How to Tackle All Those "Supplemental" Essays for College Applications

The same three R’s that conserve material resources are your best bet for conserving your most important resources: time and energy.

If you follow these steps to reduce, reuse, and recycle your ideas, you’ll finish your college applications with less stress. And that means more focus and better writing.  


When you first make your list of schools to apply to, it might be long. That’s great from the point of view of having options. You want to have some reach schools, some schools you have a good shot of getting into and are excited about, and some “safety” schools, whose admission requirements you have in the bag.

That list looks encouraging as you do research and imagine yourself in so many different possible futures. As you work on one single personal statement for the Common App, you might feel like you are a super smarty- pants for applying to so many great schools with one amazing essay.

But then you look at all the supplemental essay topics.

All of a sudden, you realize those 10 schools you want to apply to require a total of 15 different written responses in addition to the personal statement you already spent so much time and energy on.

Applying to that many schools is going to take a real bite out of your time and energy. Your school work will suffer, not to mention that thing you used to do sometimes…What was it called again? Oh yeah: sleep. It’s time to reduce the number of schools on your “must apply to” list so that you don’t make yourself crazy.

Start cutting your list based on the supplemental questions.

Look at how much a school wants from you weighed against how much you want to attend/think it’s a viable option.

When you see how much time and energy is required to apply to that school that you put on your list with a “and sure, why not?” attitude, you might just change your mind.

Don’t toss schools simply on the basis of their requiring a lot of supplemental writing. It’s definitely worthwhile to spend time and effort on your “I really hope I get in here” schools, and on at least one “I know I could totally get in here” school.

But if you were feeling only “meh” about a school to begin with, a long, involved application is the perfect reason to drop it.


Even after you cut your list of schools, you will still be looking at some significant writing by the time you count up the personal statement, the “Why Us?” topic, the "Tell us about your chosen major" topic, and that perennial favorite, "How will your background add to the diversity of our school?".

That’s where reusing is your best friend! Use the writing for one school for others that ask the same or similar questions.

If you’re applying to schools using the Common App, or if you’re applying to the UC system, you’re already reusing the biggest, most important part of your application, the personal statement, for several campuses.

But you can take reusing a lot further. For example, your activities, the books you’ve read and enjoyed, or how you first became interested in your intended major won’t change from school to school. You can write your response once and then reuse it for multiple schools, just making sure that you’re abiding by the word count in each case.


But what about supplemental questions that are more specific? You won’t be able to reuse the same answers exactly. Especially when schools ask why you have chosen them in particular. That’s when it’s time to recycle.

Recycling means cutting up materials and reallocating their parts to other places. Recycling works best after you have already written your personal statement (or statements if you’re applying to both private schools and state universities).

Gather all your thoughts in one place.

Copy and paste all of the supplemental questions you have to answer into one document. Then, begin taking notes on which “resources” you can use for each one.

For example, if you have to write about how you first became interested in your intended major for schools A, B, D, and F, you might jot down, “Use anecdote from Common App essay about first costume design experience at camp.” Then copy that underneath each of those prompts.

Mix and match. 

For some prompts, you’ll be able to build a response from some recycled parts and some new parts.

It’s really important to address the “Why Us?” questions with specific information about each school. Don’t skimp here! Make each school feel loved by talking about exactly why you want to go there.

(Here’s another good time to do a reality check: If you can’t find a compelling reason why you want to go to a school and it’s not your fall-back, super safety school, why are you spending time and money filling out an application?!)

But you can combine that specialized paragraph with some general statements you create to work for all these “Why Us?” prompts—something about your academic goals and career aspirations.  

You can also recycle from your personal statement, as long as it’s not the one the school in question will read. For example, you can grab the paragraph from your UC personal insight statement about how you first became interested in cancer research and combine it with why you are excited about the cutting-edge research labs at Stanford.

The same idea applies for those longer prompts—the ones that ask a hypothetical question or want you to write a meditation in around 500 words. Just like the “Why Us?” topics, these need individual attention. But you should feel free to reuse and recycle ideas from your responses to other schools, as long as they fit.

Budget Your Time

Make sure to take notes on the page where you dumped all your supplemental topics first, before you jump in and start writing. This will ensure that you know how much you have to write—and its purpose—before you get lost in all the details.

A good rule of thumb is to divide up your time based on how much mileage you’re going to get out of each answer and where it’s going:

Spend more time and care on the responses that you’ll be reusing for many schools, and on those going to your top choices.

Any way you slice it, your applications will require a lot of writing.

But when you reduce, reuse, and recycle, you’ll make sure that your energy is being used efficiently and to the greatest effect. This means that you’ll have more energy for writing a handful of thoughtful responses, rather than a whole mess of rushed ones.

Get Support

Even though the term "supplemental" may make these essays sound like they're no big deal, they are. They're important and they're also a significant amount of work.

Getting help planning these essays and, just as importantly, setting writing deadlines for yourself, makes a huge difference to your application. With Complete Essay Coaching, you get my full support for reducing, reusing, and recycling your writing so that you make the most efficient and effective use of your time.

A writing coach in your corner is an expert who...

  • already knows your story
  • understands your voice and your writing style
  • knows your background and can suggest alternative topics to write about
  • will show you templates and shortcuts for related essays
  • has a global perspective about which sides of your personality you've shared

I'm dedicated to helping bright students tell their stories. I'd love to help you impress your top-choice colleges with great writing, while also managing your time well and reducing stress. LEARN MORE about one-on-one coaching with me.