Back to the blog

A primer on common app and supplemental essays

In Essays, Junior and Senior.

A Note on Personal Essays

You may know a thing or two about how competitive the college application process has become.

At the top of the pyramid, elite, Ivy-League colleges have started seeing acceptance rates dipping below 5% on average. That’s low. Low, low. And it’s a trend common to all schools.

Decreasing admissions rates have been caused by a number of factors, including an inexorable rise in the number of applications filed each year.

At the same time, median student GPA has risen while many schools are starting to de-emphasize the role of the SAT or ACT in the admissions process.

What does this all mean? In a crowded field, college essays are one of the best (and only) ways to stand out to admissions committees.

Unfortunately, the essay portion of the application is notoriously devilish.

By the time students hit their senior year, they often have little to no formal training in writing personal essays, some form of which are required by nearly every school in the country.

3 personal essay goals

Personal essays are categorically different from the type of analytical essay we’re trained to write in school. Personal essays require us to…

  • Be open (some might use the word “vulnerable”) about our personal experiences in a way that “shows, not tells” the reader about the most important parts of our lives.
  • Write evocatively, using descriptive language that transports a reader into a scene.
  • Reflect deeply about lessons learned, challenges overcome, or, even better, about the ways we still have left to grow.

The personal essay requires us to venture to depths that rarely see the light of day in a classroom setting.

The best essays are ones that bravely explore the most difficult-to-discuss areas of our lives in a creative, focused, and mature way.

Within the genre of “personal essay” exist several types or sub-genres that structure the essay portion of college applications.

The one that you are perhaps already familiar with is the Common Application essay. You may also have heard of school-specific supplemental essays.

These two essay types make up the focus of this guide. Below, we cover more ground about what each of those essays entails, and where it sits in the larger scope of the college application.  

Introduction to the Common Application essay

If you’re a college-bound high school student who’s aware of the essay portion of the application, there’s a good chance that you already know about the Common Application. 

In short, the Common Application (Common App) is a non-profit organization that facilitates the process of students submitting their applications to colleges and universities across the country. The Common Application is not used by every college in the country, but it certainly accounts for many of them (over 900 by the organization’s count). 

In addition to being the portal where students submit their demographic and personal information to their chosen colleges, the Common Application also requires that students complete an essay (the Common App essay) between 250-650 words in length. 

The Common App essay is in many ways the beating heart of a student’s application. It is typically the longest piece of writing that a student will submit to any given school. The prompts are also written so as to provide students with a chance to reflect on their life capaciously, leaving almost any subject open for discussion.

For these reasons, the Common App essay is (alongside academic transcripts and test scores) perhaps the single most important element of anyone’s application. It is the place where an applicant should put forward a coherent, powerful personal story that makes a statement to admissions councils everywhere. This is who I am. See me! Here is a list of the current Common App prompts.

Introduction to Supplemental Essays

Had enough with the Common App? Sorry, not done yet! 

In addition to the Common App essay (which is, ah, common to most schools), some schools also require one-off essays tailored to the individual institution. 

Common supplemental questions

This means that, in addition to writing the common app essay, a given applicant may find themselves powering through any number of shorter essays covering topics like…

  • Why our school, specifically?
  • What will you (the applicant) contribute to the culture at our institution? 
  • What academic opportunities are you most looking forward to while studying here? 

While there is no common core of prompts for supplemental essays like there is for the Common App, we do see the same type of essays repeated over and over. The most common by far is the “Why X?” essay, which asks students to show their reasoning for applying to a particular school. 

This kind of essay provides a tool for discerning between students who truly want to attend the school and those who are merely applying for its sake. (They’re also a way of forcing students to do at least some research into the school before submitting an application.)

Generally speaking, the goal of a supplemental essay is to showcase a part of the applicant’s narrative that forms a strong complement to whatever is the focus of the Common App essay.

So if you’re an Overwatch prodigy and you talk about the ranked grind in your Common App essay, you might want to focus elsewhere for a school-specific supplement. 

Conversely, if you talk about your family history in the Common App essay, the supplemental is the perfect place to talk about why X University is the perfect fit for you, given you desire to participate in their biology program or play in their wind ensemble. 

The fact that supplemental essays exist requires students to make their applications multi-dimensional. That is, when supplementals are involved, it’s usually not enough to draw from only one topic or theme.

Supplementals ask us to think broader and deeper, to piece together multiple stories from our lives into a coherent picture that brings the application to life.

Concluding Thoughts

Understanding the two essay types we just covered--the Common App essay and the supplemental essay--is crucial to thinking more broadly about the strategy of writing your essays.

If you only had to write one, that would be one thing. But the presence of multiple essays requires you to think critically about how best to represent yourself in multiple dimensions. 

Knowing about these essays is also an important primer for understanding how to write your own. 

About Alex McNeil

Alex is the CEO of McNeil Admissions and the moderator of r/ApplyingToCollege. But most of all, he believes in helping every student access college resources.

Application Insights

Get our team's insights, every week, delivered to your inbox. Just the good stuff.

Table of Contents