I’ve been busy during these past few months helping my students draw up college lists. One of the most important considerations on my part is what a particular school’s supplemental essay requirements are. Our college admissions system is broken. The Common Application was meant to help. But it has meant students are applying to more and more schools and acceptance rates at the top schools have gotten tiny. That means that each student has to apply to more schools.

It’s now rather formulaic that a student should apply to maybe four reach schools, four target schools, and four safety schools. That’s what many consultants recommend — a total of 12 or so schools.

Schools want to know if their applicants really want to go there. So it makes sense to have a “why here” supplemental essay question in addition to the Common App personal statement. But some schools go way beyond that. 

Pomona College in California wants to know how you eat a potato. That’s a question you’ll never see on a medical school or law school application. But apparently the time of 17 or 18-year-olds can be trifled with. UVA wants to know what your favorite word is. Some universities spring additional questions on you as you get into the application to specific programs.

Admissions teams only spend a few minutes reading essays that applicants may have spent hours on. Some people would like to see the SAT disappear. But I would like to see the essay disappear. If admissions teams are only going to glance quickly, it should be at something one can fairly glance at — the SAT score.

One college admissions blog suggests that students spend 20-30 hours on the Common App personal statement and 5-10 hours per school’s supplemental essays. But I would argue that some schools have supplemental essays that require more time than that. Keep in mind that seniors have to keep up their grades and participate in extracurriculars. And many have to maintain jobs. First semester of senior year is extremely important, in terms of grades.

Bottom line, I don’t try to steer students toward schools with burdensome or complicated supplemental essay requirements. If students are going to apply to several schools, why not add Bates, Colby, Middlebury, and Williams? The applications have fees, but they don’t require extra time. Time is a valuable commodity to a high school senior.