How to Write the Swarthmore College Essays 2020-2021

Beautifully set within an arboretum in Pennsylvania’s suburbs, Swarthmore College is well known for its strong academics, picturesque campus, and quaint surroundings. Founded by Quakers in 1864, Swarthmore is home to around 1,500 students. 

 

Swarthmore College is ranked #3 of all national liberal arts colleges by U.S. News and World Report with an acceptance rate of 9% for the Class of 2024. Swarthmore’s extremely selective acceptance rate represents the high academic standards set for Swarthmore students, known as Swatties.

 

Swarthmore is part of the Tri-College Consortium, which includes Bryn Mawr College and Haverford College, both of which are also small liberal arts colleges in suburban Pennsylvania. These schools are also part of the Quaker Consortium with the University of Pennsylvania, allowing students to take classes and participate in extracurriculars at these other colleges.

 

Since Swarthmore’s academics are rigorous, the college offers a pass/fail system for their students’ first semester on campus. This system not only enables Swatties to adjust to campus life and college level classes, but also allows them to explore new subjects and potentially discover new interests. 

 

In addition to regular academic classes, Swarthmore offers students the opportunity to participate in their Honors Program while on campus. Available in various departments ranging from biology to classics, The Honors Program enables Swatties to delve deeper into subjects of interest through seminars, specific courses, and independent study projects. The seminar classes are the central feature of the program, and they involve weekly discussion classes of usually no more than eight students. These seminars typically last over three hours and require each class member to take responsibility for reading assigned material, preparing and presenting papers, and leading class discussions. 

 

Given Swarthmore’s selective acceptance rate, it is especially important that your application stands out. As with most colleges and universities, Swarthmore’s supplemental essays are an excellent way to make your application unique. Want to know your chances at Swarthmore? Calculate your chances for free right now.

 

Want to learn what Swarthmore will actually cost you based on your income? And how long your application to the school should take? Here’s what every student considering Swarthmore needs to know.

 

Swarthmore College Supplemental Essay Prompts

All applicants are required to choose one of the following three essay prompts:

 

Option 1: Swarthmore students’ worldviews are often forged by their prior experiences and exposure to ideas and values. Our students are often mentored, supported, and developed by their immediate context—in their neighborhoods, communities of faith, families, and classrooms. Reflect on what elements of your home, school, or community have shaped you or positively impacted you. How have you grown or changed because of the influence of your community? (250 words)

 

Option 2: We are inspired by students who are flexible in their approach to learning, who are comfortable with experimentation, and who are willing to take intellectual risks that move them out of their comfort zone. Reflect on a time that you were intellectually challenged, inspired, or took an intellectual risk—inside or outside of the classroom. How has that experience shaped you, and what questions still linger? (250 words)

 

Option 3: Why are you interested in applying to and attending Swarthmore? (250 words)

Option 1

Swarthmore students’ worldviews are often forged by their prior experiences and exposure to ideas and values. Our students are often mentored, supported, and developed by their immediate context—in their neighborhoods, communities of faith, families, and classrooms. Reflect on what elements of your home, school, or community have shaped you or positively impacted you. How have you grown or changed because of the influence of your community? (250 words)

This prompt is a great choice for applicants who want to discuss the impact of their unique culture, experiences, or environment on their identity. This essay should focus on how a particular community has helped you grow and develop as a person. 

 

The first part of your essay should provide some background on the topic you wish to discuss. Ask yourself what makes your culture, experience, or environment unique. For example, if you’re going to discuss the collaborative environment of your high school, you need to explain the specific situations that show that, such as having only group projects instead of individual assessments. 

 

Next, you should explain how your culture, experience, or environment has positively impacted you. To fully answer the prompt, this should not only include how your values, characteristics, and interests have been impacted, but also how your perspective and worldviews have been impacted. Additionally, if these aspects of your identity have grown or changed, you should also include how and why this change occurred. 

 

For instance, if you’re writing about how you grew up in a small, close-knit neighborhood, don’t just write “This environment taught me to value relationships with others.” This line could be written by anyone and therefore does not tell the admissions officers anything specific or special about you.

 

Instead, show your values and environment through anecdotes and indirect details: 

 

“My next door neighbor Amy always seemed to know if my little brother or I was sick. Whether it was a cold or the flu, Amy would always leave us a pot of homemade chicken soup on the front porch. Especially when I was younger, getting sick meant missing out on seeing my friends and working on fun projects in school. No matter how upset I was or how sick I was feeling, I always looked forward to eating Amy’s soup, knowing it would make me feel just a little bit better.”

 

Lastly, you should connect the aspects of your identity that were shaped by the culture, experience, or environment you discussed to Swarthmore’s community. Explain how the values and perspective you have gained will allow you to make a positive impact at Swarthmore. Whether it’s your desire to learn, care for others, collaborate, or advocate, explain how that characteristic will make you a good community member at Swarthmore. 

 

In the example above, the student may want to join Swarthmore Effective Altruism, a community service club at Swarthmore, to continue helping others and creating valuable relationships.

Option 2 

We are inspired by students who are flexible in their approach to learning, who are comfortable with experimentation, and who are willing to take intellectual risks that move them out of their comfort zone. Reflect on a time that you were intellectually challenged, inspired, or took an intellectual risk—inside or outside of the classroom. How has that experience shaped you, and what questions still linger? (250 words)

In this prompt, Swarthmore is looking for applicants who are out-of-the-box thinkers. These are applicants who crave knowledge and are motivated to be intellectually challenged. If you can think of a time you took an intellectual risk or went beyond the norms of standard education, this prompt is a great choice for you.

 

The first step in answering this prompt is to identify the intellectual risk or challenge that will be the focus of your essay. When have you taken a different approach to learning? How have you gained knowledge in a new way? When have you challenged yourself to try something new intellectually? Answering these questions will help you to identify the focus of your essay. Your risk or challenge can be as simple or complex as you like, as long as it reveals something special about you as a student and intellectual.

 

  • Maybe instead of writing a final paper for your AP US History class, with your teacher’s permission, you challenged yourself to create a podcast discussing the economic policies of different presidents surrounding the time of the Great Depression. 
  • Or, perhaps in your Model United Nations club, you took a risk by choosing to participate in a smaller crisis committee rather than a larger general assembly. 

 

The next portion of your essay should concentrate on how your intellectual risk or challenge has shaped you. Even if you took a risk and failed, what did you learn from that experience? Were you inspired to take more risks and accept greater challenges? Have you gained new skills, interests, or approaches to learning? Internalize these questions and discuss the specific personal impact of your intellectual risk or challenge. Looking back at the bulleted examples above:

 

  • Maybe your history podcast inspired your interest in economics and opened your eyes to auditory learning. 
  • Or, perhaps participating in a smaller Model UN committee made you value close working relationships with others and appreciate learning through smaller, more direct debates and discussions.

 

After you have described the impact of your intellectual risk or challenge, you need to discuss any questions you still have. Has the challenge or risk sparked questions about a new topic or interest? Do you still have questions about the risk or challenge you took? Think about what other topics or facets of the same subject you want to explore, or what else you want to discover about yourself. Once again, referring back to the bulleted examples above:

 

  • Maybe you always thought you were a visual learner, but your podcast has made you realize you can benefit from auditory learning as well. Additionally, your research into economic policy might have caused you to ponder how these policies could apply to the modern day world.
  • Or, perhaps your Model UN experience made you search for other opportunities to learn about and discuss international relations. You might also wonder how similar the function of this committee is to the way the actual United Nations is run.

 

Finally, connect what you have learned from your intellectual risk or challenge as well as the questions you still have to Swarthmore. How can you continue to challenge yourself intellectually while at Swarthmore? What risks can you take? How can you answer the questions you still have? Continuing with the bulleted examples above:

 

  • Maybe you look forward to participating in seminar classes through Swarthmore’s Honors Program in order to experience discussion learning. Additionally, you are excited to utilize Swarthmore’s pass/fail system first semester to challenge yourself by trying an economics class on modern policies. 
  • Or, perhaps your participation in Model UN has made you eager to join Swarthmore’s International Relations club. Also, you desire to take classes in the Global Studies department in order to learn more about the function of the United Nations. 

 

Whatever risk or challenge you choose, just remember to be specific and use this essay as an opportunity to share more about you as an intellectual!

Option 3

Why are you interested in applying to and attending Swarthmore? (250 words)

While this prompt fits under the classic “Why this College?” archetype, unlike most schools, it is not required, but rather an option among two other prompts. Since this prompt is an option, it is important that you only choose to answer it if you have specific and unique reasons for your application. Simply name dropping professors, classes, or programs is not enough. You must show how you would fit into the Swarthmore community.

 

Before you start writing, spend time researching Swarthmore. Dive deep. What offerings make Swarthmore particularly proud? 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 around 10 different things that have convinced you to apply to Swarthmore. 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. The Social Movements and Nonviolent Power course in the Peace & Conflict Studies department.
  4. 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.
  5. 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. Remember to mention something academic and something extracurricular-related. Attending a school is about what you do inside and outside the classroom. 

 

Then, use these items to paint a picture of yourself at Swarthmore. Don’t just list off the items you chose, instead make it clear why each item is meaningful to you. 

 

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 framework. Show that you belong on Swarthmore’s campus! 

 

Additionally, this is an excellent opportunity to discuss any memorable experiences you had while visiting Swarthmore. Avoid generally discussing information sessions or campus tours since those are generic and experienced by many applicants. Instead, consider discussing a conversation you had with a group of Swatties, an especially interesting class you sat in on, a meeting you had with a Swarthmore professor, or a Swarthmore club meeting you attended. Describing these experiences is not essential to your essay; however, they certainly enhance your answer and further demonstrate your interest in Swarthmore. 

 

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 looking for a sense of who you would be on their campus. This is your opportunity to prove your ability to make unique contributions to their small community. 

 

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.

Short bio
Our college essay experts go through a rigorous selection process that evaluates their writing skills and knowledge of college admissions. We also train them on how to interpret prompts, facilitate the brainstorming process, and provide inspiration for great essays, with curriculum culled from our years of experience helping students write essays that work.