How To Successfully Answer Supplemental Questions On College Applications05:37
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College application season is about to start. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)
College application season is about to start. (Issouf Sanogo/AFP/Getty Images)

It’s college application season, and that means students often find themselves writing one essay to use for the Common Application, which most private colleges and universities accept.

But some students may be surprised to find out there are also supplemental essay questions. Individual schools may prompt students to write little 250-word vignettes or snapshots.

“We like to have a variety of samples of students' writing, and we also like to give students several chances to help us get to know them,” says Stephen Farmer, vice provost for enrollment and undergraduate admissions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Farmer says some of the supplemental essay questions UNC is asking students this year include:

  • Tell us about a peer who’s made a difference in your life. 
  • Tell us what you hope would change about the place where you live. 
  • What’s one thing about you that you want UNC to know? 
  • What about your background or experience will help you contribute to the education of others at UNC?

These short responses give schools a better sense of each student, Farmer says, and admissions officers really do read all of their answers — more than once.

“We really want to give students a chance to let us hear their voices and to hear their voices in an unmediated way,” he says. “Let us hear you. Let us hear your voice.”

Interview Highlights 

On if he worries about honesty in the wake of the college admissions scandal

“I do worry about it sometimes. I think that most students are honest. I think that students who allow someone else to interfere too much in the work that they're doing do themselves a disservice, and I don't think they're likely to get a better result than if they just did the work themselves.”

On the best supplemental essay questions 

“The best one I've ever seen and one that we used a number years ago that a colleague came up with was, look out any window in your home, what would you change about what you see? I like prompts that direct students outwards. I don't think it's a healthy or helpful thing to encourage students to write about themselves or to make them feel that they have to write about themselves in order to have a chance to put their best self forward.”

"Students need to sound like the good people they are instead of the people they think we want them to be."

Stephen Farmer

On why students shouldn’t feel pressured to reveal deeply personal anecdotes in college essays

“Students should not feel compelled to tell us something that they wouldn't tell someone else. It's easy for students, sometimes, to feel that they're trapped into talking about the best thing that ever happened to them or the worst thing that ever happened to them, something profound that scarred them or that helped them become the person they are. It's really hard for any writer to talk about such things, and it's especially hard for an 18-year-old writer to talk about such things in 250 words.”

On his biggest piece of advice to students answering college essay questions 

“The first thing is to write about something outside the self or at least not feel compelled to write about something that's intimate. And the second suggestion is to write about something small .... Supplemental response is more like the Twitter of college admissions. It's more like a caption, a picture rather than a full-blown essay. So writing about something to scale. Students need to sound like the good people they are instead of the people they think we want them to be. And one of the things that makes me sad about reading college essays is when students are trying to throw the voice of an adult or a teacher or worse yet, an admissions officer to make them sound like a middle-aged person or to make them sound like someone who's had more education than they've had, that's not what we need to hear. We really just need to hear from a person, and preferably from the wonderful 18-year-old person who's writing the vignette, not from anyone else.”


Lynn Menegon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web. 

This segment aired on September 10, 2019.

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