Barnard College Essay Example: Breakdown + Analysis

Barnard College is not only one of the oldest women’s colleges in the country, but also one of the few that remains all women. Students can, however, take classes and even major at Columbia University, which is located just across the street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

 

With an acceptance rate of just 14%, Barnard is incredibly selective. When applying to a school with such a low acceptance rate, writing strong essays is one way of ensuring that your application will stand out.

 

Here, we will analyze a response to one of Barnard’s essay prompts. This is a strong essay that demonstrates what admissions officers are looking for, and will give you a clearer idea of what approach you should take with your own essay!

 

Barnard Supplemental Essay Prompt

Pick one woman — an historical figure, fictitious character, or modern individual — to converse with for an hour and explain your choice. Why does this person intrigue you? What would you talk about? What questions would you ask them? (300 words)

This prompt allows you to illustrate something about your own personality by writing about someone else. When approaching this kind of prompt, the most important thing to remember is that, even though your essay is about someone else, your reader should still learn concrete information about you.

 

To avoid writing an essay that’s entirely about someone else, you should select a woman that has been genuinely impactful in your own life. If there is a clear connection between the woman you choose and your own life, your reader will be able to see what your interest in this woman says about you. And remember that the prompt gives you the freedom to choose a fictional woman as well.

 

For example, say you choose to write about the actress Margot Robbie. If you just write about how you think she’s a great actress and would like to learn more about the techniques she uses, your reader will learn more about her than you.

 

Instead, you should ground your essay in one of your own interests or personality traits. In this case, you might write about your desire to learn more about modern media culture in the United States. Margot could provide valuable insight on this topic, since she works as an entertainer in the US but was born in Australia, and thus could offer an outside perspective.

 

It’s also important to remember that this isn’t a particularly long essay, so your focus should be relatively narrow. You may well have several reasons for admiring the woman you choose, but you don’t have the space to elaborate on all of them. To prevent your essay from reading like a list of bullet points, we recommend selecting just a single, clear topic to focus on.

 

Although there is no one right woman to focus your essay on, there are a few categories of women that we suggest you avoid:

 

  • Incredibly mainstream figures. For example, the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will likely be a popular choice during this application cycle. Our recommendation to write about someone else is not in any way meant to detract from RBG’s accomplishments, but you want your essay to stand out, and that will be harder to do if hundreds of other applicants are writing about the same person. Other examples of women in this category would be Serena Williams, Taylor Swift, and Daenerys Targaryen.
  • Someone you could talk to in real life. The prompt asks about a hypothetical conversation, so if you choose your mom, a coach, or a teacher, you won’t really be answering the question even if the woman has had a huge impact on your life.
  • Political figures. It’s important to remember that you have no idea what your reader’s political beliefs will be, and if you choose someone like Hillary Clinton or Nikki Haley, you run the risk of unintentionally rubbing your reader the wrong way.
  • A woman you don’t know much about. If you’re relying on a Wikipedia bio to write your essay, the admissions officer reading it will be able to tell.

 

And with that, let’s take a look at a Barnard essay example, written by a real applicant!

 

Barnard Essay Example

She loved so fiercely that she carried her husband’s calcified heart with her wherever she went.  Her most famous work is responsible for countless spinoffs, discussions, and derivations,  approached from every angle. Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, pioneer of the sci-fi genre, daughter  of anarchist feminists, Gothic badass, and perpetually star-crossed lover, represents to me the  multiplicity of womanhood. 

 

We remember her today for her intellectual prowess in the literary and political fields. Less  often noted is the fact that her irrational, Romantic instincts guided her throughout her life.  Both were instrumental in her character, as I know they are in mine. Thus, our conversation  would revolve around the relationship between head and heart. 

 

Growing up, I struggled to reconcile my ambitions with what I deemed the “irrational” side of  me. My emotions and impulse contradicted so greatly with my goal to be the “strong female  protagonist” of my own life, someone who could compartmentalize a publicly infallible and  privately sensitive persona. 

 

But I’ve learned since from women like Mary that my vulnerabilities can and should be an  asset. We could discuss how her experiences as a mother and daughter shaped Frankenstein  the same way that I draw on my experiences to deepen my extracurricular passions, how her  life was guided by pursuits of both love and intellectualism, how I’ve learned that even my  academic or public responsibilities are inextricably tied to my identity as a woman, how we  contain multitudesemotional, intellectual, vulnerable, strongthat are all crucial to our  conceptions of womanhood.

Breakdown of This Barnard Essay Example

 

This essay has a clear, narrow focus, and the structure makes it incredibly easy for the reader to see what that focus is. The author begins by describing an underappreciated dichotomy present in Mary Shelley’s life, before explaining how this dichotomy is also present in her own life. The reader thus has no trouble understanding what the author’s interest in Shelley says about her own personality.

 

This response also directly responds to the original prompt. We know why the author is intrigued by Shelley and what she would like to talk about with her. Although the author doesn’t explicitly state the questions she would like to ask Shelley, her response does illustrate the aspects of Shelley’s life she is most curious about. Directly answering each question in the prompt is less important than clearly showing your personal connection to the woman you choose.

 

We will now analyze specific sections of this essay that illustrate its strengths.

 

She loved so fiercely that she carried her husband’s calcified heart with her wherever she went.  

 

From the very first sentence, the author uses vivid, engaging language to draw her reader in. If she had instead started this essay with something like “I would love to have a conversation with Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein,” she would run the risk of losing her reader before the essay even really starts, as this is a bland, generic opening sentence.

 

Now, your first draft may not have a great opening line, which is completely fine. But this kind of refined writing is something you should be thinking about as you revise, because seemingly small details like this are often what separate great essays from good.

 

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, pioneer of the sci-fi genre, daughter of anarchist feminists, Gothic badass, and perpetually star-crossed lover, represents to me the multiplicity of womanhood. 

 

Rather than simply saying “Mary Shelley represents to me the multiplicity of womanhood,” the author uses her writing to illustrate what she is talking about. By listing some of Shelley’s distinguishing features, she is showing her reader what she means by “multiplicity” rather than assuming the reader will understand her meaning

 

The author also uses this sentence to subtly showcase her own personality. Although we generally discourage swearing in your college essays, the phrase “Gothic badass” shows that the author has a sense of humor, and mixes up the tone of the essay. College essays are somewhat dry by nature, and your reader will appreciate clever writing like this.

 

Again, these techniques are fairly advanced, and you shouldn’t worry about them in your first draft. But once your actual ideas are down on paper, you should be thinking about how to present them in the most creative, engaging way possible.

 

We remember her today for her intellectual prowess in the literary and political fields. Less  often noted is the fact that her irrational, Romantic instincts guided her throughout her life.  Both were instrumental in her character, as I know they are in mine. Thus, our conversation  would revolve around the relationship between head and heart. 

 

After hooking her reader with a lively description of Shelley in the first paragraph, the author clearly states her personal connection to Shelley. In your own essay, you also want to make sure you connect yourself to the woman you have chosen fairly quickly, as if you wait until the end you won’t have space to elaborate on this connection

 

Additionally, here the author uses simple, direct language. In this instance, that is a good choice, because the dichotomy she is describing is fairly complex and she has to ensure her reader understands her meaning.

 

Growing up, I struggled to reconcile my ambitions with what I deemed the “irrational” side of  me. My emotions and impulse contradicted so greatly with my goal to be the “strong female  protagonist” of my own life, someone who could compartmentalize a publicly infallible and  privately sensitive persona. 

 

This paragraph, while solid, could actually be even better. While she clearly elaborates on the dichotomy between “head and heart” that she introduced in the previous paragraph, her elaboration could be more specific.

 

For example, the phrase “growing up” is generic and uninformative. Consider instead something along the lines of “I have often struggled to reconcile my ambitions with what I deemed the ‘irrational’ side of me. Despite my desire to be the ‘strong female protagonist’ of my own life, I couldn’t help but feeling intimidated when I walked into my first debate practice and immediately realized I was the only girl. My public persona may have been infallible, but privately I worried that I was being overly sensitive.”

 

This version gives the reader a much clearer sense of how the dichotomy in Shelley’s life has manifested in the author’s life. Of course, in a 300-word essay, you won’t have space to elaborate on everything. But in this essay, the author had 50 extra words, and this would have been a great place to use them.

 

We could discuss how her experiences as a mother and daughter shaped Frankenstein  the same way that I draw on my experiences to deepen my extracurricular passions…

 

On a similar note, if the author had included a specific anecdote earlier in the essay, the reader would have a much clearer sense of which “experiences” and “extracurricular passions” she is referring to.

 

…how we contain multitudesemotional, intellectual, vulnerable, strongthat are all crucial to our conceptions of womanhood.

 

Just as the author started strong, she concludes her essay with a flourish. By using the word “multitude,” she circles back to the first paragraph, and reminds her reader that her interest in Shelley stems from her representation of “the  multiplicity of womanhood.”

 

She also concisely summarizes Shelley’s impact on her own life: Shelley has helped her accept that there are many ways to be a woman, and that womanhood is not defined by any one attribute.

 

This final line gives the reader a clear takeaway, which is incredibly helpful, as they would have no problem answering what the essay was about. When your reader finishes your essay, they shouldn’t have any confusion about what you were trying to communicate. 

 

If you’re getting close to a final draft but you’re worried about your essay’s clarity, have someone who hasn’t seen any prior drafts read it over. Once you’ve read your essay dozens of times, it’s very hard to look at it objectively, so a brand new perspective at this stage can be incredibly valuable.

 

Looking for more help with your Barnard essays? Check out our Barnard essay guide.

 

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