Write to impress | A guide to writing university supplementary applications

January 2018

Nicole Wong

Schulich Leader at McMaster University

Photo Credits: Connor Maclean Photography

In economics, there’s a market structure (a way of organizing and characterizing the market) known as monopolistic competition. In this type of market, the industry contains many firms which are similar, but offer slightly different products (e.g. fast-food chains). To persuade the customer to spend money at their establishment, the firm must use many marketing strategies to differentiate their product, showing the consumer that investing with them will reap the biggest reward. When I learned about this in my first-year economics class, all I could think about was how similar this felt to university applications.

Think about it: in an applicant pool where everyone holds a similar average, comes from institutions with similar curriculum, and are generally all around the same age, the decision made by the university to choose to invest in your education comes down to what you can offer to them versus your competitor. For this reason, many universities offer a supplementary application, giving you the opportunity to differentiate yourself from the rest of the people vying for the same program. While you may think this application is annoying or even unnecessary, it’s in fact a crucial — and even beneficial — way of showing a school that you have a lot more to offer than just brains.

Therefore, it is important that you monopolize on this opportunity in order to put your best foot forward! Writing a strong application can greatly improve your chances of getting accepted to the university you desire, since it gives you an opportunity to showcase everything you’ve done up until now, and illustrate the potential you have to be successful in the future. Let’s dive straight in!

If you have the option, always write an application

Let’s get real here: a lot of people have a decent-to-above average throughout their grade 12 career. They meet the minimum average for programs across the country, and they are probably applying for many of the same programs as you. But, what makes you different from everyone else? Do you volunteer on Sundays at your church? Do you participate in varsity sports? Do you dedicate your time to music, and make use of the time other people use to study by filling it with rehearsals? Any sort of activity differentiates you from everyone else, and being able to show a university that you can do all of that and keep the required average can say a lot. The application is a place where you can have the opportunity to showcase yourself, meaning it’s always a good idea to take advantage of the application (even if it’s optional).

Make the most of the character count

With thousands of applications coming in, it’s no surprise that universities place a word/character count on their applications. If you like to write a lot — like me — these can be the bane of your existence! However, they did teach me to get to the point. Universities want to know what you did, what role you played, and what impact it had. While it’d be great to explain how it helped you grow and what you took away from it, you often don’t have enough space to hit all of those ideas. As long as you identify what you were a part of, explain your role in it (did you run the organization, play an executive role, or simply participate?), and talk about how your contribution helped, you’ve got your bases covered. If you have the extra space, you can go into more detail, but make sure you have your major commitments covered first.

Also, if the application contains many parts, it helps to spread your commitments out over the different sections. Talk about your community involvement in one, highlight your leadership in another, and use your best anecdote to illustrate how you faced conflict in a group setting. Having a sense of humour is refreshing as well; the person reviewing your application may be reading 50–100 applications in one go, so giving them something to chuckle over may increase your chance of being remembered out of that stack. Each question is another chance to show another face of you, so use them to your advantage.

Be yourself in the application

This sounds super cheesy, but having read many applications before, you can tell when someone is being way too formal in their writing style, almost to the point where it’s choppy and unnatural. From the perspective of the person writing, you will often find yourself with a WikiHow tab on one side of your laptop, and a Thesaurus.com tab open on the other. As much as it sounds great to upgrade your lexicon with some online succor, in some circumstances that plethora of new morphemes can feel a bit maladroit. Doesn’t sound like the kind of sentence that comes naturally, right? You also can’t be sure if you’re using these synonyms correctly… exhibit A: me in that last sentence. While being professional is good, you don’t necessarily have to be Shakespeare in order to have a well-written application.

Speaking of showing yourself: since your application is supposed to represent you, don’t be afraid to let your personality shine in it! If you love puns, put a pun in there. If earth science is your thing, let them know! When I interviewed people for exec positions on my high school council, I loved it when they reflected themselves in their application. When they’d come in, I knew how genuine their application was as soon as they started talking. They embodied themselves in their writing, which showcased their authenticity and character.

It’s also easy to forget that, in an application, they’re trying to determine if you’d fit into the program, not just if you’d be able to excel in it. My favourite example of this phenomenon is right here at Mac, in the two-word program that starts with an H and ends with -ences. I’m sure that everyone who wants to get into this program has the capacity to excel in it. The smartest people I know have written their hearts out to try and enter this program, yet were turned down over other applicants. However, the people reading the application are often looking for students that will fit the structure and atmosphere of the program. For those people, their application reflected a personality and point of view which could work well in the health sciences environment; having met many of the people who got accepted, I can tell you that they do a good job of selecting these applicants. You don’t have to cater to what you think they want to hear; if you write with your viewpoint in mind, the application will speak for itself. Maybe it’s not the program for you! Have confidence in what you write, and it’ll help you find the program that fits you best.

Don’t be humble

While you may be thinking that this is a shallow and inconsiderate piece of advice, to me, it speaks to the nature of supplementary applications. If you leave anything out, the people reading it won’t know about it. They’ll never email you back with the question: “so, are we missing any information from your application?” They’ll take what they get at face value, and will make their decision based off of what’s written there. Your supplementary application is meant to display all that you’ve done, so if you’ve done cool things, PUT THEM DOWN! Running your student council, taking coding classes downtown, and being invited to perform spoken word at a local slam could display talents and characteristics not seen in other candidates. Don’t be afraid to talk about how strong your leadership skills are. Don’t be afraid to highlight the fact you were student of the month at your school, or that you have your ARCT in piano. Don’t be afraid to show them how amazing you are; in the end, you are amazing, and you therefore have the right to prove it!

An edit goes a long way

As a last piece of advice, I cannot stress the importance of peer editing. Being someone who loves to talk…if you couldn’t already tell… my sentences would always be spattered with unnecessary information. This even rang through in my research essays: for me my paragraphs were enough, but to my editor/friend it was to much. She was always right in the end; nevertheless, I would’ve never known if someone hadn’t come and ripped into my work. I always recommend finding an English-savvy friend to look over your application, allowing it to be reviewed by a fresh set of eyes. Be honest: how many times have you read over a paragraph multiple times, only to have your friend catch three grammatical errors and a spelling mistake? Let someone read it over, just to make sure you haven’t missed anything crucial.

It can also help to have an upper-year student (e.g. someone already in post-secondary) edit your work; they have a more experienced perspective to offer, and may have suggestions that you would’ve never thought of. You may feel slightly defensive and annoyed during the whole process — watching someone change the work you’ve spent hours on can lead to a weird feeling — but that’s natural. Criticism can hit hard, but the only thing that can come out of it is a stronger application.

In the end, you’ve got this! Go in there with the best shot you’ve got, and know that whatever happens, you’ve at least written an awesome application.


For more awesome articles like these, visit Nicole's Medium page: medium.com/@nerdfaithinsci


Photo credits: Connor MacLean Photography