answers to these questions.