The University of Virginia has always provided some of my favorite supplemental essay prompts (and not just because it’s where I went to grad school). They are short (250 words max) and they are personal. Both of these mean that a student is forced to get to their point quickly, something I find students struggle with when they have a longer word count, and they are forced to really think about what makes them tick.
If you look at all the available prompts offered in the first section of the UVa supplement, the theme would be this: What do you value? All four options essentially ask a student to address this larger question. Even the seemingly breezy, “what is your favorite word and why?” is essentially asking a student to give the reader a little insight into what they think is important. Because the four prompts focus on the same core question, let’s look more deeply at just one.
“UVa students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge and why is this your message?”
Just last week, I read one of the best responses I have seen for this prompt. The student talked about how “excess is a burden and minimalism is a gift.” He talked about how he doesn’t allow himself to buy new hangers for the closets in his house because when he buys something new that means something has to be discarded. His message for the Beta Bridge was: “The things you own end up owning you.” What I liked most was that his message was very personal and very specific. Do I know everything there is to know about this student? No. But I do know something very intimate about what makes him tick and that’s the whole point of this essay prompt. He values people over things and he proved it throughout the rest of the essay.
Now let’s talk about the supplemental prompt for those applying to the College of Arts and Sciences:
“What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?”
A few words of caution:
- I think the biggest mistake students make with this prompt is that they presume they should write about their favorite work of art, music, etc. But that’s not what the question asks. I always remind students of something very simple: read the prompt! “Surprised, unsettled, or challenged you” doesn’t mean liked. It might be your favorite, but it could very well be the opposite. I have had more than one student write this essay on “In Cold Blood.” Grappling with the idea of murder with no real motive is definitely troubling. This, however, leads to the second caveat.
- Remember there are two questions asked. Students often answer the first half and then forget to address the “in what way?” portion which is, frankly, the interesting part to an admissions officer. At the end of the day, the admissions officer doesn’t care about the book or the song. They care about you. They want to know why you picked this book or that piece of art, and what it tells them about how your mind works.
- This isn’t a book report. The response is challenging because students need to find the happy medium between assuming the reader doesn’t have knowledge of the piece of material in question, and also not wasting too much of the short 250 word count describing it. I’d spend no more than 75-100 words on the description of the work and then spend the rest on your reaction to it.
I hope the rising seniors out there are having a great summer. I share our essay prompts for the next year each June with the hopes that we'll give you plenty of time to think about which one is right for you. If you are thinking about writing your essays this early, I hope you'll revisit them before you actually submit an application. It's amazing how much can change in a few months.
I have three pieces of advice for you as you think about your essays:
1. Don't overthink the topic. These questions are deliberately broad so that people can take their essays in many directions.
2. Don't feel limited to the essay formula you may use for academic writing. While the five-paragraph essay (an intro, three supporting sections, and a conclusion) you use in school is technically correct, it might not be the best way to get your style and voice to come across.
3. Don't feel obligated to use all of the advice you get. You'll obviously want to get some people you trust to read your essays and give you feedback, but it's okay to ignore feedback that doesn't fit your style.
I'll elaborate on those points in future posts. Now, let's get to the prompts. This past year's applicants submitted some really wonderful essays, so we didn't feel the need to make major changes to our prompts. Remember that these short essays are in addition to your longer Common App essay.
2017-2018 First-Year Application Essay Questions
1. We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists. Answer the question that corresponds to the school/program to which you are applying in a half page or roughly 250 words.
- College of Arts and Sciences - What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?
- School of Engineering and Applied Sciences - If you were given funding for a small engineering project that would make everyday life better for one friend or family member, what would you design?
- School of Architecture - Describe an instance or place where you have been inspired by architecture or design.
- School of Nursing -
- Kinesiology Program - Discuss experiences that led you to choose the kinesiology major.
2. Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words.
- What’s your favorite word and why?
- We are a community with quirks, both in language and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.
- Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the UVA culture. In her fourth year at UVA, Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore and why?
- UVA students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge and why is this your message?
I'm happy to answer questions about our prompts in the comments!