How to Tackle the Dartmouth Supplement and Peer Recommendation Letter 2014-15
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Note: this blog post has been updated for the 2015-2016 application cycle. To view the most recent version, click here.
Located in Hanover, New Hampshire, Dartmouth’s campus is surrounded by trees. You might not be able to tell from the outside, but within this often-cold forest you’ll find an Ivy League college home to over 4200 undergraduate students and over 40 academic departments. With notable Dartmouth alumni including Stephen Colbert, Mindy Kaling, Robert Frost, and even Dr. Seuss, it’s no wonder why Dartmouth makes its way onto so many students’ college lists.
In addition to the Common Application essays, Dartmouth’s writing supplement requires students to answer one of five provided answer prompts. Your final answer should be anywhere from a paragraph to a page long. Let’s take a look at each question one by one:
Every name tells a story: Tell us about your name—any name: first, middle, last, nickname—and its origin.
Choosing to answer this essay prompt can be extremely effective if you have an interesting or atypical first name. For example, maybe your first name is not very common in the United States but is actually one of the most popular names from where you were born. In this case, you could use the origin of your name to talk about how your birthplace shaped who you are today. From there, you could analyze the influence of the culture of your hometown on your upbringing. Another potential strategy is to talk about your last name—since your surname is passed down from generation to generation, writing about your last name can allow you to shed light on your family and how they influenced you.
Yet another potential way to approach this essay is to talk about the relationship between your first name and last name. This particular approach might be effective for students whose parents immigrated to the US from another country. For example, if your name is “Alex Takahashi,” you can use the two halves of your name to explain your struggle with understanding your own cultural identity—do you identify as Japanese, as your last name suggests? Or American? Or both?
Finally, for those of you with legal names that don’t have too much hidden meaning, there is always the option to talk about a nickname you have. By writing about a nickname that you have and telling the story behind it (or a story associated with it), you can launch into an essay that reveals a defining part of your personality. For example, if your nickname is “Bei Bei,” which in Chinese means “treasure,” you could recount how you were spoiled as a child. From there you could launch into an introspective anecdote in which one day you realized that caring about others is far more rewarding than caring only about yourself. In this instance, admissions officers who read your essay would now understand why your application is filled with community service. Choosing to write about a nickname certainly can give you the most flexible options. Our only advice is to not make up any nicknames—even if you can craft a pretty convincing essay, the idea of getting into Dartmouth by writing about a fake nickname will probably make you feel pretty uncomfortable.
Tell us about an intellectual experience, either directly related to your schoolwork or not, that you found particularly meaningful.
This prompt allows you to showcase your intellectual development and can be particularly attractive to students who consider themselves deeply passionate about a certain topic or concept. Indeed, students who have yet to find a true intellectual passion should probably stay away from this essay. Some of the best essays that answer this prompt will involve a degree of analysis that only those truly interested in the subject will appreciate while simultaneously explaining why the experience means so much to them. For example, if you once wrote 18 pages on the history of jazz when only 2 pages were required for your US history class, you might want to talk about how that experience shaped your understanding of the music and how you approached jazz band practice thereafter. Not only will admissions officers have a taste for your intellectual voracity, but also you will be able to convey some personality traits that college admissions officers love—passion, tenacity, and self-driven are some adjectives that come to mind.
When you meet someone for the first time, what do you want them to know about you, but generally don’t tell them?
This essay question seems pretty much the same as the 5th one in that the question is worded in such a way that you can talk about anything you want. However, this prompt is different in that it allows you to talk about what you do tell people when you first meet them. In the beginning of your essay, you have an opportunity to reveal what people might think of you right when they meet you; after that, you can begin to talk about something deeper. So for example, you might first concede that on the surface you seem like a teenager who only cares about sports and lifting weights; this assumption is supported by the fact that you come from a family of athletes and you generally only talk about football and getting huge. However, the rest of the essay can be used to talk about how you are deeply passionate about astrophysics and how, unbeknownst to most people, you spend most of your weekends working in a lab at the local university. Thus, as you might guess, this essay lends itself well particularly to students who consider themselves “living dichotomies.”
Another way to approach this essay is to talk about an unfortunate event that happened in the past and how it shaped you. If you truly have a story that you believe is intrinsic to who you are, then feel free to share it. However, one note of warning if you choose to write about something tragic—if you are overly dramatic about something that isn’t actually a tragedy, you will written off as immature and potentially even insensitive. Tread carefully.
Describe the influence your hero has had on your life.
This prompt is reminiscent of the classic essay question, “Describe someone who you look up to.” The most important thing to remember is that no matter whom you choose, whatever you say about your hero will be reflected back onto you. So if you say that your hero is your grandma because she always made time for her family throughout all of her years even when she was busy or sick, then you are essentially saying that you strongly value the concept of family. One thing to note, though, is that you must make sure to write about how your hero “influenced” you. This impact is best explained through anecdotes—an especially well-written recount of a special moment that you shared between you and your hero can lend great insight into the types of person you are today.
We believe it is critical that your candidacy reflect the interests, experiences and pursuits that are most important to you. To this end, is there anything else you would like us to know?
This question is Dartmouth’s “Write about anything!” prompt. If Dartmouth is not your first choice school and you don’t feel like writing a new essay from scratch, you may choose to reuse an essay from another school’s application and paste it here. Just make sure to change any references to “Harvard Crimson” or “Johns Hopkins” or “Scarlett Knights” to the appropriate Dartmouth equivalents; forgetting to do so is a pretty good way to guarantee that you won’t be going to the New England school.
Peer Recommendation Letter
One of the unique aspects of Dartmouth’s application is that the school gives you the option to send in a peer recommendation letter. Essentially, the letter functions much like the recommendation letters that you ask your teachers to write for you. The twist, though, is that one of your friends will write it. An effective use of this recommendation letter is to treat it as an opportunity to show admissions officers what you will bring to the Dartmouth community socially. To this end, most students choose their best friends as their recommenders, which is definitely not a bad idea. In reality, there is no incorrect way to write this letter (as long as you don’t choose anyone that will bad-mouth you), but you will want to choose a friend who can speak to your personality and character in a way that most teachers can’t. Stress to your friend to use anecdotes and specific examples of when you demonstrated certain characteristics. For example, if you once drove 4 hours in the middle of the night to pick up your friend because you promised him, then your friend can use this example to show that you are a man or woman of your word.