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Dr. Jennifer B. Bernstein

(516) 362-1929

How to Write Great Supplemental College Application Essays


Supplemental college application essays are just as important as your main Common Application essay.

These supplemental essays—especially ones that ask you to describe why you are drawn to the particular college—are often the only place where you can explicitly tailor your application to the school.

You probably already know that you need to get beyond the superficial details on college websites and avoid the clichéd things that thousands of other students will be writing about. But knowing that you need to get far more specific and avoid saying what everyone else is saying is one thing.

Figuring out how to create a truly compelling “Why us?” essay is a different story.

In this post, you’ll. . .

  • Get strategies for the “Why us?” supplemental essay topics for Brown, Caltech, Columbia, Cornell, New York University, and the University of Pennsylvania.
  • Learn how to avoid clichés and vagueness to create a vivid, authentic, and distinctive supplemental essay.

The tips I’m sharing can work for a wide range of other schools and can even help you prepare for your alumni interviews.


Let’s start by considering how schools phrase their “Why us?” supplemental essay topics. These are the topics for the 2015-2016 admissions cycle.

Brown: Why Brown? (100 word limit)

Thousands of students applying to Brown are drawn to the school because of its Open Curriculum. I don’t think I’ve ever read a first draft of a Brown supplement that didn’t focus on this aspect of the school.

Many students will write something along these lines:

“One of the most attractive elements of Brown is its open curriculum. Coming from a school with rigid class requirements, Brown’s free curriculum and enormous variety of classes will give me the freedom I need.”

What can you do to avoid saying the same old thing? How can you stand out?

Specificity is the key to distinguishing yourself in a positive way.

If you want to write about the Open Curriculum, you might want to address it in relation to your specific intellectual interests.

Your response to Brown’s “Why us?” prompt can only be 100 words, so you don’t have much space. However, I want you to keep in mind the bigger context of the Brown supplement.

“Why Brown?” isn’t the only supplemental essay. You also have to describe why you are “drawn to the area(s) of study you indicated earlier” in the application or the “academic topics or modes of thought that engage you currently.” That essay can be a maximum of 150 words.

You can set up your intellectual interests in the first essay and then, in the “Why Brown?” essay, describe how the Open Curriculum will allow you to pursue your specific interests. You can address how it will allow you to bring together your interests in new ways. You might even be able to give admissions officers a sense of why you feel it’s important to synthesize your interests in these ways.

You might wind up writing about the same general topic as thousands of other students, but you’ll be doing so in a way that makes you stand out.

Caltech: “Scientific exploration clearly excites you. Beyond our 3:1 student-to-faculty ratio and our intense focus on research opportunities, how do you believe Caltech will best fuel your intellectual curiosity and help you meet your goals?” (500 word max)

I love how Caltech is telling you not to write about what thousands of students are inclined to mention in their supplements. They want you to go “beyond” these well-known and general features of the school.

Notice the language.

Caltech wants to learn more about your “intellectual curiosity.”

You should mention what you want to specialize in (if you know), but Caltech wants to know about more than just what subjects you want to study. They want to know about the questions, issues, ideas, and projects that fascinate you.

They want to know how Caltech is going to “fuel” your fascination and reach your goals. So you need to get very specific. What Caltech classes, professors, research projects, programs, groups, and/or organizations will help you reach your goals?

Columbia: “Please tell us what you find most appealing about Columbia and why.” (300 words or less)

Many students applying to Columbia are drawn to their distinctive Core Curriculum, so if you’re going to mention it in your supplemental essay you need to do so in a way that shows why you are so excited about the habits of mind you’ll be cultivating in these courses and how they will enrich your understanding of issues, questions, and ideas that matter to you.

You don’t have to commit to a major when applying to Columbia, but it is helpful to position yourself intellectually. You can write about particular departments, professors, and courses that interest you. Specificity is key. Don’t just list things. For instance, you should describe what it is about a specific course that intrigues you.

If you’re applying to The Fu Foundation School of Engineering and Applied Science, you’ll have to write an additional essay describing “what from your current and past experiences (either academic or personal) attracts you specifically to the field or fields of study that you noted in the Member Questions section.” I have most of my engineering students, start with this essay and then zoom out to address broader issues in the main Columbia supplemental essay.

New York University: “We would like to know more about your interest in NYU. We are particularly interested in knowing what motivated you to apply to NYU and more specifically, why you have applied or expressed interest in a particular campus, school, college, program, and/or area of study? If you have applied to more than one, please tell us why you are interested in each of the campuses, schools, colleges, or programs to which you have applied. You may be focused or undecided, or simply open to the options within NYU’s global network; regardless, we want to understand – Why NYU?” (400 word maximum)

NYU starts by asking about “Why NYU,” but in most cases you should lead with your intellectual interests and then get into how the university is going to help you explore and develop them.

Don’t just talk about how you want to be in the city (if you’re applying to the main campus) and your longing for diversity. If you do, you’ll be stuck in clichés. Get very specific about the resources that are crucial to your intellectual pursuits or personal passions.

NYU emphasizes its “global network,” so even though you want to focus mainly on your interests and how you’re going to pursue them, you should still see if there’s a way to situate them in a more global context. For instance, you might want to discuss very specific NYU study abroad programs will help you. But don’t just say something generic about studying abroad.


Getting super specific in your supplemental application essays is not as easy as it might seem.

Many students don’t know much about the schools to which they’re applying and don’t have much experience describing their intellectual interests.

Students who don’t know much about the school tend to parrot back what can be found in the college brochures and admissions page. Guess what? Colleges already know these things about themselves. They’re not looking for you to flatter them.

Students who don’t have much experience talking about what interests them intellectually often wind up falling back on vague statements like this: “I’m interested in studying psychology because I want to know what causes people to act they way they do.”

How can you get beyond the superficial details about the school and create a compelling description of your intellectual interests?

Let’s consider how you could approach writing a supplement for Cornell or the University of Pennsylvania.

Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences: “Describe two or three of your current intellectual interests and why they are exciting to you. Why will Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences be the right environment in which to pursue your interests? (Please limit your response to 650 words.)

University of Pennsylvania: “How will you explore your intellectual and academic interests at the University of Pennsylvania? Please answer this question given the specific undergraduate school to which you are applying.” (400-650 words)

Let’s stick with the example of the student who is interested in psychology because she wants to learn more about what causes people to act the way they do, and let’s assume that this is all she can say about her interests at this point.

Admissions officers are curious about how you came to be interested in something and how this interest has evolved. I’d ask this student if there was a specific experience that sparked her fascination with what causes people to act the way they do and if she has taken any other action (through independent research, extracurricular activities, special programs, or community service) in relation to this interest.

“People” is a very broad category, so I’d also ask the student to work on getting more specific. For instance, I’d encourage her to start thinking about particular groups (e.g., young children with developmental delays, children of immigrants, suburban adolescents, etc.) and challenge her to get more specific about how they act, what she currently knows about how they act, and what she wants to learn more about in terms of the causes of their actions.

At this point, the student will probably feel like she’s hit her limit in terms of what she can say about herself. This is when I’d encourage her to go to the college website and look at the offerings in psychology. I’d ask her to find professors who are doing work that she finds intriguing and maybe read some of their articles or part of their books. I’d advise her to look at specific courses and try to find course descriptions. I’d ask her to look at professors and classes in sociology, neuroscience, and literature and to consider them in relation to her interests. I’d help her find student organizations or service groups that she might find useful for exploring her interests.

The first part of the work (about her intellectual interests) could easily be used for both the Cornell and Penn supplements. She’d need to adjust the second part in relation to the specific schools.

Does this process take time?


Is it worth investing hours researching the schools?



You’ll emerge with much richer material for your supplements, a clearer sense of why this school is truly a good fit for you, and, perhaps most importantly, you will take your understanding of yourself to the next level.


Get started working on your supplements!

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