How to Write the Barnard College Essays 2020-2021
Barnard is a prestigious women’s college affiliated with Columbia University in New York City. Students frequently describe Barnard as having “the best of both worlds.” It offers personalized classes, a low student-teacher ratio, and close community of a small college, but is also situated right in the middle of NYC and the huge campus of Columbia.
Founded in 1889, Barnard was (and still is) a pioneering school for women’s rights with a culture of social activism and commitment to serving women. Its most recent acceptance rate was 11.4%, making it a highly competitive college.
Read on to learn how to tackle this year’s prompts! Want to know your chances at Barnard? Calculate your chances for free right now.
Before You Write
When composing your essays for Barnard, you need to be thinking about 1) larger issues in the world, 2) your relationship to them, and 3) your contribution to a meaningful solution. Barnard is a very “outward-looking” college, and admissions readers will be looking for applicants that share this wide, “macro” perspective. You should talk about larger issues in a personal way, and demonstrate your knowledge with both academic achievements and personal connection.
It might be worth it to brainstorm the following things:
- Values. What values listed on Barnard’s website really hit home with you? Print out this Mission page and this Fearless History page from Barnard’s website, and circle words that resonate with you. List reasons why they’re important to you. Then emphasize those value-oriented words and themes in your essays.
- Womanhood. Big topic, isn’t it? And it’s a good one, because everyone relates to it a different way. Because Barnard is a women’s college, you should sit down with some blank paper and list your experiences in relation to this category. Make a flow chart; list the things that come to mind. How have you engaged with, experience, and wrangled with “womanhood” in a way that sets you apart? Do you have a unique cultural understanding, experience, or research perspective?
All right, let’s take a deep breath and dive in!
Barnard College Supplemental Essays
Barnard requires that all applicants answer these first two prompts, and the third is optional. The word limit for each is 300, so you don’t have a lot of space. Make each word count, and be sure to use active, vivid language to pack as much punch as you can into these paragraphs.
If you’re applying to the Science Pathways Scholars Program, you’ll also have an extra essay.
Prompt 1: What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College and why do you think the College would be a good match for you? (300 words)
Prompt 2: At Barnard, academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited and why do they interest you? Tell us how you would explore these questions at Barnard. (300 words)
Prompt 3 (optional): Pick one woman — a 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)
Science Pathways Scholars Program Applicants
The Science Pathways Scholars Program (SP)2 aims to support underrepresented students of color and first-generation students as they pursue careers in science research. Please discuss your interest in science research and future career goals. You may choose to reflect on past experiences or projects, role models, or ideas for research that you would like to explore. (300 words)
Prompt 1 (Required)
What factors influenced your decision to apply to Barnard College, and why do you think the College would be a good match for you? (300 words)
This is a common question asked on college applications, so you’re going to have to really find a unique angle. Start by brainstorming these things, using Barnard’s website and resources to help:
My academic interests
My planned major
Opportunities I want in college
Majors, minors, programs, professional tracks
Resources like laboratories, cohorts, and assistantships
My ideal community
Barnard’s corresponding values
How Barnard helps students achieve goals
What community Barnard fosters
|My experiences with Barnard: friends, family, visits, etc.||What this tells me about Barnard as an institution.|
This should make it easier to connect yourself with Barnard, and discuss your relationship to Barnard with a natural, organic flow.
Remember to be specific. It’s not enough to mention a broad area of interest, or a broad feeling, in connection with Barnard. Your responses should be granular and you in a way that’s inimitable. For example, let’s transform a “broad” gesture into an amazing, laser-focused statement.
“Barnard is committed to women, like I am.”
Words: 8. Impact: 0.
But let’s mix in some academic and social interests, as well as autobiography. The result looks much better:
“Last summer, I volunteered with a center specializing in women’s health education, and was struck by how little education women in Missouri had previously received about STIs. I was stunned. And angry. But I knew I had to do something. Looking for colleges with interdisciplinary science programs, I specifically sought out schools with a strong record of promoting women’s public health. In particular, Barnard’s Science and Public Policy major struck me as a fertile place to learn more about public health and how to improve it, especially for vulnerable women.”
Words: 93. Impact: much higher. This statement connects emotions, experience, goals, and academic focus into a fluid whole.
This is the best place to mention personal connections. Because the prompt asked “what factors influenced your decision to apply?”, this prompt is the best place to talk about your personal experiences with Barnard, its staff, and its alumnae. For example, have you read an interesting book or listened to a cool podcast with a Barnard professor? Did your family doctor go to Barnard? Your favorite teacher? Discuss what resources and training Barnard provided for them and which you also want to experience.
PS: You might also be interested in CollegeVine’s breakdown of the “Why This College?” prompt, which goes into some different details about how to tackle this question, no matter what college you’re writing for.
Prompt 2 (Required)
At Barnard, academic inquiry starts with bold questions. What are some of the bold questions you have pondered that get you excited and why do they interest you? Tell us how you would explore these questions at Barnard.
It’s helpful to think of this question as a “sequel” to the first question, with an opportunity to provide more details about your interests. It’s going to involve a similar approach: connecting your own curiosity, goals, and questions to Barnard’s smorgasbord of resources and classes.
Keep contrast in mind; don’t be repetitive. It might be tempting to cover similar ground as the first question, but this question should have a new hook and showcase different facets of your personality. For example, if I were the applicant who wrote the above response about women’s health for Question 1, I would need a different approach to Question 2. Like any true sequel, I’ve got to offer my reader a new hook and premises. I might write:
“Since my childhood in Morelia, I’ve always been fascinated by the how colonial, “scientific,” and Western beliefs about a woman’s body can coexist – and often clash – with indigenous Mexican understandings. It seems strange to talk about lit candles and peppertree leaves as “folk” cures, because they always seemed to soothe my fevers as a girl. How did “mere superstitions” cure me? Exploring the science behind culture, and the culture behind “science,” has been an enduring interest of mine, and one I’d love to pursue in college. Barnard’s minor in Race and Ethnicity drew me in as a fantastic complement to my interest in public health. By offering vigorous training in intersectional and cross-disciplinary investigation, the RE programs would be a meaningful place to pursue my investigations of medicinal culture in the Latina community.”
See how this builds on the applicant’s focus on gynecology (Question 1) while offering something totally different and thought-provoking? Also notice how the same writing and research strategy of connecting a Barnard program to a personal story and academic interest should be used here. This was a story only this applicant could have told.
Remember: Barnard asks for a specific “bold” question or questions. Make sure to state explicitly what the question or issue is. You may even want to phrase it as a question outright (“how did ‘mere superstitions’ cure me?”). Even though the question asks you about what fascinates you, make sure you don’t get so carried away with your fascination and investigations that you lose focus of the core thesis question.
Prompt 3 (Optional)
Pick one woman — a 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?
Hint: it’s not really that optional. Although it’s not required, we recommend that all applicants answer it. Why? Because the more Barnard sees of your amazing personality and versatility, the better. Answering the third prompt shows dedication, and it’s like being able to hand another headshot to a casting agent: why wouldn’t you? If you’re a skilled writer, this is an extra round to show off your chops.
Take note of the hidden, secret prompts. On the surface, this question asks you for a lot of “what” you think. What woman, what topic, what questions, etc. But Barnard is really interested in how you think. You should spend some serious time brainstorming your reasoning for interviewing this person, and the goals you want to get out of it. State your priorities as a researcher and thinker; interviews have a variety of tones and goals. Examples:
Confronting Marie Antoinette 🡪 holding public figures accountable
Recording Sally Hemings talk about her life 🡪 giving a voice to the disenfranchised
Interviewing “Eve,” the fossil 🡪 understanding cognition in other species
Listening to Pele 🡪 concern for the earth and nature
Navy boat “Sacagawea” 🡪 exploring gender, appropriation, objects, and linguistics
Asking Tove Jansson how she came out 🡪 learning lessons of strength, self-improvement
You should pick a figure that would challenge you, not someone you would fangirl for. For example, if you’re a progressive feminist with a “Notorious R.B.G.” poster, you’d be well justified in wanting to spend an hour talking to Ruth Bader Ginsburg. However, would RBG challenge your fundamental worldviews in any way? Wouldn’t it be more interesting to talk to a woman who opposed feminism, like Phyllis Schlafly?
Exploit weird barriers and paradoxes. You can definitely lean into the sci-fi element of this question. If you’re a literature student, it might be interesting for you to probe the possibility of interviewing a fictional character. You could question whether or not she be able to survive on her own without an author dictating her words. The same goes for historical figures: we might really want to know more about Emily Dickinson, but is it ethical, since she wanted to be forgotten? You should also feel free to challenge the traditional definition of “woman,” like the Navy ship example above. We call lots of objects “she” in our various languages – hurricanes, countries, the moon, ships, cars, the sea, and aircraft. Maybe you think a certain primordial inventor – of agriculture, of the Greek drama – was a woman. These liminal figures are great opportunities to shock and intrigue your reader.
Consider unconventional formats. Since the previous two questions have been essays, feel free to reimagine this question as a transcript, a time-travel manual, a movie, or a vivid portrait. Compare and contrast the person in front of you with how they’re typically imagined in media.
Explore the word “converse.” If you look carefully, Barnard never said “talk.” Consider whether or not you’d want to use words or conversation to speak to your interviewee; language barriers could be a great jumping-off point: you might not be able to speak ancient Aramaic to Salome, but it’s possible you could communicate through dance. Also consider how your interviewee best expressed herself: wouldn’t Frida Kahlo make for the most revolutionary game of Pictionary ever?
Science Pathways Scholars Program
The Science Pathways Scholars Program (SP)² aims to support underrepresented students of color and first-generation students as they pursue careers in science research. Please discuss your interest in science research and future career goals. You may choose to reflect on past experiences or projects, role models, or ideas for research that you would like to explore. (300 words)
This prompt has a similar structure to the “Why Barnard” question in Prompt 1. You should adapt a similar approach when brainstorming your answer, focusing on the commonalities between your education goals and the Science Pathways Scholars Program. Notice how instead of Barnard as a whole, we now have to focus on the (SP)² in the righthand column. And instead of yourself as a whole, you should focus on your scientific foci and how your personal experiences intersect with these foci.
Again, it’s essential to be specific. Specificity should be present in both your goals, what you like about (SP)², and any personal history you want to include. Integrate all three areas into a blended whole. To start, brainstorm a research question or area of inquiry you have, and then sketch out how you could learn more and improve your abilities through (SP)².
Example: I want to explore therapeutic treatment for OCD
- (SP)² would allow me to spend the summer working in Columbia’s Martinez Laboratory, which is at the forefront of finding novel psychiatric treatments for compulsions
- (SP)² mentorship would ensure that I have an experienced perspective guiding me towards the labs and classes that best fit my niche
Alternatively, start with an inciting incident or personal history, and discuss how it shaped you and how you’re passionate about your field, despite systemic disadvantages.
When COVID-19 first started to spread in Alaska, I was worried. In the early 1900s, Native communities were devastated by the Spanish Flu, and I was worried history would soon repeat itself. But instead, my Native town made the decision to seal itself off. We closed the road and pooled our resources. Although we never had a case of COVID, our isolation meant we had to ration our medical resources for other emergencies. Seeing the sacrifices made by my community has strengthened my commitment to improving how America approaches Native healthcare. By majoring in biology, with a pre-med track, I’m hoping to do my part to lessen the burden on indigenous communities like my own.
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