Budget time for hidden essays on the Common App

Following up on last week’s newsletter: If you’re a rising senior and using the Common App this fall, I wanted to say a few words about what I call “hidden essays.”

There are several kinds of essays in the Common App:

  1. The Common App Personal Essay: That one goes to all the colleges you apply to on the Common App.
  1. The Supplemental Essays: The colleges can have their own, college-specific essay prompts, and those show up in their “supplements” on the Common App. Most essay prompts in the supplements will need to be written by everyone applying to that college.

For example, last year USC had two longer essays and a bunch of short answer questions that everyone had to submit if they were applying to USC, in addition to the Common App Personal Essay.

  1. The Hidden Essays: Other essay prompts on a college supplement might show up only for some applicants, for example only those who select a certain major in the Academic Interests section that appears elsewhere in that college supplement.

It’s that third category I want to talk about today.

For example, last cycle the USC supplement had two hidden essays that popped up — and that you could only see — if you had selected an engineering major in the Academic Interests section of the USC supplement.

Both hidden essays were 250 words on topics that required time, thoughtfulness, and effort to do well. Here’s what those looked like:

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The reason those hidden essays trip a lot of people up is because those prompts are NOT included on the Common App’s index of college-specific essay prompts, aka Writing Requirements.

The USC entry, for example, included the two essays that every USC applicant had to write, but said only this about the possibility of hidden essays:

Additional questions may be triggered by answers you provide in your application.

Not a peep about what those triggers are, or what the triggered essay questions are.

So make sure to budget plenty of time for your essay writing — more than you think you’ll need.

If you rely only on those published essay prompts to figure out how much time you’ll need or how many essays you’ll need to write, you won’t have budgeted time for the hidden essays that may or may not pop up based on the answers you provide elsewhere in any given college supplement.