Saturday, November 22, 2014

More Essays!? How I Wrote (Then Chose Not to Write) Supplemental Essays



We all know the saying “you have too much on your plate.” Of course, it’s easy to just tell people to drop a few lower-priority commitments and move on so you can dedicate more time to the rest.

With in-state applications and the Common App personal statements to worry about, it’s no wonder supplemental essays have high school seniors feeling overwhelmed; I myself applied to over ten schools and spent weeks on supplemental essays exactly one year ago, and I can tell you the decision to remove a school from your college list isn’t an easy one. While it was very true dropping a school would allow me time to focus on the others, it kind of felt as if I was closing off a possible future path before it could even begin.

After you’ve written enough supplemental essays, you’ll see patterns begin to emerge. I used these patterns to determine whether I would continue applying to the school:

The “Why Us?” Essay

Practically every single college I applied to gave me some variation of the great “Why Us?” (also known as YUS) essay, in which you have to answer why you want to attend that school, why you think you’d be a great fit for it, et cetera. Many students seem to leave this one to the end, but that’ll ultimately come back to bite you once the admissions officer lays eyes on your generic copy-paste formula “Why Us?” essay you used on all of your other schools. Trust me, they’ll see that a mile away and you don’t want to leave that kind of impression.

The “Why Us?” Essay can be phrased in many different ways but ultimately asks for the following things:

  • Why you want to attend that college (usually for a main goal in life that you believe the school can enable you to achieve)

  • Why you are a good match for the school, its programs, and its culture

  • What you can contribute back to the school

Personally, that last one always stumped me. It’s easy to pick a particular thing at the school to fixate upon, but what on earth can I say to persuade a college I will be worth the investment of their education without making empty promises? I made peace with that in the end when I decided my goals in life would have to be good enough. If my dreams were big enough, the quality professors and programs would be worth it for both school and student. Seems a little bigger and scarier now, huh?

Quirky Mind-Bogglers

The University of Chicago is notorious for its creative, eccentric supplemental essay questions; they call them “provocative,” though I’ve heard them described as “ridiculously hard,” “impossible,” and just plain “weird” by my fellow classmates.

One question from this year’s batch that I feel exemplifies the U Chicago supplement is this:

A neon installation by the artist Jeppe Hein in UChicago’s Charles M. Harper Center asks this question for us: “Why are you here and not somewhere else?”

Already, it’s difficult to pinpoint where you should even start breaking down the prompt, which is probably what the admissions committee wants. U Chicago designs and selects its questions to force applicants to think about things from a different, new perspective, and the more individuality, the better. I remember being extremely excited to apply to U Chicago by the time my college applications season rolled around, but one look at the supplemental prompts had my hopes dashed. None of them sparked inspiration in me like I’d hoped, not even after days of brainstorming as time ticked away for my other supplements. So I discarded U Chicago off my school list, sorry I couldn’t dedicate more time to it but knowing I had countless essays to go.

Questions like this appeared in other applications I did as well. One school, for instance, asked me what historical moment I wished I could go back in time to witness. Another wanted to know what I though was the greatest invention known to man. Many schools seem to want to know what you’ve been reading lately, what galleries and shows you’ve attended recently, so refining your media intake won’t hurt.

The Perfect Fit

I’ve mentioned this before in my ED/EA blog, “What I Learned When I Applied Early Action AND Early Decision”, but it wouldn’t hurt to say it again. My EA school was a disastrous, time-sucking choice, and I regret applying.

Fit is, dare I say, the most crucial factor in college applications, and admissions officers are significantly better at determining fit than you. Looking back at all my rejections, I can see now that perhaps I would’ve liked the school, but the culture and fit wouldn’t have matched as well as they do now at my current university, and I really escaped a couple of bullets. That’s especially so with my EA choice, seeing as the students there were extremely spirited (whereas I’ve only been to one football game so far this semester, and no one here minds), and any other list put a different undergraduate business school as #1. That’s a school I should’ve dropped a long time ago, or not even considered, had my ranking-frenzy parents not insisted. But it happens. I got the rejection letter I expected and deserved.

I also didn’t get into my dream school, which I – not my parents – personally believed was the perfect fit at the time. I’ve come to love my school now, and many people have agreed, telling me that they’re surprised how much they like it here. Fit is a hard thing to figure out, and you won’t really know until you go for it and apply.

Do you have supplemental essays to write? What’s the most difficult prompt you’re working on now? Tell us in a comment below.

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