How to tackle the academic interest supplement

Academic Interest college admissions Common Application supplements

Why are you going to college? Hopefully to learn more about something that inspires you! While you might have many and varied reasons for attending college (someone told you that you had to, you are excited to watch a college basketball game live, you cannot wait to move to a new city), at the root of your college application is the presumption that college is a time for you to further your academic interests and to grow as a learner and thinker. As such, most colleges request a supplemental essay from you that allows you to explain your academic interest in greater detail. This supplement, sometimes connected with your “Why College X?” essay (as the “Combo Essay” here), is an opportunity for you to tell the admissions committee all about your academic interests and to lean in on the what and the why for your college aspirations. These essays tend to range in length from 50-350 words.

(Even if your colleges don’t ask you to develop an academic interest supplement, be prepared to answer this question for a college interview!)

Example Academic Interest Questions:

  • U of California: Think about an academic subject that inspires you. Describe how you’ve furthered this interest inside and/or outside the classroom.
  • MIT: Pick what field of study at MIT appeals to you the most right now, and tell us more about why this field of study appeals to you. 
  • Yale: As of this moment, what academic areas seem to fit your interests or goals most comfortably? Please indicate up to three from the list provided. Why do these areas appeal to you?

Let's break down the essential points you need to hit when responding to this supplement:

These questions lean on your ability to articulate (clearly) your academic interests and passions. While you might be somewhat undecided about your college major of choice, you need to have at least a few leanings that you highlight as potential majors. It is best when these leanings align with your most successful high school courses, some of your extracurricular activities, and/or the discipline of one of your teacher letters of recommendation.

Many of these questions ask “Why?” and therefore it is important to highlight the “why” along with the “what” of your interests.

Find a way to be specific, if possible! So many students might indicate an interest in being pre-med or in studying biology. Instead of just listing these interests (and joining the crowds), find a specific moment to make your essay stand out! Was your interest in biology piqued due to a lab? A research experience? A mentor? How can you make your essay unique and your own? 

Things to avoid:

While it is fine to have a range of interests, avoid coming across as directionless or scattered. Think about how you can keep your interests (particularly if you are asked to list more than one) aligned together to contribute to the full narrative of your application.

Do not go through the course catalog and find a course or three offered in your future department of study and indicate an interest in taking these. This is a very lazy way to approach this essay topic!

Do not “pull a rabbit out of a hat” here. Be sure that your future academic interests are connected to your past experiences. Don’t say that you want to study Chemistry when that is the lowest grade on your transcript! Don’t say that you want to study Neuroscience when your high school offers a Neuroscience elective that you did not take! Don’t say that you want to study History when your transcript is tilted toward STEM courses! Be mindful of the picture that your transcript, teacher letters, and activities will paint and keep your academic interests in line with what you are already presenting.

Do not pick something obscure or unpopular believing that your interest in the obscure will be the difference in your admission. The inauthenticity will ring out.

Additional Tips and Tricks:

Being mindful of word count and being careful about departments that might have slightly different names at different schools. You can likely reuse this essay for multiple applications; if you do, make sure you are submitting the draft of the essay appropriately tailored to the school at hand.

Even if you don’t have to write this essay for a supplement, thinking about your academic interests is excellent preparation for a college interview where you will inevitably be asked: “What do you want to study? Why that subject?”

Elise holds a BA in Political Philosophy from Williams College and an MEd in Administration & Social Policy from Harvard. She has spent the past twenty years working in top-tier independent schools.


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