Five Tips for Your Supplemental Essays
I love writing. I love toiling over a sentence. I love sitting down to an empty Word document. However, people who love writing are like people who love running marathons—they look crazy to everyone else.
So, if you're a high schooler and you're struggling to write your Common App essay, your supplemental essays, or anything else for your college applications, you're not alone. Far from it. And writing is even harder under pressure—for many of you, college application season will have more pressure than my InstantPot cooking rice! (Ok, technically I own a Ninja Foodie, but it's a pressure cooker, that's the joke).
Your essays have to present you to the admissions committee. They have to explain what drives you. They have to show your writing skills. And they have to be interesting. That's a lot of demand for essays with word counts of under one thousand. If you're applying to Dartmouth (and I really hope you are!), you're tasked with writing some extremely short supplemental essays. Like, really short.
I struggled a lot with the Dartmouth supplemental essays because of their word limit. Brevity is not a strength of mine, if you can't tell. But you would be shocked what some good editing and a bit of preparation does for you. It is, in fact, possible to say everything you want to in 250 words, or even 100. I'm going to give you some tips for your college essays that will help you make the best of your limited words.
1) Start early, and start by writing everything down.
When you write your first draft—that is, the first version of your essay—don't think about word limit. Don't even go back and delete sentences yet. Just write. Get out everything you want to say in that essay. If it's the Why Dartmouth essay, go ahead and pontificate for hundreds (or thousands?!) of words. Then save the document somewhere you can easily find it later, and close it. Seriously. CLOSE IT. And go do something else. Ideally, this step will happen at least a month before your application is due, but even if you've just begun and it's a week until the deadline, this strategy can still work.
2) Remove the obvious stuff.
Reread your work after a good night's sleep—ideally, you'll reread it after a week or even more of not looking at it. Having fresh eyes helps you spot what you know you don't want in there. Maybe you're starting all your sentences with "I love" and that needs to change. Maybe you've got some cringey or unhelpful nonsense in there. Maybe you misspelled Hanover. Now's the time to change that stuff. Make sure, however, that no important content gets removed. If you have a poorly written sentence, but it contains an important idea (for example: about what draws you to Dartmouth), move it to another document and try to rewrite it. You don't want to lose any of those ideas; they can always be reformulated into better sentences.
3) Trim out repetition, "nothing words," and fluff.
Trimming repetition is essential for essays with a hard word limit. Repetition is anything that gets said twice—any idea, any phrase. If you've said it once, the admissions committee will notice it and take it seriously, so don't worry about saying it again.
"Nothing words" can mean words that don't pack a punch, or words that aren't strictly necessary. We all write (and talk) with them, including myself in this very post! But I don't have a word limit, and you do, so you should remove them. Good examples are adverbs and adjectives that don't change the meaning of what they modify (above I used "very," for example, which can usually be removed... so can "usually"); long phrases that don't mean much ("so on and so forth" is something I say a lot, but I would edit it out of any essay); and phrases that can be replaced with something shorter (turning prepositional phrases like "suburbs of Memphis" into adjective-modified nouns, like "Memphis suburbs"). This is a good way to eke out one or two words at a time, which can free up more space than you realize.
And finally, remove any detail that does not contribute to the purpose of the essay. Say "my cousin" instead of specifying that he's your mother's sister's son. Or delete that sentence about your dad having trouble with the rental car when you came to visit. This bit is the hardest. You're often understandably emotionally attached to these details; they're part of your life, after all. If you can convey the emotion succinctly with one or two words without telling the whole story, that is a great way to strike a compromise between the emotional impact you're adding with details and the word limit you're honoring by removing them. Instead of mentioning that your dad had issues with the rental car, for instance, you could say "We had an exhausting journey," or that your dad was "travel-worn." You get the idea.
4) If you want, get weird with it!
Not too weird, of course—you're presenting yourself as a young adult ready to face the challenges of living alone and rigorous studies. However, I get a lot of questions about the form of these supplemental essays that can be answered with one sentence: "If we don't say no, you're allowed to." The word limit and prompts are intentionally the only restrictions we place on applicants (and you'll notice our prompts are often quite open-ended—that's intentional). You can write a poem, or just five words, or a stream-of-consciousness essay. But beware: in some ways, the more abstract or artsy you get, the harder it can be to pull off. If you try to do something like the above, make sure you know why you're doing it.
But there's an easier way to get weird with it, and this method also helps you cram in as many ideas as possible despite the word limit. You don't have to be strictly grammatical. Your essay can even be list-like. My Why Dartmouth essay wasn't made of full proper sentences. Instead, it was a list of things I loved about Dartmouth, separated by semi-colons. I love a good semi-colon. This way, I avoided wasted words on "I love" and "Dartmouth has" and got right to the meat of things.
5) Focus on the differentiators.
Many schools are on the quarter system, but no one else has the D-Plan. Many schools have quads or green areas, but no one else has the Dartmouth Outing Club or the Dartmouth community that makes sitting on the Green with someone you've just met so special. Many schools have low student-to-faculty ratios, but few pair high-level research and small classes like we do. Don't mention good things that all the other universities have too; that would be a bit like saying "I want to go to Dartmouth because they give out Bachelor's degrees." Yeah, that's a great motivation—but not for Dartmouth specifically.
Plenty of people wrote excellent supplemental essays and got into Dartmouth without following some or all of these rules. But hopefully, if you're feeling stuck, you can rely on my guidelines to get to work on your essays. And if nothing else helps, remember this—you'll be finished with college applications sooner than you think!