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How to Write the Amherst College Supplement Essays 2017-2018

Amherst College is a liberal arts college located in Amherst, Massachusetts. It is an exclusively undergraduate institution comprised of roughly 1900 students. Amherst College is known for its open curriculum, which allows students the opportunity to take a wide variety of courses on a plethora of different subjects. It is also part of the Five College Consortium, which allows Amherst students to take classes at all participating colleges and universities: Hampshire College, Mount Holyoke College, Smith College, and the University of Massachusetts Amherst.


Amherst is a highly selective college, accepting just 14% of applicants in 2016. However, its small size makes the admissions process more intimate and personalized. Its application supplement is unique in that one of the options is to turn in a previously-written high school paper. There is also the option of writing a more traditional essay response if you feel more comfortable doing so. Lastly, there is an optional space to include a brief description of any significant research you have done.


Amherst College Essay Prompts

The Amherst writing supplement asks applicants to choose between writing an essay response to a given quotation (Option A) or submitting a graded paper from the applicant’s junior or senior year of high school (Option B). This requirement is in addition to the essays required by the Common Application. Applicants must choose one, but not both, of the aforementioned options.


Which option is right for you? This depends on several factors. If you are really proud of an essay you wrote for your AP English Literature class, then perhaps Option B is the right choice. On the other hand, if one of the quotations really speaks to you, and you think you can write an amazing response to it, then it might be better to pick Option A.


If you’re unsure about what path to take, then it might be a good idea to write the essay response for Option A first. If you decide later on that it is not your best work, you can always resort to using one of your high school papers. Just make sure it’s one of your best ones!


Note: If you have submitted an analytical essay in response to the “essay topic of your choice” prompt in the Common Application writing section, you should NOT select Option B. Instead, you should respond to one of the four quotation prompts in Option A.

Option A: Essay Response (300 words or less)

Please respond to one of the following quotations in an essay of not more than 300 words. It is not necessary to research, read, or refer to the texts from which these quotations are taken; we are looking for original, personal responses to these short excerpts. Remember that your essay should be personal in nature and not simply an argumentative essay.


Before starting to write your essay response, remember that it is not necessary to do any research into the quotation you pick. The prompt is asking you to write your response based solely off the text provided — nothing more, nothing less. The admissions committee really wants to analyze not only your writing skill, but how well you are able to analyze the quotation and the unique way in which you process it.


So, although it may be tempting, don’t do any research into the quotation you decide to write your response about. Do, however, make sure that your essay reflects your true feelings and thoughts about the quotation you choose. 300 words isn’t actually that much, so it’s really important that your response be succinct.


There are four prompts to choose from if you pick Option A.

Option A: Prompt 1

Rigorous reasoning is crucial in mathematics, and insight plays an important secondary role these days. In the natural sciences, I would say that the order of these two virtues is reversed. Rigor is, of course, very important. But the most important value is insight — insight into the workings of the world. It may be because there is another guarantor of correctness in the sciences, namely, the empirical evidence from observation and experiments. – Kannan Jagannathan, Professor of Physics, Amherst College

This prompt is a great choice if you are at all interested in mathematics, logic, or any science-based major. Did you love your AP Bio class? Are you fascinated by physics and Newton’s laws of motion? If so, then consider choosing this quotation for your essay response. This quote discusses the importance of insight, especially when working with the natural sciences.


A successful scientist, according to Jagannathan, is really in tune with the workings of the world. In other words, he or she is curious about the way things work and makes an effort to understand how it happens. Jagannathan seems to imply that this insight is necessary, above all else, in order to really understand how things work. Coupled with evidence, insight can allow a scientist to make astounding revelations.

A few ways to approach your essay response:


  • Discuss your fascination with something — it could be anything. Maybe when you were younger, you were amazed at how caterpillars turn into butterflies. Write about your initial curiosity. Then, expand on how you came to better understand the topic. Perhaps you asked your teacher questions or simply spent more time observing your surroundings. Maybe, if you were really passionate, you asked your parents to let you grow caterpillars yourself in order to track their changes.


  • If you conducted your own research on a topic, be sure to describe every stage of your project in detail. In the above example, you should mention the way you measured the caterpillars’ growth over time. You should also discuss what you learned from your research, and if that differed from what you expected to find.


  • One last thing you could do is describe how your curiosity helped fuel your love of the sciences. Talk about why you want to be a chemist, or write about your dreams of becoming a doctor. Enlighten the admissions committee on your current goals, and how your insights into the workings of the world helped shape them.


  • It is important to include something personal in your essay response. Don’t just talk about science as an abstract subject, but really let your interest in it show. This will make for a great response.

Option A: Prompt 2

Translation is the art of bridging cultures. It’s about interpreting the essence of a text, transporting its rhythms and becoming intimate with its meaning… Translation, however, doesn’t only occur across languages: Mentally putting any idea into words is an act of translation; so is composing a symphony, doing business in the global market, understanding the roots of terrorism. No citizen, especially today, can exist in isolation — that is, untranslated. – Ilan Stavans, Professor of Latin American and Latino Culture, Amherst College, Robert Croll ’16 and Cedric Duquene ’15, from “Interpreting Terras Irradient,” Amherst Magazine, Spring 2015.

If you happen to be interested in the humanities, especially the social sciences, then this is the perfect prompt to choose. This is a great way to reflect on your love of music, of foreign languages, even of business. In this passage, Stavans concludes that translation occurs often and everywhere; in fact, an act of translation is anything that involves some crossing-over.


Stavans also comments that an isolated individual is essentially untranslated. This highlights the importance of relationships in today’s global world. For your essay response, come up with your own example of a translation, and discuss how it brings people out of isolation. If they apply to you, consider the examples given — composing a symphony, doing business — or use something that applies to your own life.

A few ways to approach your essay response:


  • You could argue that dance is an act of translation. Though it does not put an idea into words, it does put an idea into motion. A dance exudes pure emotion: No matter who is watching, whether they speak English or Spanish, whether they are young or old, they would be able to understand what the dancer is feeling and why. Dance is a way of communicating, just like speaking or writing.


  • You should structure your response by first introducing your theme (i.e., dancing). Write about how watching a dance makes you feel. Show how dancing can change the atmosphere around you. Then, explain how this act is an example of a translation. Convince your readers that dancing is a way of helping others relate to one another. For example, you could also talk about the wide variety of dances, such as ballroom dance and hip hop, and discuss how each of them is a symbol of a certain culture. When someone learns a dance, they are able to understand the culture of the people who created it. Lastly, reflect on how dancing makes people less isolated. Conclude your response by commenting on the importance of relationships in today’s global world, and why acts of translation are so important.


  • Alternatively, you could discuss the increasing connectedness of the world by discussing how hard it is to not perform acts of translation. Provide examples of what an “untranslated” life would be. Then, show how this is not possible due to the relationships and interactions people inevitably make.

Option A: Prompt 3

Creating an environment that allows students to build lasting friendships, including those that cut across seemingly entrenched societal and political boundaries… requires candor about the inevitable tensions, as well as about the wonderful opportunities, that diversity and inclusiveness create. – Carolyn “Biddy” Martin, President of Amherst College, Letter to Amherst College Alumni and Families, December 28, 2015

If you are really committed to social justice, love to discuss politics, or hope to make the world a better place through activism, then consider choosing this prompt. When it comes down to it, this prompt is similar to Prompt 2 — it too discusses a type of translation. However, it focuses more on problem-solving and making the most of a situation than the actual crossing of boundaries.


Martin, the President of Amherst College, believes that the strongest relationships require candor, or transparency, in order to thrive. In any friendship, there will be potential disagreements; however, these can be lessened with frank discussions. On a similar note, discussion can also make a friendship much more rewarding because both parties are aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Martin thinks it is important to create an environment where healthy relationships can thrive.

A few ways to approach your essay response:


  • One option is to write about a specific friendship that meets Martin’s requirements of a successful relationship. This could be the relationship between you and a friend, the relationship between your parents, or even the relationship between two politicians or celebrities. Provide numerous examples of how the parties in the relationship show candor. How do they resolve tensions while also making the most of inclusivity and diversity? For example, if you choose to write about yourself and your brother, you could explain that despite your many fights over the years, you still have a healthy relationship. In your essay response, show how this came to be. Pick one or two of the more memorable fights that you remember, and then describe how you reconciled with your brother. Write about how you learned to make amends, and how this was accomplished through honest conversations.


  • To wrap things up, discuss what kind of an environment is needed for such a relationship to grow in the first place. Did the way your parents raise you have an effect on how you pursue relationships? Provide an example of how one of their lessons influenced you to go above and beyond in a relationship. Lastly, you could give a few suggestions of how to ensure that a healthy environment for relationships to grow is maintained. For this prompt, it is a good idea to include both a personal anecdote — like the example of a friendship — and the way it ties into the world at large. For example, maybe give a few suggestions of how lasting friendships can be created despite differences in political or religious backgrounds.

Option A: Prompt 4

Difficulty need not foreshadow despair or defeat. Rather, achievement can be all the more satisfying because of obstacles surmounted. – Attributed to William Hastie, Amherst Class of 1925, the first African-American to serve as a judge for the United States Court of Appeals

If you have overcome a significant challenge in the past, then this is the perfect opportunity to discuss your achievement while also reflecting on the quotation. This is the simplest of all the quotations, as well as the shortest, but don’t let that diminish the quality of your response.


Think about something you have achieved despite the many obstacles that stood in your way. Or alternatively, write about the achievement of someone in history that you particularly admire. If you choose to do the latter, then make sure you explain why you look up to the individual.

A couple of ways to approach your essay response:


  • You could talk about a recent move: having had to move away from your friends, but eventually fitting into your new surroundings. Alternatively, you could talk about a more personal goal, such as picking up a new language or learning a musical instrument. Think of something that you really worked hard on, and that you succeeded at even though it seemed impossible at the time. If you would rather write about an important historical event, the civil rights movement or the women’s suffrage movement are great examples.


  • When writing this essay response, don’t just state the achievement and list the obstacles faced. Really describe every part of the journey, including the context and your perspective at the time. Don’t tell, but show the struggles that you or the person you are writing about faced. Start your essay with a brief, but vivid, description of the achievement you decide to write on. Introduce your topic in an intriguing way — use sensory language and metaphors to embellish the story. Think about this introduction as a snapshot of a scene. You really want to transport your readers to the moment the action took place. After you have set the stage, explain how the mentioned obstacles were overcome. Most importantly, through using details from your story, directly show how the experience was able to catalyze meaningful change. For example, if you are discussing learning a new language, you could reveal that your commitment to studying for a least an hour every day led to you becoming a more dedicated person in other aspects of life.

Option B: High School Paper

Please submit a graded paper from your junior or senior year that best represents your writing skills and analytical abilities. We are particularly interested in your ability to construct a tightly reasoned, persuasive argument that calls upon literary, sociological, or historical evidence. You should NOT submit a laboratory report, journal entry, creative writing sample, or in-class essay.


Note: If you have submitted an analytical essay in response to the “essay topic of your choice” prompt in the Common Application writing section, you should NOT select Option B. Instead, you should respond to one of the four quotation prompts in Option A. Find out more about Option B here.


Carefully read the guidelines for submission of your high school paper. It must be a graded paper, argumentative in nature, that makes use of literary, sociological, or historical evidence. For example, a paper written for your English or history class would be suitable. It should be a paper that really shows off your best writing skills: your subtle use of metaphor, your varied word choice, your talent for embedding quotes and analyzing them.


If you’re still uncertain about what paper to choose, consider asking one of your teachers for advice. He or she will probably be more than happy to suggest which one of your essays you should submit.

Optional Research Question (50-75 words)

If you have engaged in significant research in the natural sciences, mathematics, computer science, social sciences, or humanities that was undertaken independently of your high school curriculum, please provide a brief description of the research project.

Note: In addition to this brief description, you will also have to provide answers to the following questions:

Where, when and under whose mentorship did you conduct this research? (Provide mentor’s name, title and institutional affiliation.)

If your research has been submitted to any national competition (e.g., Siemens, Intel) and/or accepted for professional publication, please provide additional details.

You should only respond to this question if you have conducted significant independent research. What counts as significant research? Perhaps you took your high school science fair project to the next level and were invited to show off your work at a national competition. Perhaps you simply decided to really dedicate yourself to one of your hobbies and now have a whole body of work to show for it.


The word limit for this response is only 75 words, so you should be extremely succinct in your description of your research. Include only absolutely need-to-know information. A good way to accomplish this is to touch upon the four W’s:


  1. Why did you do this research?
  2. What was it on?
  3. When (and for how long) did you spend on it?
  4. Where did you publish or present it?

Final Reminders

No matter what option you choose for your Amherst supplement, make sure that you are confident in your choice. Write an essay response that you are really proud of, or submit the high school essay that you worked on the hardest. The admissions committee wants to see your work ethic and dedication show in your writing.


In addition, don’t be afraid to be yourself. In your writing, show as much of your unique personality as you can. Instead of shying away from your weird obsessions and quirks, use those to set yourself apart.


Want help with your college essays to improve your admissions chances? Sign up for your free CollegeVine account and get access to our essay guides and courses. You can also get your essay peer-reviewed and improve your own writing skills by reviewing other students’ essays.

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