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  • Writer's pictureAmba Brown

How to Brainstorm for Supplemental College Essays

Many students feel intimidated when faced with a college admissions essay. In just a few paragraphs, students need to convince the admissions board that they are the right fit for the school.

But the admissions essays are a valuable opportunity to personalize your application. Students can tell their story, weaving in personal details and experiences that might not be fully illustrated through grade point average, extracurricular activities, and other statistics on the application.

This opportunity to humanize your application includes the supplemental college essay.

What is the supplemental essay?

Many colleges in the United States and Canada use the Common App, a portal where applicants can upload their documents and respond to essay prompts. There are standard essay prompts that all students complete, which are specific to the year in which they apply. This information is then sent to schools designated by the applicant.

Some schools require additional essays, which are called supplemental essays. The prompts vary by school, often giving applicants insight into what the school values. A supplemental essay prompt asking about your research experience is a good indication that the college is focused on research. One that asks you to tell a story about your interpersonal skills likely values a sense of community among students and faculty.

Some colleges allow applicants to choose between multiple prompts. Supplemental essays should be taken seriously, as the prompts are carefully considered and chosen by the admissions committee to include in the application.

Brainstorming and pre-writing are valuable methods to make sure you put your best foot forward in your supplemental essay.

What should I write about?

The direction that your essay takes will depend on the prompt. But most provide the chance to elaborate on your past accomplishments or future goals. Here are some brainstorming ideas to help you start thinking about your story.

  • Make a list of your interests. What have you done to develop those skills? Are you in any clubs or organizations? Have you persevered through a challenge to learn that skill?

  • Make a list of your goals after college. What industry do you want to work in? What legacy do you want to leave?

  • One-word description. How would you describe yourself in one word? Think of an experience or goal that demonstrates how you either live that trait or plan to make it a part of your life.

  • What makes you unique? Every applicant wants to stand out and the essay portion of the application is the perfect place to do that. Write down a list of things you have accomplished, interests you have pursued, or experiences you have had that are special and unique.

  • Have an “interview. Some students find it easier to talk about their ideas than write them down. What would you tell an admissions board if you could sit down with them over lunch? Talk through your ideas with a friend, family member, or even a recorder. Later, listen to your responses and pick out what truly resonates with you.

The most important thing is to be authentic in all of your writing on your college admissions essays. Schools want to know who you are as a person, not just a list of credentials.

“Write essays that reflect who you are and write in a natural style,” recommends Stanford University, a highly selective school in Stanford, California. Brainstorming should focus on identifying what makes you unique and how you want to share that with an admissions board.


Once you have a list of ideas, it’s time to start pre-writing. College admissions essays are usually around 500-600 words, with some being much shorter. It’s important to communicate a lot of insight into a short space, so organization is critical.

  • An outline can help structure your essay. For a longer essay, you can include a short introduction and conclusion, as well as 2-3 key points. For short essays, you should get right to the point of answering the prompt.

  • Spend time on your opening hook. It is the first thing that the admissions board will read and can set the tone for the entire essay.

  • Write your main takeaway sentence. Whether your essay is 100 words or 600 words, you should be able to summarize your most important point in one sentence. If you can’t figure out what that is, chances are an admissions board won’t be able to either. Start by writing this main statement, then make sure that all of your other points support it.

The supplemental college essay is a great place to bring more of yourself and your personality to your college application. Because the supplemental essays are specific to each school, they are a reliable indication of what the school considers most important when selecting new students. Brainstorming and pre-writing can help you prepare to let your best self shine in your application.

Written by JASON PATEL, Former Career Ambassador at the George Washington University and Founder, Transizion.


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