The combo essay: not a lunch order!

college admissions Common Application supplements

Increasingly, schools are crafting a single supplement question that combines two “tried and true” supplements into one big question. Consider the “combo essay” the way for you to talk about the best aspects of why you want to attend College X combined with the ways you get to talk about your academic interests and passions as specific to that school. If we had to consider some supplement questions as more important than other questions, this one would trump them all. Spend a lot of time on this question! It really is your best opportunity to share two super important topics: why you want to go to one college and what, specifically, you would do once you got there!

Note: These questions will vary in length, but they will tend to be among the longer essay questions you will write, often somewhere between 400-650 words.

Example “Combo” Questions:

  • Penn: Considering the specific undergraduate school you have selected, how will you explore your academic and intellectual interests at The University of Pennsylvania?
  • Harvey Mudd College: What influenced you to apply to Harvey Mudd College? What about the HMC curriculum and community appeals to you? 
  • NYU: We would like to know more about your interest in NYU. What motivated you to apply to NYU? Why have you applied or expressed interest in a particular campus, school, college, program, and or area of study?
  • Princeton: What academic areas most pique your curiosity, and how do the programs offered at Princeton suit your particular interests?
  • Brown: Brown’s Open Curriculum allows students to explore broadly while also diving deeply into their academic pursuits. Tell us about any academic interests that excite you, and how you might use the Open Curriculum to pursue them while also embracing topics with which you are unfamiliar.
  • The University of Michigan: Describe the unique qualities that attract you to the specific undergraduate College or School (including preferred admission and dual degree programs) to which you are applying at the University of Michigan. How would that curriculum support your interests? 
  • UChicago: How does the University of Chicago, as you know it now, satisfy your desire for a particular kind of learning, community, and future? Please address with some specificity your own wishes and how they relate to UChicago.


While this might seem intuitive, it is essential that you address all of the parts of these questions. Do not give in to the temptation to simply write a “why do I want to attend X college” essay and not really dig into the academics. Similarly, don’t focus so much on your academic interests and background that you don’t make clear and explicit connections to the programs and majors offered at this college.

Be sure that your stated academic interests are connected to the work you have already done in high school, research internships, or summer programs. This is not a good time to “pull a rabbit out of a hat” metaphorically and write an essay about a topic about which you have little to no background. Don’t say you want to study neuroscience without some background in biology, psychology, and potentially some brain/neuro research on your transcript and activities list! Don’t say computer engineering if you have not taken any computer science courses at your high school.

Notice whether the question asks you about academics specifically, or if it asks you to make ties and connections to the broader college and philosophy of learning (Brown’s “open curriculum” for example). If the question pushes this, do not leave it behind!

It (hopefully) goes without saying, but this essay needs to be uniquely crafted for each school and cannot be a “find and replace” college name essay.

It (hopefully, also) goes without saying that the field of study you select for this essay is one that is actually offered by the college in question!


It might be tempting to go through the university course catalog online and find the names of three classes that you like and simply list these… as in “I cannot wait to attend College X so I can take Class A, Class B, and Class C.” Don’t do this! Even if those classes are offered by the time you are eligible to take them, this is a lazy answer. It will be more powerful to dive into a philosophy of research, a theory about learning, or a way that students at College X are trusted to approach learning that suits you instead.

Similarly, unless you have read work by the professor for a class in high school or a research project (and are therefore really familiar with how it ties directly to your interests), don’t just name a few professors under whom you are interested in studying. Again, this is a lazy way to go about this.

Additional Tips and Tricks:

Look for a speech by a recent or current President of the university. What does this individual highlight about their school? What resonates for you and how you want to learn? (Example: the President of Bard College talks a lot about how Bard helps students cultivate a “love of learning” … what do you learn about your college from what its leadership says? How can you use those words to support your essay here?)

Look for a history, mission, vision, and/or values page on the college’s website. What do you learn? What values does the college state it holds dear? How do these connect with how you like to learn?

It’s ok to be a bit undecided here about what you actually want to study (within the frame of the particular undergraduate college you are applying to). Be sure to frame your indecision as a love for many interconnected topics, disciplines, and ideas rather than as a general apathy toward making up your mind.

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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