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How to Write the Swarthmore College Supplemental Essay 2018-2019

Swarthmore College is a small, private liberal arts school located in Swarthmore, Pennsylvania, about an hour away from Philadelphia. Having accepted only 9% of its applicants for the Class of 2022, Swarthmore is one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the country, often ranked as one of the top three liberal arts colleges in the nation. With 1,581 students enrolled (all undergraduates), Swarthmore boasts small class sizes, extensive course offerings, and an intimate, beautiful campus located on the edge of a forested area called Crum Woods.


Established in 1864 by Quakers, Swarthmore, or “Swat,” as the school is affectionately referred to by many of its students, became a non-religious institution in 1906. However, the college retained remnants of its roots in a multitude of traditions, which set it apart from many of its peer institutions. Examples of these customs include Swat’s singular dining hall (an effort to bring the community together under one roof), the arboretum throughout the campus, which places high value on the natural world, and the activist attitude that permeates throughout the culture of the school.


Even as a school on the smaller side (with 40 different courses of study), Swat is notably one of the few liberal arts colleges with an engineering program. It also boasts a robust course catalog, from which students can select from over 600 courses.


If in spite of its breadth of curricula, students cannot find exactly what they were looking to study, there is no need to worry. Swarthmore has fantastic partnerships with other top colleges in the area, which allows students to cross-register and take classes at multiple schools. The college is a member of the Tri-College Consortium, along with Bryn Mawr and Haverford, and a member of the Quaker Consortium, which includes the University of Pennsylvania. This means that students have a plethora of drastically different academic opportunities readily available to them at more than one location.


Considering Swarthmore’s strong academic offerings, it comes as no surprise that many students choose to continue their education after graduation. In fact, approximately 90% of graduates eventually attend a graduate or professional school, giving further credit to the school’s reputation as a deeply intellectual institution. Swarthmore is one of the top four schools in the country when ranked by percentage of graduates who go on to obtain a PhD.


Though Swarthmore is mostly renowned for its academics, the campus culture is also extremely rich and vibrant. Students can choose from over one hundred extracurricular organizations, including the award-winning Mock Trial team and several a cappella groups. Greek life has a small but still notable presence on this campus, limited to one sorority and two fraternities.

Applying to Swarthmore

Does Swarthmore indeed sound like the sort of school you see yourself at? Does the low acceptance rate have you overwhelmed? Never fear, our essay specialist team here at CollegeVine has compiled some tips and tricks on how to tackle the Swarthmore application.


Swarthmore accepts the Common Application, the Coalition Application, and the QuestBridge Application. It does not favor any one of these platforms, and you will have an equal chance in the admissions office no matter which one you choose. Both the Common Application and the Coalition Application require applicants to choose one of five prompts (usually asking about applicants’ background, significant experiences, and personal stories) to write a personal statement.


The Common Application is accepted at 700 schools across the nation, while the Coalition Application is only usable at 120 of them. The Coalition platform is geared towards lower-income and underrepresented students, as it only hosts schools who have demonstrated their significant support for undergraduate financial aid.


The essay questions on both platforms are very similar, so you should not be at an advantage or disadvantage regardless of which one you choose. The QuestBridge Application is specifically for low-income students and contains appropriate features to connect these candidates with the most suitable scholarship opportunities. Students applying through QuestBridge will need to submit additional materials to demonstrate their financial need.


In addition to submitting one of the three aforementioned applications, Swarthmore also requires one supplemental essay, with the following prompt.

In 150 to 250 words, please write about why you are interested in applying to and attending Swarthmore.

To effectively respond, you’ll need to research Swarthmore College and provide details on specific areas of study or activities that Swarthmore offers exclusively. It is imperative that you dig deep — look through their course catalog online, browse their list of clubs and organizations, and if possible, visit the campus.


As you will be elaborating on how you plan to live the “Swarthmore experience,” it is beneficial to get in touch with as many Swatties as possible; chat them up about their most memorable exchange with a professor (he/she may well be the professor who will mentor you through your undergraduate career), and about the range of traditions from “First Collection” (a night ritual of candle-lighting, hand-shaking, and speech-making for first-year students at Orientation) to “Screw Your Roommate” (a PG-13 matchmaking event in which you find the date your friends set you up with by looking for identity clues that match your own).

As you sit down to write, consider this: Where do you and Swat overlap? List five to ten names of exact classes and student organizations you want to apply to. Then in a column besides the list, write down how your current life — high school course load, extracurriculars, entrepreneurial endeavors, personal projects — connects to each of the Swarthmore items.


Make sure to pick elements that set Swarthmore apart from other similar institutions in the Quaker Consortium. Refrain from clichés like “the sense of community” or “the location” or the “liberal arts course of study.”


Next, choose two or three items from a variety of categories to incorporate in your essay. For example, instead of discussing three professors whose work you admire, describe one of their works and your connection to it in depth, and spend the rest of the space hashing out your excitement to practice in the Aikido Club, and lighting a candle at “First Collection.” Presenting a range of interests in various aspects of student life shows your breadth of knowledge about Swarthmore, and thereby demonstrates intense interest on your part.


Doing so also indicates that you are a well-rounded individual involved in not just the academic aspect of learning. However, having a unifying theme to your essay can be powerful too. If music moves you, and it shows in your extracurriculars (jazz band, a cappella, chamber music, etc.) you could discuss the appeal of the Lang Concert Hall, studying composition under the distinguished Professor Gerald Levinson, and attending events such as “An Evening with Chris Thile.”


Bring in personal anecdotes or past experiences to elucidate why you are interested in Swarthmore specifically. Remember, you should not only show admissions officers that the college is a good fit for you, but also why you are a good fit for it. Once they are done reading your essay, admissions officers should be able to picture you on their campus.


Let’s say, for instance, that you are specifically looking for an extremely diverse institution of higher learning, but with small class sizes not usually found at large, public universities. Swarthmore uniquely fits this niche, so point it out. You may take this route in your essay: Describe how the communities you hail from have lacked diversity in beliefs, religion, political views or ethnicity, and then name the specifics of Swarthmore College that stand in contrast to your own background. Then, explain how such characteristics will contribute to your personal development using concrete things you may learn about other cultures and initiatives you may start as examples.


Continuing along this vein, you need to illustrate vividly with details so that the admissions officers can clearly see you at the college. For example, you might write about encountering different styles of worship at the Swarthmore Interfaith Center or depict yourself moderating a public debate forum between Swarthmore Students for Liberty and Democratic Socialists of Swarthmore.


Above all, it is vital to ensure that your essay is unique to Swarthmore College. Be extremely wary of including broad statements that could apply to any number of schools. For instance, saying that you want to attend the college because it has “spectacular academic offerings” is something a candidate who has no idea about the school can write. You want to customize this essay so that it applies to the school exclusively. Instead of statements like this, you can achieve the “show, not tell” effect by naming specific offerings, like the Oxbridge tutorial-inspired Honors Program.


With these tips in mind, you are well on your way to writing a memorable Swarthmore College essay. We at CollegeVine wish you the best of luck!


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