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How to Write the Swarthmore College Essay 2019-2020

Nestled in the temperate suburbs of Pennsylvania, and home to a cherished arboretum, Swarthmore College is known for its beautiful campus and quaint surroundings. The school is small at 1,500 students, but despite its humble size, the college consistently ranks as one of the most prestigious liberal arts colleges in the nation.


Students on campus are known for their passionate intellect, reveling in the rigor of the curriculum. But if the academics at Swarthmore are demanding, then admission to the school is equally so, with an acceptance rate of just 9.1%. Last year, only 980 students were offered admission out of over 10,700 applicants, Swarthmore’s largest applicant pool to date. 


As more and more applicants clue in to Pennsylvania’s hidden gem, it’s more vital than ever that a Swarthmore hopeful stands out from the pack. One way to do just that is by writing a strong supplemental essay, which we’ll break down here. Want to know your chances at Swarthmore? Calculate your chances for free right now.


Required for ALL Applicants

Please write about why you are interested in applying to and attending Swarthmore. (250 words)


At its essence, the prompt is a simple “why this school” archetype. And as the only required prompt, the essay holds a lot of weight in your Swarthmore application; moreover, it’s your one chance, in only 250 words, to show your unique voice. 


Before you even start writing, spend time researching the school. Dive deep. What offerings is Swarthmore particularly proud of? What specific courses would you love to take? What club just sounds so you? What traditions do you wish you could be a part of? Make a list of at least 10 different things that has you convinced Swarthmore was made for you. Here are some ideas to give you a sense of the specificity to aim for:


  1. One of the only liberal arts colleges in the world to offer an engineering major.
  2. Pterodactyl Hunt, a tradition where Swatties don trash bags and fight monsters.
  3. Member of the Tri-College Consortium, allowing students to cross-register at Bryn Mawr and Haverford. Also a member of the Quaker Consortium, allowing students to cross-register at the aforementioned schools, but also Ivy League UPenn.
  4. Unique organizations such as the Shogi Club, a group dedicated to this Japanese form of chess, or the Swarthmore Project for Eastern European Relations.


Choose two to three items from your list that have you especially excited about Swarthmore and use these to paint a picture of yourself at Swarthmore. Don’t just list off things that make the school unique; make it clear why that item is meaningful to you in particular. 


For example, if you’re applying as a prospective engineering major, explain why you want to pursue engineering in a small, liberal arts environment. Maybe you plan to pursue a career in sustainable urban development; Swarthmore’s broader liberal arts education would give you the opportunity to double major in environmental studies and get hands-on research experience alongside the professors in Swarthmore’s intimate engineering department. Whatever your story is, weave it into Swarthmore’s story and show that the two go together.


Remember to mention something academic and something extracurricular-related. Attending a school is not only about what you do in the classroom, but also what you do outside of it.


Finally, don’t be afraid to use your own unique tone in the essay and even err toward casual if you feel that best exemplifies your personal voice. Ultimately, the admissions committee is lookng for a sense of who you would be on their campus, so it’s your chance to prove yourself a unique individual who would contribute something to their small community. 


Optional Dance and Art Supplement 1

A one-minute video or short paragraph in response to the following prompt: “How would you express your ideas through movement, melody, costumes, and props? No dance training is needed to respond; however, if you have training, you are welcome to explore what you know.”

This prompt gives applicants the choice between making a video or writing a short paragraph. The video is a great opportunity to make a connection with the viewer—it’s a lot harder to reject someone when you’re looking right at them. However, unless you feel confident you can make a polished video of good image quality and with thoughtful content—a process that will likely require many takes—the paragraph might be a safer bet. 


If you do choose the video, consider integrating the topic into the video itself—that is to say, if you can include movement, melody, costumes, or props in a thoughtful way, that could be a great opportunity to stand out, show personality, and engage the viewer. Just be sure not to get too carried away and lose sight of what the prompt is asking.


As for what the prompt is actually asking, the prompt can be interpreted in a couple of ways. You can respond to the prompt in terms of how you have used these means to express your ideas in the past. This is an opportunity to talk about a past project or experience with music and art. However, you can also respond to the prompt in terms of how you aim to use these means to express ideas in the future. If you opt for the latter, this is a good opportunity to talk about future aspirations and how you would use Swarthmore’s resources to achieve them.


Optional Dance and Art Supplement 2

A one paragraph response describing your dance interests and background.

At only one paragraph long, this essay has to be concise; all the same, it’s additional space to show personality on an application where such space is limited. Think of this essay as a snapshot of your dance portfolio that answers the following two questions: 1) Where does your interest in pursuing dance stem from, or how did it start? 2) In what capacity have you pursued dance thus far?

A person sitting cross legged, pointing to the text, with an abstract monitor behind them  

Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story


Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

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Your GPA and SAT don’t tell the full admissions story


Our chancing engine factors in extracurricular activities, demographics, and other holistic details. We’ll let you know what your chances are at your dream schools — and how to improve your chances!

Calculate your acceptance chances

Optional Music Supplement 

Please submit an audio or video recording of yourself performing two compositions, ideally in contrasting styles. Please do not add any effects (reverb, auto-tune, etcetera). In the “Comments” section, please write a sentence or two about your musical background and interests.

With this prompt, Swarthmore is hoping to see range, which is why they ask for contrasting styles. Be sure that your final version is as polished as possible, free of mistakes and with high sound quality. This is your opportunity to highlight your best work, so take the time to do it right. 


In the corresponding description, Swarthmore asks you to submit a short blurb about your background and interests. This can be as simple as one sentence explaining where you’re coming from—your musical experience thus far—and one sentence explaining where you’re hoping to go—your musical interests and aspirations. 


While we discourage students from submitting music supplements unless they are truly exceptional, small liberal arts colleges can be an exception. At larger universities with a school of music, supplements are mostly submitted by those planning to pursue music professionally, or at least at a very high level. Submitting a supplement that is good, but not incredible, could actually hurt your application, as it will pale in comparison to that of the high-level musicians.


At a small liberal arts college, it’s generally okay to submit a music supplement, even if your skills aren’t national or state award caliber, as long as your skills are still very strong. Have you played in your regional/state orchestra or band? Have you sung in a selective choir? If you have pursued music at a relatively competitive level, your music supplement may boost your application, as Swarthmore might be looking to fill seats in its orchestra or other music groups. If you’re unsure whether your musical talents meet the cut, you might try to contact the director of the Swarthmore music group you hope to join, check out the group’s repertoire, or speak with current students involved in music.


Optional Theater Supplement 

Attach a one-page statement about the process of creating a performance in which you have been involved. Discuss how and why the rehearsal process succeeded and/or failed in fostering a creative and collaborative experience for everyone involved (actors, directors, designers, etc.). If you prefer, you can compare and contrast two projects that you have worked on.

This essay can be taken a lot of different directions. If you have a performance you’re particularly proud of, it can be as simple as explaining the creative process and the culmination of the hard work. 


However, the prompt hints at a possible theme Swarthmore is interested in: learning from the past. In comparing two projects you have worked on, you can discuss where the first went wrong and how you learned from this to succeed on the second. This is a great opportunity to show that you are able to learn from experience, overcome challenges, and continue growing and improving. 


It’s also important to discuss the role teamwork played in creating the performance. The prompt specifically asks about the collaborative experience because Swarthmore wants to see that you recognize the value of working with others.


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