How to Write the Amherst College Supplemental Essays 2018-2019

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Amherst College is a private college located in the college town of Amherst, Massachusetts. A small school with a student body of just under 2,000 undergraduates, Amherst is very selective. Just 12.8% of applicants were admitted to the Class of 2022 from a pool of 9,722 applicants. Approximately 37% of these accepted students were admitted through early decision.

 

Amherst boasts an open curriculum, meaning that students have only one required seminar outside of their major rather than a full set of general education requirements. Just as unique as its curriculum structure is Amherst’s supplemental essays. To apply to Amherst, you’ll have to submit three short answer responses, listed below.

Amherst College Essay Prompts

Prompt 1: 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. (75 words)

 

Prompt 2: Please briefly elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience of particular significance to you. (175 words)

 

Prompt 3: Choose one of the following options:

 

Prompt 3 Option A: 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.

 

Option A1: “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

 

Option A2: “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.

 

Option A3: “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.

 

Option A4: “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

 

Prompt 3 Option B: 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. 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.

The first two prompts are fairly straightforward; they’ll provide you with the opportunity to provide information about activities in which you participated in high school. The first prompt, which is optional, relates to research and asks for a short description of a project that you completed outside of school.

 

The second prompt is common for supplemental essays; it is likely that you will see this prompt again in a different application. It asks for you to provide more information about an extracurricular activity that you participated in during high school.

 

Amherst’s third supplement is where things may get confusing. But don’t worry, we’ll break it down further for you. For this essay, you’ll choose from two options. Option A asks you to respond to one of four quotations in a personal manner. If you choose Option B, you’ll be asked to submit a graded persuasive essay from your junior or senior years of high school that is backed by evidence.

Prompt 1: 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. (75 words)

Note that this prompt is optional. Only respond to it if you have conducted significant research outside of class, meaning that you didn’t receive credit or a grade for it and didn’t do it as part of a course. If you haven’t done so, it’s advisable to skip this optional prompt. What counts as significant external research? Here are some examples:

 

  • Summer camps during which you completed a research project, like SSTP, YSP, or RSI
  • Science fairs taken beyond the school level, perhaps to regional, state, or national competitions
  • Independent research into a topic that interests you, like learning more about the history of your favorite hobby or how programming languages differ from each other

 

Once you decide what to write about, one of the toughest parts of responding is likely going to be sticking to the constricting word count of only 75 words. With such a short word limit, it is advisable to provide a few key details:

 

What was the project? Give a brief description of your research query and what you did to explore it.

Why did you do it? What sparked your interest or led you to pursue this project?

When did you complete it and how long did you spend on it?

Who did you work with, if anyone, and where did you publish or present it, if applicable.

 

Although providing this many details in so few words may seem overwhelming, it’s easier once you realize you can combine some of them. Here are a couple of examples:

Example 1: Last summer, as part of my participation in FSU’s Young Scholars Program, I worked with a peer over the course of six weeks to explore the effects of bonding various heavy metal atoms to protein structure through x-ray crystallography at cryogenic conditions. (What, When, and Who)

 

Example 2: Driven by my curiosity and love of Margaret Atwood’s work, I spent the last three months of my sophomore year researching the biblical references in The Handmaid’s Tale and how they tie together. (What, Why, and When)

If you’re having trouble cutting your answer down, go line by line and take out any parts that don’t provide key information. If it doesn’t answer one of the five questions above, it probably isn’t necessary.

Prompt 2: Please briefly elaborate on an extracurricular activity or work experience of particular significance to you. (175 words)

It’s very likely that another school on your list uses this same supplemental essay prompt; if so, feel free to cut down or expand on your response for that school to answer this question or vice versa.

 

Which activity should you choose and what should you write about? Remember that you’re already submitting a list of your activities, with brief descriptions, to Amherst through the Common Application. Make sure that you’re not repeating information in this response because that not only wastes space, but also may make it seem as though you don’t have anything more substantial to offer. That being said, take this opportunity to supplement the information you’ve already provided. Look to see what information is lacking in your application and then choose an activity that allows you to provide it. Here are a few ways in which you can do that:

 

Add extra information about an activity you’ve already mentioned.

If you found yourself running out of space when describing your extracurricular in the section in the Common Application, this would be a great place to elaborate. For example, let’s say that you play soccer competitively, but you also serve as a mentor. In the Activities section of the Common Application, you can say something like “As captain of my high school’s soccer team, I led my team to first place at our regional tournament for three years consecutively and third place at state.” Then, you could use this supplement to discuss your mentorship role.

 

Explain your interest in a particular activity.

Often times, 100 characters just isn’t enough to explain why you do the things that you do. Let’s say you have an activity that you’re very passionate about or spend a lot of time on, but you don’t know if you’ve adequately conveyed this interest or the reasons behind it. This prompt could be a great chance to do so. As an example, let’s say that you take care of your younger siblings after school. Your take on this prompt could be to talk about why you decided to do so or what you do on an everyday basis.

 

Once you have a topic in mind, how should you approach writing this essay? One great way to start off essays is to use a narrative, but 175 words is a bit short. If you choose to start off this way, be sure to limit the narrative to a few sentences at most. For example, if you were to do the soccer essay mentioned above, you could start this way:

My team collectively sighed as one teammate missed her pass for what seemed to be the millionth time. Determined to try to improve not only her skills, but our team mechanics, I pulled her aside after practice and offered my help.

As another example, a response about taking care of your siblings could start with a scene of chaos.

I was going down. Burdened by my sister’s heavy toys, I slipped on the juice spilled from her sippy cup. Although me taking care of my siblings is essential for my mom to work, it is no easy task.

With this short of a response, it’s definitely okay to stick to a shorter opening sentence. Here’s an example of how that could work:

There’s no better feeling than the wind blowing in my face as I run down the soccer field. Or so I thought, until I started mentoring a younger team.

Now let’s talk about the rest of your response. What should you highlight? This is very dependent on your topic, but in general, your response should make it clear to a reader why you chose to write about it. Deciding what you want to showcase about yourself will guide the rest of your essay. Here’s a couple of examples of what you could choose to highlight:

 

  • Your passion
  • A character trait (for example, in the soccer essay you could focus on your compassion, your initiative, or your communication skills)
  • An accomplishment

 

Overall, focus on one attribute you want to portray in this essay and make it clear through the use of examples when possible.

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Prompt 3 Option A: 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.

Note that this is the first of two options for the third supplemental essay. If you choose this prompt, you’ll write a response to one of four quotes, which are listed below. This should be a personal reflection on the quote. Think about what it means to you and how it relates to your life and experiences. You may be tempted to research the quotes, but as the prompt says, avoid this urge. You have all of the material you need to write a great response. If you happen to disagree with a prompt, feel free to do so. Don’t feel pressured into conforming to what the quote says as long as you can write a response that supports your view and back it up with personal anecdotes.

Option A1: “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

If you’re interested in the sciences, this would be a great prompt for you to respond to. Use this prompt as a way to demonstrate not only your passion for science, but your capabilities. Jagannathan says that in the sciences, having insight into how the world works is more important than reasoning. Take this opportunity to show that you have both.

 

Here’s a few ways to approach this prompt:

 

Demonstrate your fascination with the world: What about the applications of science excites you? Maybe you love exploring how different fields of science overlap in pharmaceutical development. Perhaps you enjoy studying the effects of various compounds on protein structure. Regardless of what your interest is, convey it very specifically in your response. Including details and examples will help substantiate your interest and provide substance to your response.

 

Show that you have the necessary skills: Make sure your response is personal and not just abstract by providing examples of how rigor and insight have played a role in your scientific ventures. For example, you could talk about how you extended your science fair project about dominoes falling over to be about the structure of buildings during hurricanes.

 

This demonstrates insight into how models can be used to effectively explore natural phenomena that cannot be directly altered. This insight is essential as no matter how many times or how hard you try, it is not feasible to conduct an experiment of altering building distances and observing them during hurricanes. Thus, in this case, insight was more important than rigor and enabled you to explore an issue. Even if you have no formal research experience, you can still respond to this prompt in an effective way. For example, you could talk about an experience that you had during a science class, perhaps during lab, in which you demonstrated rigor and insight.

Option A2: “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 your interests lie in the humanities, social sciences, or business, consider responding to this prompt. Stavans provides quite a few real-world examples about the importance of translation: translation of languages, ideating, creating a symphony, international business, and terrorism. If you connect with any of these concepts, write about this connection. If not, consider other applications of the quote. Here’s a few examples of what you could write about:

 

Dance, art, or music: These are often seen as translations of feelings and expressions. If you have experience with any of these, you could write a beautiful essay about it. For example, if you’re passionate about dance, your response could be about how you use it as an escape from negative feelings, channeling them into your dance instead of into your life. You could also talk about feedback you’ve gotten from others about how your dancing makes them feel, or about how watching others makes you feel.

 

Literature: If you’ve read translated works, you could write a great response about them, but be sure to make it personal. As an example, you could write about how reading various translations of Camus’s The Stranger led you to realize how minute changes in stories or speech can affect perception, making you more careful about what you say now.

 

A group project: Have you ever had an idea that sounded great in your head and had trouble conveying it? Have you ever struggled to merge the ideas of multiple people? Group projects are great examples of translation of ideas at work, so if you’ve experienced a substantial one, talk about it. Be sure that your response showcases positive attributes, such as leadership abilities, communication skills, or empathy.

 

Code-switching: As students who speak multiple languages know, sometimes conversations can become a mashup of different languages. Perhaps this led to you introducing a new word to your friends or connecting to two languages and cultures rather than one. If so, write about it. This could lead to a great response about connecting various heritages and identities, which many immigrants and descendants of immigrants can relate to.

Option A3: “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.

Are you interested in politics and social change? This prompt could be great for you. Martin speaks about the importance of communication, saying that being frank about differences is important to create and maintain friendships despite, or perhaps because, of them.

 

One option for responding to this prompt is to provide an example of a friendship you’ve had with someone who was different from you. If you were to do this, speak about how recognizing these differences facilitated your friendship and celebrating them opened up new possibilities. For example, you could write about how your friend introduced you to your new favorite food from his culture or going to your friend’s cultural celebration made you appreciate music more.

 

Another option is to talk about a time that you experienced an environment unlike that which Martin describes. Perhaps you were part of a clique that discriminated against a group of students and you realized that this was wrong. You could write about how approaching these other students opened you up to new ideas and experiences and led to more lasting and meaningful friendships than you had before. An important part of the prompt references “candor about the inevitable tensions,” which you could incorporate by talking about how you and your new friends spoke about the discrimination openly rather than just pretending it never happened, which is what led to the strength of your friendships. Another example is if you had a friend who was facing difficulties due to race, gender, or any other factor, and you spoke up about it, being vocal and open despite the fact that these are often controversial subjects. Perhaps you were discriminated against and a friend spoke up.

 

Regardless of what example you use, be sure to highlight openness and compassion. Demonstrating an ability to speak about controversial subjects will show maturity and poise.

Option A4:“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

This prompt is a great opportunity to talk about any hardships that you’ve encountered. What obstacles have you had to overcome in your life? This is a very personal question and your response could be about anything from being bullied to experiencing homelessness. Know that no hardship is too little. If it significantly affected your life, it matters. Especially consider responding to this prompt if the hardships you’ve faced have negatively affected your academic performance, as this could be a way to address that in a positive manner.

 

Keep in mind the following points while crafting a response:

 

Don’t be too personal: Although providing details so that the reader fully understands the issue is essential, try not to include more personal details than necessary. Doing so could detract from the main point of the essay or make you seem unprofessional. For example, if you were to write about experiencing difficulties finding a job, it would not be advisable to write about how cruel various managers were for not offering you a job opportunity. As another example, if you were writing about how your parents’ divorce affected you, there’s likely no need to include the details of what went wrong in their relationship.

 

Don’t be frivolous: Be sure that the topic that you choose matters to you. Although you may be tempted to write about your horrendous teacher who robbed you of your A in Spanish, this story won’t showcase any of your positive attributes. Try to write about an example that shows resilience and strength leading to achievement in the face of hardships.

 

Be positive: As the quote references achievement after difficulty, make sure you put a positive spin on your essay. Your response should be focused on the achievement rather than the difficulty. For example, if you write a response about your broken leg as a soccer player, do not write your entire response about how it ruined your chances of getting drafted. Instead, you could write about how good it felt to get back on the field and score a goal after sitting on the sidelines for so long or how cheering on your teammates made your team’s victory even sweeter.

Prompt 3 Option B: 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. 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.

If you choose Option B, be sure to carefully read the directions. Do not select Option B if you chose to submit an analytical essay for the Common Application.

 

An appropriate paper should be:

 

  • Graded
  • From your junior or senior year
  • Persuasive
  • Supported by evidence

 

Here are some examples of appropriate essays to submit:

 

  • An analytical essay based on a piece of literature, such as an interpretation of a poem supported by analysis of rhetorical devices
  • A historical essay based on research, such as an essay about which factor was most important in the development of a war

 

Make sure that the essay that you choose to submit meets the requirements and fully demonstrates your writing and analytical skills. If you’re unsure, it would be a great idea to ask the teacher who graded it what they think.

 

We at CollegeVine wish you the best of luck on your supplemental essay for Amherst!

 

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