Common App Supplemental Essay Tips

For each college that you apply to via the Common Application, you’re going to need to create a supplemental essay that answers that school’s specific questions while showcasing your talents and telling your story in a way that demonstrates your unique fit for that particular program.

Please explore the tips below to learn how to compose a Common Application supplemental essay that clearly indicates why your chosen school is perfect for you…and why you are perfect for it as well.

Or access them all at once in Ivy League and Common Application Tips: How to Get Accepted, a free special report that includes all these tips in one instantly downloadable PDF.

Penn Sees Huge Increase in Early Decision Applications

A Daily Pennsylvanian article notes Penn’s new high in early decision applications. This year, 5,133 students applied to Penn early decision, an increase of 6.6% from last year and of 41% since 2008 when only 3,631 applicants applied early decision.

This year, Penn extended its early decision undergraduate application deadline by ten days after applicants experienced technical glitches with the common app’s CA4 platform. The university also extended its deadline last year (due to Hurricane Sandy) and two years ago (also weather-related).

Check out college admissions 101!

(Image from the Daily Pennsylvanian article, “Penn Admissions sees new high in ED applicants”)

The New Common Application is Live!

CA4, the newest version of the Common Application is here!

Common App Live

The easy-to-navigate site was launched at midnight on Aug 1 and had over 1,000 registrants in its first 20 minutes.

Check out the Common Application Essay Prompts and our 2014 Common Application Advice to get started.

Good luck!

2014 Common Application Advice



The newest version of the Common Application ( launches this week, on August 1. Certainly some students and counselors are anxiously waiting for the opportunity to login and look around and begin applications. Many other students have taken the lack of application accessibility as sanctioned procrastination. (“The supplemental essay questions aren’t even available yet!”) The wizards at work on the finishing touches of CA4 assure us that the new version will make applications easier, not just change the essay prompts.

The new essay prompts were released several months ago. In my opinion, the new prompts provide more structure while still allowing an applicant plenty of latitude to construct an essay that is personal and relevant to his or her application. The new Common Application does enforce a strict word limit of no more than 650 words; no longer does an applicant need to worry that her carefully constructed 540 word essay is over the “soft” 500 word limit.

The 2013-2014 Common Application essay prompt choices are here.

The Common Application Facebook page has been adding daily helpful tips, a few of which are particularly critical to applicants in the early stages of this process.

1) Your username is your email address. Easy, right? Yes, but, given the number of contacts a college makes and the number of colleges who are tracking interest indicators, it’s best if this email address is the same one you have been using for your entire college application process. Use the same address you provided to colleges at your high school college fair last year, on the SAT or ACT and on your college visits.

2) When you register, you will be given the opportunity to allow colleges you select as “my colleges” in the Common Application to email you prior to application submission. Again, consistency in your email address will save you from duplicates.

3) You will gain access to the supplements for relevant colleges as soon as you have added them to the “my colleges” section. Consider adding all colleges early in the process so that you can have an overall sense of the writing you need to complete over the coming months.

4) Additional information: the Common Application will still allow for adding additional information. This does not mean that all applicants should have additional information to add. The newest version of the Common Application also allows students to invite additional recommenders beyond the teacher and Counselor that are required. Again, the ability to do so does not mean that you must add these. In fact, many colleges discourage addition recommendations. Check with your colleges or your counselor before adding additional information.

The college application process can be long and sometimes overwhelming. Take it one step at a time and don’t panic!

Whitney Bruce By , who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

What is “Passion” in Admissions?

RunnerYears ago, when I first heard b-school representatives talking about wanting to see passion in applications, I thought to myself, “You’re looking for passion from a bunch of investment bankers and engineers???? That’s a pretty calculating bunch.”

“Passion” has a sexy ring to it. An emotional, visceral appeal. It evokes images of glamorous actors and actresses in hot and heavy romances. The good guy in a Frank Capra film changing history. Generals exhorting the troops before sending them into battle.

Forget the steamy romances. Forget the hero delivering a stirring speech. Forget the generals addressing their troops.

That’s not what we’re talking about in admissions.

“Passion” in admissions — be it college, MBA, law school, medical school, or grad school — means dedication. It means commitment. It requires action over time. It can be very calculated and goal oriented, and not at all glamorous. It may lead to a feverish culmination, an earth-shattering moment, and it may not. It can be any one of the following and an infinite number of other activities:

  • Spending hours practicing the cello day-in and day out, year after year.
  • Assuming responsibility for an annual silent auction that raises thousands of dollars for your favorite cause during the five years that you have chaired it.
  • Training and training and training so that you beat your personal best in the race of your choice.
  • Volunteering at a medical or legal clinic twice a week since your sophomore year in college.

Next time you see the word “passion” in an admissions context, look between the lines. Read “dedication.” And those calculating, number-crunching, spreadsheet addicts among you, remember this equation: Passion = Action + Dedication.

new-call-to-action ~ Helping You Write Your Best

Applying To Too Many Colleges Can Hurt Your Chances

College BookGrace Oberhofer decided to apply to an even dozen colleges. “I wanted to have options,” says the 2011 graduate of Tacoma School of the Arts in Washington. She got them: Though wait-listed by first choice Harvard, she was accepted at Tulane, Oberlin, Brandeis, Duke, Sarah Lawrence, and Tufts, where she is a sophomore this fall. But she was really taken aback by all the time and effort it took to figure out how to present herself to each and write all those essays while “making sure my schoolwork was going well and still trying to hang out with my friends on weekends and not be stuck at my computer all the time.”

Indeed, a recent study by the College Board’s Task Force on Admissions in the 21st Century showed that, not surprisingly, the vast majority of students report that the more colleges they apply to, the more stressful the experience is. Perhaps because of that pressure, overapplying can actually hurt your chances. “It’s tough to put together a personal, genuine application that shows commitment to a particular school when you’re applying to 20 different places,” says Jeff Pilchiek, the director of guidance at Westlake High School in Austin, Texas. “It’s much better to be an exceptional applicant at six schools than an average applicant at 12 or 20.” Westlake students are encouraged to apply to a well-researched, well-tailored list of five to seven “good fit” colleges, including a mix of reach, target, and safety schools.

Judiciousness is best even if you’re using the Common Application, which shouldn’t be viewed as a one-size-fits-all exercise. “The questions tend to be rather generic and often don’t elicit the most creative or helpful responses, but students need to guard against that,” cautions Seth Allen, vice president and dean of admissions and financial aid at Pomona College in California.

Excerpted from “7 Ways to Stand Out” in U.S.News & World Report’s Best Colleges 2013. Available at Copyright © 2012 U.S.News & World Report, L.P. Used by permission of U.S.News & World Report, L.P. All rights reserved. U.S. News allows republication of this excerpt without specific written permission or payment of royalties, provided that the excerpt is republished in its entirety without any modifications and includes this notice. Please contact with any questions.
ivy-league-and-common-application-tips ~ Helping You Write Your Best

2014 Common Application Essay Prompts

Common Application

“Begin thinking…”

Each year, the Common Application makes small changes to its application, which is used by more than 400 colleges and universities.  Most years, the changes are small, but the changes for 2013-2014 are more dramatic, including new essay prompts.

As a counselor, the most important component of the essay is always the opportunity for the applicant to express himself or herself.  In the current (and past versions) of the Common Application, the questions were broad and flexible, including the option to write on the “topic of your choice”.  Despite its flexibility, I found that some of my students struggled to write under a completely open prompt; they had a hard time focusing their messages.

The prompts for 2013-2014 are equally broad.  The instructions encourage applicants to think about their message.  “What do you want readers to know about you?”  With a goal length of approximately 500 words, the application will allow up to 650 words, which provides some latitude for students to tell their stories completely.  Unlike previous common application versions, the new essay will not be an upload; it eliminates the opportunity for italics and underlining, and graphics or formatting.

The new Common Application will be live on August 1, 2013, almost 6 months from now.  I don’t encourage members of the class or 2014 to start writing today, but it doesn’t hurt to begin thinking about how these prompts have been reflected in your life experiences.  It’s helpful to jot down thoughts, experiences, or ideas that might become an essay 6 months from now.

The 2013-2014 Common Application essay prompts are:

  • Some students have a background or story that is so central to their identity that they believe their application would be incomplete without it. If this sounds like you, then please share your story.
  • Recount an incident or time when you experienced failure. How did it affect you, and what lessons did you learn?
  • Reflect on a time when you challenged a belief or idea. What prompted you to act? Would you make the same decision again?
  • Describe a place or environment where you are perfectly content. What do you do or experience there, and why is it meaningful to you?
  • Discuss an accomplishment or event, formal or informal, that marked your transition from childhood to adulthood within your culture, community, or family.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

2013 Tips for Completing Your Yale Supplement to the Common Application


Yale Admissions

This post about the Yale supplemental essay to the Common Application is part of a series of posts providing advice you can use when completing The Common Application for 2012-13.

A student wrote me an email a few weeks ago.  In it, he asked, “Do you think I should submit a version of the essay about economics that I wrote for Penn as the Yale essay?”

I’m in favor of streamlining the essays for your college applications. Often there are ways to reuse an essay or theme that you have crafted for another college with few additional edits.  This time however, I sent a single sentence reply.  “Is your interest in economics the most important thing you have to share with Yale?”

We didn’t need to discuss this further.  Of course he had plenty of other experiences to draw upon in crafting an essay.  And they are far more important to him than his budding interest in economics.

Yale’s request, to “reflect on something you would like us to know about you that we might not learn from the rest of your application or on something you would like to say more about,” is completely open-ended.  It also encourages applicants to think creatively and cohesively about their entire Yale application.  Don’t repeat themes or topics you have already written about in the Common Application. Do choose a topic that is important to you and that you would like Yale to know about.

Aspiring engineers applying to Yale will also need to write an additional essay outlining their interest and experiences related to engineering

My favorite part of the Yale application is the Short Takes section.  Five questions, each requires an answer of less than 25 words.  It’s a chance to be creative, concise, and human.  “What would you do with a free afternoon tomorrow,” and “What is the best piece of advice you have received in the past three years,” Yale wants to know.  With these, often the first answer that comes to mind is a version of the correct one, but I encourage you to be certain that you have shared your own personality in your answers.

As with all of your applications, this is the only chance you have to be understood, in your own words, by the admission committee.   Take your time, be judicious, draft carefully, and edit thoroughly.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

college-essay-med ~ Helping You Write Your Best

Tips for Completing Your Columbia Supplement to the Common Application

When I visited Columbia University, it was clear to me that the undergraduate college takes distinct pride in two things: the 100-year-old Core Curriculum and the University’s relationship with the city in which it resides.  The Columbia University supplement reflects those emphases.  As a prospective student, I encourage you to think about how these two components of the Columbia education fit with your educational goals.

The Columbia supplement consists of several lists and three short answer questions.   For the quick questions about your interests, which ask you to list books, concerts, media that you have enjoyed over the past year, provide straightforward responses.  As an academically engaged student, there should be plenty of media and arts that have captured your attention.  Share both the mundane and the more interesting.  If you have a strong interest in a subject area, chances are your reading interests at least peripherally relate.  The Core Curriculum at Columbia includes humanities courses that focus on music and art in addition to literature, and the question about performances or exhibits dovetails with this component of the curriculum. These courses also take advantage of the rich opportunities available to students in New York City.

The integration of a strong campus center (the vast majority of students live on campus for four years) with the accessibility of the city and its commitment to a core curriculum, make Columbia a college with its own mission.  There are many facets to Columbia that make it distinctive, and therefore, your short answers about both your interest in Columbia and your intended college studies should be specific and well connected to your interests and its strengths.  If you feel that you need more information about Columbia and its programs, check the website for more information about their fall evening programs in cities around the United States.

Columbia is a member of the Common Application, and does offer an early decision program for students who are confident that Columbia is their first choice.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college.

Tips for Completing Your Brown Supplement to the Common Application

This post about the Brown supplement to the Common Application is part of a series of posts written to help you complete the 2013 Common Application supplement for Ivy League schools

Today, when I visited the Brown website, the academic page banner proclaimed, “Brown gives students the freedom to direct their education.”  If that tenet wasn’t clear before, it should be now.  The independence that Brown seeks from its students is evident in the most lengthy of Ivy league supplements.  If you are seeking a Brown education, however, the included questions should be both thought provoking and interesting. Flexibility is a hallmark of the Brown experience. Unfettered by a core curriculum or even the distribution requirements of many other colleges, students at Brown pursue their own education.  The courses a student chooses are based upon his or her own ideas of education and of challenge, interest, and intellectual development.

With these tenets of the Brown education in mind, consider the writing component of the Brown Supplement to the Common Application. Whether you draw inspiration from the biblical statement of “to whom much has been given, much is expected, “ or from Spiderman (“with great power comes great responsibility,”) the application makes it clear that a Brown student should embrace the application as he would the curriculum: with purpose, creative thought, and determination.

The first writing section asks applicants to consider their academic interests within the context of the Brown curriculum, identifying potential areas of study and elaborating on the roots of their interests.  Many other colleges ask a similar version of this question, which can be challenging for the student who is truly “undecided”.  Use this short answer to share some insight into your academic curiosity and in the follow-up question, consider why the flexibility to explore and potentially combine disciplines is important to you.

The second writing section asks about your background and influential experiences.  Brown (in a question similar to one from the University of Michigan,) looks to see how you define yourself relative to others – by asking you to write about a community with which you identify.  It’s easy to identify yourself by geography, ethnicity, or politics – groups for which we already have a label.  If you choose one of these more common groups, try to avoid relying on cliché and general conclusions. As always, keep it personal.  Feeling creative?  There are a number of other ways to define yourself.  Are you the only male in a women’s studies class, the only artist in BC Calculus, or the class clown on the debate team?  Think not only about your role, but why this community is important enough to you that you wrote about it at all.

Several of the writing prompts in this section ask you to consider how you define yourself and how you react to change.  As you brainstorm, consider the following questions:

How do you think about yourself relative to others? If you are a visual thinker, a Venn diagram could be useful here.  Diagram the many circles to which you belong.  Do you define yourself by where you have lived, or by how often that has changed?  Do you remain the same in all situations or share common ground with a chameleon, adapting to your environment?  Do you seek to take risks?  What kind?  Are you afraid of failure?  How have you reacted to a difficult or unexpected situation?  It is easy to identify yourself by your hometown, or your ethnicity and more challenging to look at your identity through a variety of lenses.  When I was thinking about these questions, the correlation between risk and changed perspective was evident.  How do those two elements interrelate for you?  Many strong essays rely on a central conflict, and these elements offer a strong starting point for this construction.  Whether you choose to address these questions in the most traditional manner or a more creative way, the admission committee will learn more about you if you set a scene and tell a story.

One option for the longer essay is to discuss your reasons for attending college.  For many students who are applying to Brown, they have always known that they would go to college.  It’s just the next step in the path after high school for them.  The straight line to college was drawn in preschool, if not before.  If this is your current answer, make another choice for the optional essay.  Then spend some time thinking about your reasons for attending college.  You will be a better college student, at Brown or any other college, for understanding this about yourself.

Whitney BruceBy Whitney Bruce, who has worked in college admissions since 1996. She has served as a Senior Assistant Director of Admissions (Washington U), Application Reader (University of Michigan), Assistant Director of College Counseling (private prep school in St. Louis), and an independent college counselor. She is happy to advise you as you apply to college. ~ Helping You Write Your Best