College supplemental essays are upon us! First-round applications are due in less than two months. If you haven’t already, it’s time to get started on the supplemental essays for your college list.

Why start so early?

It’s important that you give yourself enough time to get organized and process your thoughts. We typically recommend that our students apply to 10 schools. If, on average, each school requires 2 supplemental essays each, you will have 20 essays to do in addition to your personal statement. That’s a lot of writing for anybody, let alone a full-time student.

As with any large task, you must be organized and deliberate in the way you manage the essay writing process. Start by making a list of the different schools you are planning on applying to and compiling all of their supplemental essays into one document. Set deadlines for yourself to complete each essay. Be honest about how much time you have and will need to write each one and set the dates accordingly.

Having this schedule as your point of reference will help you stay organized and will keep you from feeling overwhelmed, as you will know the exact date when you will be done with all of your essays. Starting this process early on gives you enough time to really give each essay its due and not rush any of it. Too often do students wait until the last minute and try write all 20 essays in the span of a day or two. It is a miserable process that will produce lackluster work. You owe yourself more time, tranquility, and a higher quality of writing.

How do I begin writing?

Your first step is to get serious about brainstorming. Take the essay prompt that you are working on and set it in front of you. Have a little notebook nearby where you freely jot down ideas. Don’t think about it too much at this stage – the purpose of this exercise is to allow thoughts to flow freely, even though you will end up discarding all of them but one.

Often students have no idea how to begin writing an essay. If you want to write something compelling, you can’t just expect that it will pop right into your brain the second that you want it to. More often than not, these things take time. That’s why it’s so important that this process begin early. You want to give yourself enough time to brainstorm for a while, walk away from writing, and come back to it later when you’ve had time to process. The best ideas can come to us when we least expect it. This does not mean we shouldn’t put in any effort, rather that we need to be smart about the way we put in effort and acknowledge the limitations of our ability to make great ideas appear whenever we would like.

So, brainstorm! Give yourself time and space to think. Consider the activities you have done throughout high school, consider your classes, your life experiences, your background. These can all be great jumping off points for what will turn out to be a memorable essay.

Okay, I think I have an idea – what’s next?

First, check your idea against the prompt. Be sure you carefully read each and every word of what the school is asking you and make sure that your response is fully answering the question. Very often students will write something about themselves that is tangentially related, but will not fully answer the question that is being asked. This is a surefire way to show admissions counselors that you have not fully understood what they are asking of you (which is obviously not good).

Once you are sure that you are answering the specific question being asked, be sure that your method is appropriate. This means checking to see if your response is unique to you and is specific enough that admissions counselors won’t think to themselves “this is the thousandth time I’ve read something like this.”

If you are asked why you want to attend school X, you should not simply say something like “I want to attend school X because it has a high ranking and I like the city that it is in.” That really says nothing about the school and why you are a good fit for it. You need to focus in on more specific aspects of the school that are of interest to you. Do research on specific programs they have that are unique to the school that you might like to participate in. Research the names and fields of study of a few different professors and mention that you are interested in learning from and working them. Sprinkle in a bit of your background in high school to show that your past experiences fit right in with everything going on at school X.

Show not only that you have done specific research on school X, but also that you specifically are a good fit for them. This makes for a compelling essay response that admissions counselors are sure to remember.

Now I know my idea and method are solid. How do I turn that into real sentences?

This is the part that really matters. Your brainstorming and planning can only take you so far – at some point pen must meet paper (more likely, fingers must meet keyboard) and the writing must commence.

Everybody has a different style of writing and you will know yours best. Some people like writing a sloppy first draft and then going back and editing it several times until it’s solid. Others won’t write a sentence until they believe it is perfect and final. I encourage you to allow yourself to be a bad writer. No, this does not mean that you should write a bad essay and submit it to colleges. What it means is that you give yourself the opportunity to put things down on paper even if you think the writing is “bad” or “not good enough.” What’s important is that you are getting things on paper and are not totally frozen because you want to make something perfect.

If, as we went over in the beginning, you have given yourself proper time to go through the supplemental essay writing process, you will have many opportunities to revise and have the trusted people in your life give you feedback. This process of revision and rewriting is your best friend. So don’t be afraid of writing something “bad.” If you have been thoughtful about the content of your essay and your method for writing it, rest assured that there is something valuable in what you are putting down – you just need to refine it over and over again until it’s ready.


  1. Start early
  2. Get organized
  3. Brainstorm
  4. Test your ideas against what the prompt is asking
  5. Make sure your method is correct (use unique, specific writing)
  6. Put things on paper, even if you think they are bad
  7. Revise, refine, rewrite

If you find yourself needing help with essay writing or any other part of the college application process, please get in touch with us at [email protected]. We provide expert 1-on-1 guidance to help you present yourself in the best possible way to colleges. We’re always happy to set up a free initial consultation to discuss your needs and our services.

Happy writing!

The American College Counselors Team