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When you make a college list, you’re probably considering objective factors such as class size, academic rigor, and cost of attending. You’re probably also considering subjective factors such as how friendly the student body seems, how beautiful the campus appears, and how vibrant the social scene is.

Once you put all these things together, there may be several schools that are equally appealing (oftentimes for completely different reasons). So how do you choose just one school? And how do you know that the school you choose will be the right one for you?

Sometimes, all it takes is one seemingly random thing to pop out at you that makes you realize what a good fit you’d be for a certain school. Whether it’s an especially poetic instagram page or a world-renowned art museum on campus, the little things matter more than you know.

At this point you might be wondering what that thing was for me. Was it an insanely delicious pastry I had at the café by the admissions office, or perhaps a student-run vintage movie theater that I passed by on my tour showing old Hollywood movies?

No, for me, it was the supplemental essays that sealed the deal for me. More specifically, it was the essay topics that I had to write about that drew me in. Bo-ring, you might say. And I’ll admit, without a bit of explanation, this answer does seem a bit odd.

Any burnt out high school senior who has written upwards of fifty essay drafts for various schools would probably scratch their head at my answer, wondering how I could possibly view essay writing as anything other than tedious. You’d think that after months of wracking my brain for potential ideas, writing and rewriting, and having my essay reworked by family and friends and teachers, I’d never want to think about another college application essay again.

That’s true for the most part. There were plenty of essays, where, as hard as I tried, I felt like I couldn’t convey my entire self in a few hundred words. However, there were two schools I applied to that had supplemental essay topics that jumped out at me almost immediately.

These topics weren’t exactly quirky or anything; certainly nowhere near as whimsical as, say, UChicago’s supplemental essay questions are each year. As fun as those questions may be to read, even thinking about coming up with an answer that would measure up to surely thousands of other witty responses made me cringe.

I knew myself well enough to know that I’m not the most humorous person, which is why I wasn’t drawn to questions on the wilder side. In fact, that played a large part in me deciding against applying to UChicago. The two schools whose supplemental essays did jump out at me did so because they both inspired me; I actually wanted, looked forward to, writing these essays.



The first prompt inspired me in that I instantly knew what I wanted write about. It was like I had been holding on to a topic close to my heart for so long, just waiting for the perfect opportunity to use it, but I didn’t even realize it until I read the essay topic.

The essay prompt asked applicants to “imagine looking through a window at any environment that is particularly significant to you. Reflect on the scene, paying close attention to the relation between what you are seeing and why it is meaningful to you.” Our responses were limited to 300 words, which to me felt long enough to convey a full (but brief) story that goes deeper than just listing events or thoughts, but short enough that I would be challenged to be concise and choose my words carefully.

Upon reading this prompt, my mind went immediately to a photograph hanging on my wall of me and my dad by a river shore, playing with the colorful pebbles. It struck me as kind of funny that the picture frame acted as an actual window of sorts, but I was mostly thinking about how I couldn’t wait to write about what the photograph meant to me.

What I liked about this prompt in particular was that in addition to asking us to write about a place that’s meaningful to us, the prompt also instructed us to link what we saw to what it meant. This particular wording was what directed me to the photograph rather than some vacation I took or a more typical answer like “my bedroom.”

Without prompting us to use the visual aspect of the “significant environment,” I might have felt compelled to write about a past experience rather than an image, the emotions it invoked in me, and why those emotions meant so much to me.

I also liked the slightly unusual wording that the prompt opened with. Rather than going straight to asking us about a meaningful place, experience, or defining moment, the prompt asked us to “imagine.”

That one little word opened up my mind, so that rather than restricting myself to something concrete, my thoughts became open to a number of more abstract possibilities. Once I had taken some time to explore, I was then asked to “reflect,” a fitting follow-up.

This essay prompt told me several things about the school. Not only did it encourage imaginative and abstract thinking, the school seemed like an environment that would foster my creative side and allow for personal growth by reminding me to stop and reflect regularly. Most importantly, though, I knew that this school would be able to inspire me; indeed, it already had, before I ever even set foot on the campus.



The second prompt, from another school, was more standard, asking applicants to “describe two or three of your current intellectual interests and why they are exciting to you. Why will the College of Arts and Sciences be the right environment in which to pursue your interests?” We were given a limit of 650 words, allowing me to expand more than I normally would or could have.

The reason that this prompt appealed to me was in its wording and open-endedness. Although it was loosely asking about academics, the prompt encouraged us to relate our academic pursuits to whatever it was that truly makes us passionate.

In effect, it was asking us to build a story, to chart our progress through our lives and explain how the interest may have slowly but steadily grown out of an encounter during childhood, or was something we had dabbled in briefly only the year before. At least, that’s how I interpreted the prompt.  

We were also asked to talk about “two or three intellectual interests,” rather than the more oft encountered “one particular topic that fascinates you” or “list several of your hobbies.”  Limiting the discussion to two or three topics told me that the school wanted me to include only what I’m truly enthusiastic about, rather than tick off every single thing that I like.

However, expanding the limit to two or three rather than leaving it at one also told me that the school admired a wide range of interests. In fact, I got the impression that the school encouraged well-roundedness, and thus would enjoy a discussion of two completely unrelated interests. Talking about my love for both art history and ecology showed that I would thrive in both the humanities and sciences of the College of Arts & Sciences.

Lastly, the generous word length given by the prompt would allow me to expand on every aspect of my answer rather than having to prioritize certain parts over others.

Not only did this prompt push me to examine what exactly my passions were and why they meant so much to me, the prompt also led me to study the websites of certain departments at the college more carefully than I ever would have otherwise. In doing so, I discovered a world of fascinating classes and resources, which made me fall in love with the school all the more.



Months after writing these essays and having almost completely forgotten about them, I logged into the applicant portals of the respective schools to find out that I was accepted into both.

Upon some thought, part of me realized that this was most likely not a coincidence. Other than the fact that the admissions officers probably thought I would be able to handle the academics, they must also have seen something in my essays that convinced that I’d be a good fit for their school. I had a feeling that as much as these essay prompts inspired me, the admissions officers were feeling some of that same inspiration upon reading my essay.

Of course, that could just be me reading a bit much into things, but I stand firm by my belief that supplemental essays can go a long way towards helping you decide whether a school is worth applying to or not. It’s a small glimpse into how the school will challenge you, your thinking, and your perspective.

So when you’re writing your essays, pay attention to how you feel. Like a job, if you truly enjoy what you’re writing, it won’t feel like work at all. That says more than you might initially realize about how well you’ll likely fit into the school that the prompt belongs to.   

June Xia

June is a junior at Cornell University studying biology. She attended public high school in the Philly suburbs, where she ate lots of water ice and hoagies. June enjoys watching TV, playing candy crush, and reading the New York Times. Writing poetry and knitting kept her sane during admissions season, plus a lot of chocolate and hugs; she made it out alive, and is all the more introspective and aware thanks to the experience.