How to answer the University of Virginia's supplemental essays

college admissions Common Application supplements

School-specific supplements are an opportunity to share an intellectual interest, or an element of your life story, that might be missing from your main Common App essay. In this post, I will describe strategies for answering two supplement questions from the University of Virginia. Although my advice is tailored to these two prompts, my hope is to illustrate certain principles that will help you approach a range of supplement questions. 

The key principles are:

  1.  Reflect on what the question is really asking. What is the function of this prompt? Why would a university ask this question? What information is the question trying to elicit?
  2. Answer the question in a way that plays to your strengths. 

Consider this supplement question:

What work of art, music, science, mathematics, literature, or other media has surprised, unsettled, or inspired you, and in what way?

This is a question about education. The experience you are asked to describe—being “surprised, unsettled, or inspired” by a work of art or science—is the basis of an education in the liberal arts and sciences. 

So, you can use this question to indicate a particular intellectual interest, by naming a book or film or scientific idea that moves you. But you should also be aware that your response will suggest something about your attitude toward education more broadly. Are you receptive? Critical? Curious? Skeptical? Ironic? Argumentative? Awed? There is no “correct” pose to strike. Be truthful and introspective.

First, choose the work you will discuss. Your selection needs to be a sufficiently complex object to merit some analysis. It can be a painting, a sculpture, a photograph, a dance piece, a song, a poem, a novel, a play, a film, a work of history or biography or philosophy; it can be a scientific paper or book, a set of architectural blueprints or engineering diagrams, or a particular mathematical discovery or concept. It does not need to come from the domain of high culture—it’s fine to talk about, for example, a folk song rather than a Beethoven symphony—but your response should have some intellectual heft. If you’re choosing the latest Marvel movie, you’ll need to have a very clever perspective on it.

Second, describe how you responded to the work, and reflect on why you might have responded the way you did. Issues of identity might come in here, if relevant—perhaps you read a powerful novel about gay experience, or an eye-opening report on poverty—but they don’t need to. Note that the question includes emotional states that are negative or equivocal: “surprised,” “unsettled.” When we encounter a work that “surprises” or “unsettles” us, what is happening is a process of expansion: we recognize that the world is larger, or more complex, than we may have thought. Reflecting on the work that moved you, ask yourself: What changed? Did the work lead you to adopt new attitudes? Did it enlarge your sense of your own possibilities? Did it force you to confront some truth you’d been avoiding? 

Let’s now consider another prompt:

What’s your favorite word and why? 

This is a question you can take in multiple directions. It can be highly idiosyncratic, expressing your personality and sense of humor. It can be an entry point into a discussion of culture and heritage. It can name an interest or activity you’d like to describe (if you’re an actor, maybe your favorite word is: “Action!”). Choose a path that reflects your strengths. What do you want the admissions committee to know about you?

Because this prompt is about a favorite word, your response should convey an appreciation of the power of language: its musicality, the ideas it can contain, the history embedded in the words we use each day.

First, select a word. Any word will do, in theory. The word does not need to be complex or obscure (along the lines of, say, “lucubration” or “crystallinity”), but if you are choosing a very ordinary word, like “love,” be scrupulous about avoiding cliché.

You can choose a word from any language. If you grew up in a household where people spoke languages other than English, this essay would be a good place discuss your heritage and what it means to you, if you wish. 

You can also choose a technical term. If you love woodworking or ballet or computer programming, you could choose a specialized term from your field.

It is fine to choose a word simply because you like the way it sounds or the idea it expresses.

Second, reflect on the word’s function in your life. Why are you attached to this word? What memories and feelings does the word evoke? What stories does this single word open up?

Third, do a bit of research. Look the word up in a dictionary. Does it have multiple meanings? What is its etymology? Say the word aloud several times, paying attention to its sound, texture, and musicality. 

Your answer should define the word, explain its relevance to your life, and explore the realms of memory, history, and knowledge that this word unlocks. If you are successful, the reader of your essay will be won over—persuaded that this is a very special word indeed.

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