Don’t Let the Supplementals Make You MENTAL

Supplemental questions are a major tripping point for most college applicants. They’re also weeding questions, designed intentionally to trip you up, get rid of you. One is 500 words. The next is 500 characters. Even seemingly innocent questions like “Why do you want to come to our school?” require thought, and the “right answer,” which we have here.

High school students, by and large, don’t read the questions fully, or read the questions too literally, and/or apply overly earnest “You really need me” or, “School X is an amazing school because…!”

A 101 of going to college: Can you understand the nuance of a question, and follow the instructions properly. Nothing wounds an application worse than failing to read the prompt.

Most students’ answers get them weeded out of the “maybe” pile.

A couple of the most common mistakes 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 prompt slowly, carefully, and a bunch of times. What are they REALLY asking you?

The basic misread:

“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, is that they score the whole answer down. Given the few written questions which they ask of you, that can hurt your overall scoring, and your chances of getting in.

It’s always good to make sure that someone reads over your supplementals, and that you had right answer for the prompt.

Not understanding the tone, or style requested:

A recent Tufts prompt: “What excites you about Tufts’ intellectually playful community?”

What is the key here?

“What excites you about Tufts’ intellectually playful community?”

What are they looking for?  A page on their website’s education department, that discusses programs for students to engage in child-like games to help offset the stressers of college: Capture the Flag; board games; changes to routines in dorm life.

If you write generically, or earnestly, about how you would be “intellectually playful” at Tufts, as most did, you bricked this question.

How do you get it right? Research their website. Look at the classes. The campus life. Find out what is “intellectually playful” about Tufts. Be equally playful, clever, in your answer.

Failing to read instructions fully:

“Media influences the way that we see the world. Give us a list of films that you think have changed the way that you see the world. 150 words or less.”

You write:

“Good Morning, Vietnam” was one of the most influential films for me because it showed how comedy which I want to do can help people be happy even in terrible places like a war zone.

The prompt asked you for a LIST. Did they ask for a description, or a comment? NO.  So, the correct answer is: 

“Good Morning, Vietnam”
“Little Miss Sunshine”
“Mr. Smith Goes to Washington”
“Citizen Kane”

Blow the prompt, and you lose a chunk of a review, or get scored down by automatic systems that don’t read, but just evaluate if you answered prompt correctly.

The Research Hint

When they ask “Why [School Name Here], this is your BIG CONTEXT CLUE: Research the school. Know the faculty, and the professors. Include courses, and research, that interest you. Use them as a means of talking about what you are passionate about.

Write generically? Don’t mention specifics about the school? That’s a fail on this kind of question.


“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. Pronouns like “you” and “your” or alternative phrasings to avoid using the school name until the reader’s head explodes would be a good idea.


Quit 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.


“No other school offers the kind of biology program that Yale does,.”

They know this isn’t true. You know this isn’t true. If you want them to like you, go on their website, and read the core requirements for your major area of study. Understand how they set up how you’re going to learn. Does that work for you? Good, say that you like it. Don’t assume, because you’ve only read one or two, that it makes the other 3000+ schools’ curriculum inferior. They know better.


“Harvard is my dream school,”

You want to scream out like you were at your favorite band’s concert: “I LOVE YOU, ___________!!!!!”  Harvard knows that they’re a rock-star school. AVOID, AVOID, AVOID.


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.


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.


Unless they are doing something horribly wrong, most schools turn out people who succeed. Some become famous.

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.”


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 were going to Los Angeles and Seattle so we traveled there by car up the coast.” – 17 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. Brevity rocks.


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/Course Catalog – Know what’s offered that interests you;
  • Core Requirements – The classes that you need to take to graduate and, where they tell you, the books being taught in the courses.
  • Faculty in Your Department – If you’ve been reading articles in Scientific American about Black Holes, and the woman who wrote it teaches there, wouldn’t it be cool to study with her?

Make notes on all of the above.

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?

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?


Harvard asked a question: “Tell us something outside-of-the-box.” An accepted student answered with two words:

“Go Yale!”


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.
  • Find something very local that needs doing, and point out that the micro-issue is just as important as the global one.


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 in the supplemental answers.

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.

Try to pick things that relate back to your college objectives. If you want to be an engineer, then it might be good to talk about something that you did to help foster your passion for engineering. A good job that taught you a value lesson about life also works well.


This trips up many, many students. Don’t talk about their football program, the cool dorms, or the cafeteria offering some special Thursday dinner.

Use the Deep Dive research to synthesize an answer from your research that makes you look like you know why you’re going to college there.

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.


Many schools ask you to:

  • List the books that you’ve read over the summer
    LIST THE BOOKS. Don’t write summaries for each unless they ask);
  • Write one sentence about a book that you’ve read over the summer
    “War and Peace” – One sentence description ;
  • Write 200-300 characters about a book;
    Not words. Reading the prompt.
  • 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.


Have a well-known parent in the field? Know some alumnus or alumna who went to the school? In the personal essay, name-dropping is a huge no-no. In the supplementals, it’s fair game BUT:

  • DO IT ONCE – Pick the best spot to work it in. Repeating it looks bad, like it’s the thing that you’re counting on for the admissions readers to like you.
  • Keep it short – Do not go on and on about your history with the person.

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.


Can “tweak” an answer that you’ve been using for other schools? Sure. DO NOT re-use your main essay in any of the supplementals.  You can refer to it, expand upon it, but do not take anything, word-for-word, or too similar, and stick it into your supplemental question.  It looks intellectually lazy, like you’re phoning it in. If you do that, you are.

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