The Secret to One of the Toughest Supplemental College Application Essays

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Seniors, is this you right now? You sit down to work on the Why Do You Want to Go Here questions for your college application essays, and they all come out a little too perky and vanilla.

It's going to be pretty hard to distinguish yourself among the thousands of applicants if you can't articulate why this particular school really is your top choice, right?

Well, good news. It turns out that there are five very specific ways to capture your enthusiasm for each school in a way that's believable and interesting.

1. Start by talking about your intellectual interests

Most students start these essays by jumping into a discussion of what they love about the colleges. But remember, your application is about YOU and what you're bringing to the campus. So, you want to use these essays to add further insight into you and your intellectual interests rather than just compiling a list of what you like about the campus or the department.

Start by explaining why you are drawn to the academic areas you're interested in. It's okay if you don't know exactly which major you want to choose, but you do need to choose a specific area -- languages, for example, or engineering, or the sciences. When you choose a specific area, it provides clarity and structure to your essay and allows the admissions officers to learn more about your particular intellectual strengths. Depending on the length of the essay, I advise my students to write half the essay as a discussion of their intellectual strengths and interests and half the specific elements of the university that will support their interests. And don't worry about limiting your choices. Unless you're applying to a very specific program, you can always change your major later on.

2. Do your research

Once, you've written a solid discussion of your academic interests, you need to start embarking on your research. Your essay needs to be very specific about what you appreciate about the school and specific department(s) you're thinking of joining. You never want your essay to look like you could copy and paste it into some other school, which means that you're going to avoid talking about the beauty of the campus (lots of campuses are beautiful) or how well its known for its top-tier education (otherwise, you wouldn't have known to apply there) or how its study abroad program allows you to travel to France (thousands of schools have similar programs).

Instead, spend at least an hour (two is even better), researching the specifics of the programs. Dig deep. Talk about aspects of the program that don't show up on the department's home page. For example, if you're applying to the Information Services major at Carnegie Mellon, you might want to talk about the IDeATe program and the particular concentration you're interested in. You could even talk about how you're interested in the new course on Integrative Product Conceptualization offered through the Integrated Innovation Institute. In other words, prove to the admissions officers that you know a lot about the program and that you're not just applying there because of the name.

3. Take good notes for easy reference later

When you start researching, you're going to find that you jump from page to page, and very quickly you're going to be 20 clicks away from your original search. As you research, copy into another document both the information that you think you want to mention later, as well as the URL of the specific page you're on. It will make it so much easier to put together a strong essay with a lot of detailed information instead of having to go back and try to piece together your search again.

4. Tell them something new

A common mistake that many students make is to cite a list of facts about the college. Remember, the admissions know all about the programs their university offers. So instead of telling them what they already know, comment on why their particular programs interest you. For example, if you're applying to the neuroscience program at UPenn, you might say something like, "It's amazing to see that UPenn's neuroscience encompasses 6 schools, 32 departments, and more than 200 faculty. That fact alone makes it clear how far-reaching the study of neuroscience is and affirms my interest in studying the brain from a multi-dimensional approach." See how this kind of comment avoids spitting back facts explains why the program interests you?

5. Only talk about what genuinely excites you

While you're doing a lot of research, you may feel compelled to talk about things that are particularly famous about your prospective college. But if you don't care that much about these things, don't write about them. Your writing will just end up bland and cliché, no matter how much you try to sound interested. Only write about what really grabs you. And always use personal stories as a way into your discussion of why you want to study your chosen area.

For example, one student I was working with recently felt that he had to mention why Columbia's Core Curriculum would make him a better polymath and economist. But the writing in that section was similar to what most other students would write -- that it would help him become a strong creative thinker. In other words, the admissions officers weren't going to learn anything new about him. Instead, I suggested that he write about how his Sneakerhead friend had inspired him to think more deeply about the marketplace and the larger economy by showing him that there's an entire community of people out there obsessed with purchasing the next cutting-edge pair of sneakers. That's a lot more interesting than just parroting what you think the colleges want to hear. Believe me, they'd so much rather read something new and different about what genuinely intrigues you about their school, rather than regurgitating the website for them.

I've taught these 5 steps to my students for years, and their essays always elevate them far above and beyond the other applicants. Give it a try and see how much stronger your supplemental essays end up!