Secrets for Answering the Supplemental Questions on College Applications

LYNN F. JACOBS is a professor of Art History at the University of Arkansas.

JEREMY S. HYMAN is founder and chief architect of Professors’ Guide content products, ( and lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Arkansas.

JEFFREY DURSO-FINLEY has been director of college counseling at the Lawrenceville School, in Lawrenceville, NJ, for the last ten years.

JONAH T. HYMAN is a senior at Haas Hall Academy in Fayetteville, Arkansas and is currently in the throes of the college picking—and, hopefully, getting in—process.

As college application deadlines loom over students everywhere, this excerpt from The Secrets of Picking a College (and Getting In!) offers five tips for answering the supplemental questions on college applications. The book provides over 600 tips, techniques, and strategies to help students navigate through the college admissions process–everything from considering a college to making the choice once you’ve been accepted.

Thought you were out of the water? You’ve finished the dreaded personal essay and got your lists of activities neatly laid out. But wait, for many colleges there are the supplemental questions—sometimes shorter and sometimes longer questions that colleges ask to find out a little more about you as a person and how you think about things (including their college). Want the scoop about what colleges are looking for in these additional questions—and what answers will increase your chances of getting in? Read on.

1. Take it seriously. Put as much time into the supplements as you do to your main college essay—if not more. While in some cases the questions might seem throwaways, in truth the questions are college specific and the colleges can craft exactly the questions they want to see answered. Each college has made the choice of what’s most important for them to see in you, and how you answer their questions might make the difference in whether they accept you or not in the end.

BEST-KEPT SECRET. Many times admissions officers pay more attention to the supplemental questions than to the Common App essay. Why? Because they assume the main essay has been edited, proofread, revised, reviewed by teachers, parents, and sometimes even coaches. Supplemental questions, on the other hand, are oftentimes more off-the-cuff and reactive, thus providing a better representation of the student’s own thoughts and perspective.

2. Tailor your essay to each school you’re applying to. The essay on the Common App is a one-size-fits-all piece of writing. But the supplemental questions can be quite specific to each school you are applying, asking not only for a little more detail on who you are (what books do you like, what your greatest accomplishment was, what one thing you’d like them to know about you) but also for more information on why you’re applying to their school and how you would fit in there were you accepted (what programs attracted you, how your activities dovetail with their values, or even how your character lines up with their school mission). And, if that weren’t enough, a few colleges ask you questions so bizarre that you wonder what could even constitute an answer to such a question (more on these later).

Obviously, no single essay is going to be usable for all schools. Take the time to think out a good answer for each of the questions at each of the colleges (do them one at a time) and customize each application to the college it’s going to.

EXTRA POINTER. Especially for questions that explicitly ask you something about the interface or fit between you and the college, take the time to probe their website (especially the admissions page and the mission of the college page) to tease out hints of what they might be looking for. Often finding a very specific feature about the college in question—and adapting or particularizing it to your exact case—can make your application stand out (for instance, block learning, service to the community, global study, open curriculum—as they apply to you).
RULE OF THUMB. If your essay reads like you could easily substitute one college name for another, you’ve missed the mark. College supplements are not Mad Libs where you simply write in ____________ [college name] or _____________[major] in the space provided.

3. Mirror their values. Sometimes you’ll find that a college is asking you about your personal value structure and what you might do with it at their college. For example, one college lays out five pillars of their college (social responsibility, intercultural understanding, interdisciplinary learning, student engagement, and environmental sustainability), then asks “Incorporating one or more of our core values, how would you contribute to solving a local or global issue of importance to you?” Another college states, “Emblazoned on our University Seal is a flaming heart which symbolizes St. Augustine’s passionate search to know God and love others,” then goes on to ask, “What sets your heart on fire?” In answering this sort of value-laden question it’s important to incorporate their values into your answer and, just as important, to show how what you do or who you are lines expresses these values.

REALITY CHECK. If you don’t believe in at least one of the school’s five pillars or you don’t have a passionate heart about anything, you’re probably not going to come up with a good essay. And if the values expressed leave you completely cold, then maybe this college isn’t a good fit for you. Pass it by and try another.

4. Choose carefully. Some of the shorter answer questions might ask you to select from among the following sorts of questions: What is your favorite book, or movie, or website? If you could invite one person to dinner, living or dead, who would it be? What intellectual experience has meant the most to you?” Here you should give very careful thought to which individual question you pick and which individual item you choose to talk about. What you pick can often reveal as much about you as what you say.

5-STAR TIP. It’s often good to pick either something more unusual—something that the person ahead of you in the stack would not have picked—or something about which you have something unusual to say. For example, think twice about picking To Kill a Mockingbird as you favorite book; The Perks of Being a Wallflower as your favorite film; or as your favorite website.
EPIC FAIL! Be careful about choosing controversial religious or social material as your subject matter. At many colleges, a broad variety of individuals might be reading your application, with different religious, political, and social leanings—and you wouldn’t want to offend someone who might be the ultimate decider. (On the other hand, if you can demonstrate sensitivity, tolerance, or open-mindedness to some hot-button issue—well, who wouldn’t like that in a future student?)
EXTRA POINTER. When making your selection(s) of what to talk about, keep in mind that the admissions officer is performing a thought experiment: what would you be like as a college student next year. Avoid subjects that are too teen-age-ish, high-school-ish, trite, clichéd, immature, sophomoric, or just plain stupid.
REALITY CHECK. This isn’t the time for humor. You: “Favorite book, Captain Underpants.” Admissions Officer (to him- or herself): What courses will he or she take at our college, Boxers 102? Thongs 407?

5. Show yourself. Especially when you’re given a question that tries to get into your psyche, don’t hold back. Challenges, failures, growth experiences, most embarrassing moments, biggest triumphs can all be occasions for incredible self-reflection and revelation to your reader of who you think you are and how you got to be who you are.

Keep in mind that you’re probably never going to meet this admissions officer, so you needn’t be shy, reserved, or tentative. In some cases, this is your best chance to showcase who you are and to provide the admissions officer with something distinctive to remember, come choice time.


9781118974636_front.pdfABOUT THE BOOK: Two award-winning professors, a former admissions officer at a major university (now a counselor at a prestigious high school), and a gifted high school senior (now in the throes of the college admissions process himself) team up to offer you over 600 tips, techniques, and strategies to help you get in to the college of your choice. Comprehensive yet easy-to-read, this book will teach you:

  • How to size up the colleges you’re considering—and come up with a coherent list.
  • What are college nights, college fairs, and college rep visits—and how you can use each to your advantage.
  • How some schools count “demonstrated interest”—and how you can take advantage of this little-known fact.
  • What are Early Decision, Early Action, and Single-Choice Early Action—and whether any is right for you.
  • And much more!
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