Common Supplemental Essay Mistakes

If a College Requires a Supplemental Essay, Avoid These Common Errors

young woman trying to write.
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Supplemental essays for college applications can take all kinds of forms, and many of the country's top schools require applicants to write more than one supplemental essay. That said, the majority of schools will ask a very similar question: "Why do you want to go to our college?"

The question sounds simple, but college admissions officers see the five mistakes below all too frequently. As you write your supplemental essay for your college applications, be sure to steer clear of these common blunders. You obviously want to make sure your supplemental essay strengthens rather than weakens your college application.

01
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The Essay Is Generic and Lacking Detail

If a college asks you why you want to attend, be specific. Far too many supplemental essays resemble this sample essay for Duke University—the essay says nothing specific about the school in question. Whatever school you are applying to, make sure your essay addresses the particular features of that school that appeal to you.

Try this test: if you can do a global replace of one school's name for another school's name and your essay still makes sense, your essay is far too generic. You need to do your research and have clear and specific reasons why you are attracted to the college asking you the question. 

Another perk to writing an essay that is school-specific is that you'll be helping to demonstrate your interest in that school. At many colleges and universities, demonstrated interest is one of the factors used by the admissions officers to make a decision to admit or reject.

02
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The Essay Is Too Long

Many prompts for the supplemental essay ask you to write a single paragraph or two. Don't go beyond the stated limit. Also, realize that a tight and engaging single paragraph is better than two mediocre paragraphs. The admissions officers have thousands of applications to read, and they will appreciate brevity.

That said, if a college gives you 700 words for a supplemental essay, don't submit something that is 150 words long. With the longer length limit, the college has indicated that it wants to see a fairly substantial supplemental essay.

03
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The Essay Doesn't Answer the Question

If the essay prompt asks you to explain why the college is a good match for your professional interests, don't write an essay about how your friends and brother go to the school. If the prompt asks you how you hope to grow while in college, don't write an essay about how much you want to earn a bachelor's degree. Read the prompt multiple times before writing, and read it again carefully after you've written your essay.

Finally, and this connects back to item #1 in this list, if a college asks you why you want to attend that school, don't write an essay that is about all liberal arts colleges or large Division I schools. 

04
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You Sound Like a Privileged Snob

Be careful to avoid statements like this: "I want to go to Ivy University because my father and brother both attended Ivy University..." A better reason to attend a college is because the curriculum matches your academic and professional goals, or the school's approach to learning is a good match for your interests and learning style.

Essays that focus on legacy status or connections with influential people often fail to answer the question well, and they are likely to create a negative impression. You have an opportunity to identify your legacy status elsewhere on the application, so don't use the supplemental essay to tout your family connections.

05
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You Sound Too Materialistic

The admissions counselors see a lot of essays that are honest to a fault. Sure, most of us go to college because we want to get a degree and earn a good salary. Don't over-emphasize this point in your essay. If your essay states you want to go to a top business program because their majors earn more money than those from other colleges, you won't impress anyone. You'll sound self-interested and materialistic.

Similarly, if you state that you want to go to the Colorado School of Mines because it has the highest starting incomes for graduates in the country, you will have missed the mark. Instead, explain why you are passionate about the school's specific academic programs.