The application process

Tips for the Common Application essay and supplemental writing

Advice from a Cialfo Institute webinar featuring Francis Miller, Director of College Counseling at Xi'an Tie Yi High School, and Amy Kice, Director of Admissions at NYU Abu Dhabi

Cialfo Community
June 7, 2021
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10 min read

Writing a personal statement and supplemental essays

  • Purpose of the personal statement
  • What works and what doesn't work?
  • Personal statements vs. supplemental essays
  • Skills students need to become good writers
  • Final checklist

Purpose of the personal statement

The first thing students need to know before attempting to begin writing the personal statement would be understanding its purpose. Essentially, the personal statement is meant to be an opportunity for students to show admissions officers how they have grown and matured through their experiences. While each admission officer may recommend different things to focus on, in general they want students to tell a story that showcases their unique voice, while remaining honest and genuine. This is reflected in the essay prompts, which often ask students to show development in their ways of thinking. 

So, what works?

Answer the prompt

Often the student may get too focused on their story and end up not answering the prompt.

Use the language of the teenager

The essay should seem as if it was written by a student and not someone who has a PhD in English.

Keep the reader’s attention

Admissions officers have numerous essays to go through, and having a memorable hook goes a long way in helping your essay stand out.

Focus on one moment in time

A focused and detailed story is much more effective as compared to one that is brief but goes through many topics.

Be yourself

The student's story should be unique to them. The last thing you want is many applicants having similar stories.

Get feedback

Whether this is from counselors, parents or peers, students should be encouraged to get as many opinions on their essays as possible.

What does not work

Writing about COVID

If Covid has truly affected their life in a way that is different to 99% of the population, then students should write about it. Otherwise, it will be very difficult to stand out with an essay on Covid.

Repeating what is said in the application

Admission officers already have access to information in the student’s application, so there is no need to repeat it in the essay.

Too lengthy

Admissions officers are less likely to bother with essays that are overly long (e.g. 4-5 pages).

Inappropriate topics

Students should avoid writing about abuse, drugs or alcohol. Inappropriate language should also be avoided.

Writing about their entire life

As mentioned earlier, the student should focus on writing about one moment in greater detail, instead of covering their entire life without any meaningful point.

Personal statements vs. supplemental essays

While both are important parts of the application, personal statements and supplemental essays serve different roles in helping admission officers understand the student better. 

The personal statement is mainly used to highlight personal growth through detailed personal stories that also highlight important character traits. They should follow the structure of first describing the personal experience, followed by an introspective reflection of the experience which leads to personal growth. To end off, students can articulate any future aspirations stemming from this experience.

On the other hand, supplemental essays are written to answer very specific questions, to help focus the student’s response. While there are many different supplemental questions, essays should all point to the student being a good fit for the university. In order to achieve this, students need to strategically choose topics and find examples to help answer each specific question.

Every university values the personal statement and supplemental essays differently. It is also important to note that not all schools accept the Common Application, and those particular universities will have their own personal statement topics. Students thus need to do the proper research and understand the application requirements for the colleges they are applying to.

Final checklist

  1. Task Completion: Does the student answer the question?
  2. Common sense: Are the stories and examples unique and chosen thoughtfully?
  3. The “cafeteria test”: Could a random classmate read the essay and name the author?
  4. “Overcoaching”/ “Overwritten”: Does the essay sound genuine, or like an English Ph.D. wrote it?
  5. The AO Speed Test: Can a random person read the essay in less than two minutes and retell some key story details, list some desirable traits, and find the student likeable?
A big thank you to Francis Miller, Director of College Counseling at Xi'an Tie Yi High School, and Amy Kice, Director of Admissions at New York University - Abu Dhabi, for their invaluable insights and expert advice that made this webinar and article possible.

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