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Understanding the Lingo: Personal Statements & Supplemental Essays

Posted by Steffon Gales, Associate Director of College Counseling on Apr 14, 2022 9:56:03 AM

Writing is ingrained in every aspect of the college application process. Your ability to convey who you are in writing is important. If you are an athlete, a robotics team leader, or the main character in Chicago, admissions counselors want to know you outside of the classroom. They want to know you as your genuine, authentic self. How can you make your personal statement and supplemental essays stand out?

Personal Statement (PS)

What is it?

Personal statements, better known as college essays, are one of the main components of your college application. This is an area where you have complete autonomy. Seriously. This essay is where you should write what an admissions counselor should know about you, which might not have been mentioned in other areas of your application.


Why is it necessary?

This space is not only provided for you to tell admission officers about yourself, but it is also a vehicle for them to assess your writing. So hear this: writing matters. Make sure that your writing is authentic; make it specific to you. Colleges are not admitting your English teacher or your parents; they want to hear from you. So, make sure it counts.

Notes from a Counselor:

During my time as an admissions counselor at Bowdoin College, I remember reading personal statements. From these essays, admissions readers can picture you on their campus and imagine how you might contribute to their community. The Tabor English faculty get juniors started on this process in the spring trimester before summer vacation. John Heavey, an English teacher, explained, “I have used introductions to the personal reflective style that defines the college essay. I have students in my English 3 class write personal responses to mentor texts and prompts that push students into writing about aspects of their own lives. Juniors are encouraged as well to access their “This I Believe” essays that they wrote at the end of their sophomore year.” So, always go to an English teacher or a college counselor for guidance.


Supplemental Essays

What are they?

Supplemental essays will vary by college, and not every college requires them. Many of these essays ask students to reflect on past experiences and life lessons, while other institutions ask students to reflect on the college’s motto or mission statement. Regardless of the topic, these essays provide admissions counselors with more information about your extracurricular interests and your learning style to illuminate how or why you stand out in their applicant pool.

Why are they necessary?

“Supplemental essays are quite important to our reading process,” emphasized Caroline Hosenberger, Senior Admissions Counselor at the University of Rochester. “For our supplemental essays, students write one based on our institution’s motto and one ‘Why Rochester?’ essay. In these, students should mention their activities and place a considerable amount of effort into researching the college.” Caroline speaks to how impactful these essays can be in the reading process. Supplemental essays hold weight and highlight a portion of your application you might not have had the chance to share in your personal statement, your personal information section, or your activities list.

How to Approach the “Why X University?” Essay:

Jack Behre, Assistant Director of Admissions at the University of Chicago offers the following advice on how to respond to the “Why X University?” essay:

“One of the easiest ways for students to let me know they are just as excited as I am about UChicago is through the first required essay of their UChicago application, what we in college admissions call the ‘Why UChicago?’ essay. I wanted to provide some tips as you begin writing these essays and familiarizing yourself more with different colleges and what they have to offer.”

  • Be specific! Jack recommends that students employ something called the White-Out Test after they have finished writing their “Why X University?” essay. Read through your finished essay and “white-out” any mentions of a school’s name. If it’s still clear which school you’re talking about, congratulations! You have passed the White-Out Test. If you can’t narrow down what university you are talking about, go back through your essay and make it more specific.
  • Avoid listing out different things available at a particular school. While creating a list of different clubs, classes, professors, or other offerings at a particular school may be a great way to begin outlining your “Why X University” essay, sometimes the most memorable “Why UChicago?” essays take a more creative approach. Some of Jack’s favorite and most memorable essays included a letter to UChicago from a secret admirer, an essay written from the perspective of the ivy on campus, and an essay that explored all of the implications of the question “Why?” and how UChicago was the best place to get those questions answered. It was immediately clear to him that these students both knew what UChicago had to offer them and, more importantly, that they understood UChicago’s spirit and our foundational ideals of intellectual inquiry and curiosity. Writing this essay in a unique format can help you stand out in a sea of applicants!
  • Talk to current students to help better understand a college’s environment. There is no better way to learn about a university than through students that currently attend. While lots of information is available online through course catalogs, information sessions, and a university’s website, talking to current students can provide a unique perspective into everyday life, what courses are most popular, and some great student groups. Conversations you have with current students can be great to highlight in your “Why X University?” essay. Jack encourages students to use UChicago’s “Ask A Student” email to contact students who are making the most of their UChicago experience.

As you can tell, writing means a lot to those reviewing your college applications. It is not the primary reason students are admitted, but it is an important component. Make sure what you write about is something that comes from the heart. Finally, I speak for admissions counselors across the world when I say please proofread everything. You never want to submit work with grammatical errors or with another institution's name in your “Why X University” essay or any essay. Make sure what you turn in is a product you can be proud of. By working in conjunction with your college counselor, you will gain more tips to succeed in producing the essay portion of your application.

Topics: College Counseling