Dartmouth Essay Example: Breakdown + Analysis

Dartmouth College has been a sought-after higher education institution since its founding in 1769. This Ivy League college boasts a tight-knit, engaging community that is tucked away in Hanover, New Hampshire. Dartmouth’s student body of around 4,400 is able to explore its interests in 40 departments, and through 65 distinct undergraduate degrees. 

 

Dartmouth College currently sits at #12 in U.S. News and World Report’s National Universities Ranking. For the Class of 2024, only 8.8% of all applicants were admitted, which is the third lowest acceptance rate in Dartmouth history. Writing strong essays is one of the most effective ways to stand out among the competition, especially since Dartmouth greatly values creativity in their applicants.

 

The best way to write well is to read well, so let’s analyze a response to one of Dartmouth’s supplemental essay prompts. This is a solid essay that demonstrates what admissions officers are looking for, and will give you a clearer idea of what approach you should take to write your own essay!

 

Dartmouth Supplemental Essay Prompt

The Hawaiian word mo’olelo is often translated as “story” but it can also refer to history, legend, genealogy, and tradition. Use one of these translations to introduce yourself. (250-300 words)

This prompt is inviting you to write about your roots ─ it is asking you what events, customs, and people from your past have made you who you are today. The goal of this prompt is to let Dartmouth gain a holistic understanding of who you are as a person. While your story will likely involve other subjects besides yourself, your conclusion should tie the story back to your identity. 

 

The ideal mo’olelo to write about would be one related to your ancestors, ethnicity, racial identity, religion, a family tradition, or a self-made custom. Choose the story which has had the most salient impact on your identity and which has a clear connection to you. For example, the story of your Tajik family’s Nowruz tradition, and how it makes you feel connected to your Tajik heritage, would certainly do the job. On the other hand, a story purely about how you like the tradition of Nowruz, without mentioning a personal reason for your interest and its impact on your life, would be too impersonal and academic for this prompt. 

 

It’s also important to keep in mind that the word limit is fairly short, so your essay should be focused on a single, clear topic. While your identity may be composed of multiple traditions, and your legend may have several main characters and takeaway lessons, you don’t have the space to elaborate on all of them. You will have to limit yourself to writing about the most impactful aspect of your story.

 

Dartmouth Essay Example 

My earliest memory is spinning in circles with folk dancers in a flurry of gold, red, and green embroidered on black dresses. We weren’t in a dance hall, but in a gymnasium, twirling on three-point arcs and free throw lines. The Bohemian Hall has tons of contradictions like that. In their beer garden, they serve chicken schnitzel and buffalo chicken wings, macaroni and cheese and tlachenka (head cheese). Happy drunken twenty-somethings pass by little kids and nobody thinks anything of it.

 

Like the Bohemian Hall, the apartment complex I grew up in had its own contradictions. Our Czech landlord, Jardo, was the stereotypical Slavic badass from the movies. Chatting up a crowd drinking their umpteenth Pilsners, he insulted a tenant that dared complain about asbestos in his apartment. After all, asbestos only spreads if you cut the old pipes. Hung on the walls of Jardo’s basement were works of all shapes and sizes, from the lush, rolling hills of Moravian landscapes to the curves of the female body in… suggestive posters. 

 

Jardo smelled of cigarettes and beer, which my mom told me to avoid at all costs. I wondered why she befriended him. But then I realized that he reminded her of home. We couldn’t go to the Bohemian Hall everyday, but we could always go to Jardo’s basement and talk Czechoslovak celebrity gossip. 

 

I am constantly brought back to my Slovak heritage, but it is influenced by American lifestyle. I eat goulash at Thanksgiving dinner, speak a mix of English and Slovak (Slovglish?) with my great aunt, and say Na zdravie! instead of Cheers! when I drink champagne on New Year’s Day. My Slovak-American heritage was, and always will be, perfectly contradictory. 

Essay Breakdown

 

This essay is excellent at telling a vivid story using flowing writing and an organized structure. It has a clear focus that explains how the past has forged the writer’s identity, starting with their earliest memory. The first paragraph establishes the themes of contradiction and the dichotomy between Slovak and American culture. The essay then expounds upon these themes with a human example of what “home” means for the writer’s mother, and ends with a riveting conclusion that clearly states the main message ─ the fascinating cultural contradiction of the writer’s heritage has created their mo’olelo

 

The essay responds to the full essence of the prompt from the angles of genealogy and tradition. She explains her traditions by showing her story rather than telling, which is crucial. The writer also doesn’t frame their essay in a cliché manner, such as by starting the essay with the phrase “the tradition which has had the largest impact on who I am is…” Starting in media res is a great strategy, as is adding unique human details to the story. Jardo would have been less interesting and amorphous had we not been told about his smell and attitude towards asbestos. The essay is the ideal balance between directly and indirectly answering the prompt.

 

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

 

My earliest memory is spinning in circles with folk dancers in a flurry of gold, red, and green embroidered on black dresses. 

 

This is an effective way to begin the essay because it hooks the reader. It’s intriguing because it doesn’t give us enough information to figure out the main topic of the essay, but just enough to become curious and continue reading. 

 

We weren’t in a dance hall, but in a gymnasium, twirling on three-point arcs and free throw lines. The Bohemian Hall has tons of contradictions like that.

 

In just two sentences, the writer showcases the main theme of their essay ─ the contrast between Slovak and American culture. The idea of a dance hall represents Slovak culture, with its formal balls where the dances of the black dresses are practiced in their original form. The gymnasium ties the story to the writer’s reality, which is rooted in American culture. The “three-point arcs and free throw lines” demonstrate the fact that Slovak traditions cannot be perfectly replicated in the US, and the writer’s reality is full of these natural culture clashes. To make sure the message is understood by all readers, they spell out their point with the second sentence. 

 

This part highlights the moment when the writer became conscious of their tradition and its contrasts with the culture of mainstream society. Doing so allows the writer to smoothly introduce their theme without breaking up their narration and making their essay too formal. It would be a good idea to emulate this strategy in your own introduction.

 

Like the Bohemian Hall, the apartment complex I grew up in had its own contradictions. Our Czech landlord, Jardo, was the stereotypical Slavic badass from the movies. Chatting up a crowd drinking their umpteenth Pilsners, he insulted a tenant that dared complain about asbestos in his apartment.

 

Once again, the writer reverberates the theme of contradiction. Here they connect the theme to their childhood, using the story of Jardo as an illustrative way to do so. The middle paragraphs of your essay should similarly tell a story, so you can show the details of your topic rather than reciting them in a list.

 

The creative language employed here is also noteworthy. The writer paints a picture with words by using the metaphor of a “Slavic badass” rather than going into detail about Jardo’s personality. They further explain his character by describing his actions, i.e. drinking and insulting, as a third person observer. The hyperbole of “umpteenth” adds humor to the essay, which always helps your essays if done subtly! 

 

We couldn’t go to the Bohemian Hall everyday, but we could always go to Jardo’s basement and talk Czechoslovak celebrity gossip. 

 

Here the writer explains the salience of the story of Jardo ─ Jardo represented the purest Slovak/Czech/Slavic space they could find in America and how they connected to it. The “how” part of your story is crucial. If you write an essay about your great grandfather who buried treasure in the middle of Kansas, your writing will read like a history article. However, if you demonstrate how your great grandfather’s treasure affected you ─ how your treasure hunt gave you a lasting interest in topography ─ your writing will become the supplemental essay Dartmouth is looking for. 

 

I am constantly brought back to my Slovak heritage, but it is influenced by American lifestyle. I eat goulash at Thanksgiving dinner, speak a mix of English and Slovak (Slovglish?) with my great aunt, and say Na zdravie! instead of Cheers! when I drink champagne on New Year’s Day. My Slovak-American heritage was, and always will be, perfectly contradictory. 

 

The first sentence of the conclusion brings back the duality of the writer’s heritage which was introduced in the beginning. Connecting the first and last paragraphs together this way is a great way to make the essay cohesive and memorable, as the admissions readers generally pay the most attention to the beginning and end of each essay. The examples of the writer’s cultural clash that follow breathe life into the nuances of their once-abstract statement. The final sentence succinctly ends the essay on a clean note about the contradictions behind the writer’s culture clash, which is definitely something to emulate.

 

While the essay has many strong points, it has some room for improvement. At 283 words, the writer has extra room they could take advantage of. The most valuable way they could use this space would be to expand their list of contradictions in the conclusion. Much of the essay focuses on the story of Jardo, and while this story is valuable, it could easily be condensed and retain its meaning. Meanwhile, comparisons between traits such as “Slovak frankness and American niceties” would add commentary that the writer couldn’t express with the Jardo story. 

 

The essay would also benefit from more comparisons that go beyond food and festivities, and ideally a sentence which shows how the writer’s Slovak heritage influenced them at the big picture level. It would be worthwhile to mention, for instance, that thinking about the “Slovak mentality” about macroeconomics made the writer interested in learning about political economy at college.

 

Further Resources

 

As you’re working on your Dartmouth supplemental essays, be sure to check out our Dartmouth essay guide for all of the prompts.

 

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