How to Write the University of Virginia Essays 2020-2021
The University of Virginia is a public research university founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, colloquially referred to as TJ on UVA’s campus. Being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, UVA is an institution rich with history and renowned for its top-notch academics and its lively community in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Ranked by U.S. News and World Report at #4 among public schools and #28 overall, UVA is one of the nation’s top universities. In the 2018-2019 application cycle (most recent official stats), UVA only admitted 23.9% of applicants, making admission quite competitive. In addition to academic transcripts and letters of recommendation, all applicants must submit three pieces of writing— the common app essay and two shorter responses that are specific to UVA.
With such competitive rates, it is often intimidating to complete these additional essays. However, CollegeVine is here to offer our guide on how to tackle UVA’s 2020-2021 application! You can find each of this year’s prompts broken down below.
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University of Virginia Supplemental Essay Prompts
Prompt 1: Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words.
- Option A: What’s your favorite word and why?
- Option B: We are a community with quirks, both in language and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.
- Option C: Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the UVA culture. In her fourth year at UVA, Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore and why?
- Option D: UVA students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge and why is this your message?
- Option E: Rita Dove, UVA English professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate, once said in an interview that “…there are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints.” Describe a time when, instead of complaining, you took action for the greater good.
Prompt 2: We are looking for passionate students to join our diverse community of scholars, researchers, and artists. Answer the question that corresponds to the school/program to which you are applying in a half page or roughly 250 words.
- College of Arts and Sciences Applicants: What work of art, music, science, mathematics, literature, or other media has surprised, unsettled, or inspired you, and in what way?
- School of Engineering and Applied Sciences Applicants: Describe an engineering feat that serves the common good and why it inspires you to study engineering.
- School of Architecture Applicants: Describe significant experience that deepened your interest in studying in the School of Architecture.
- School of Nursing Applicants: Describe a health care-related experience or another significant interaction that deepened your interest in studying nursing.
- Kinesiology Program Applicants: Discuss experiences that led you to apply to the kinesiology major.
Selecting a Prompt
We’ve provided a breakdown of each of the five options below, but first we want to offer some general words of advice for this section. The second essay prompt for UVA covers your academic interests, so with this first prompt, admissions officers are looking for creativity, genuine interest, and a small, 250-word window into how you see yourself and the world around you. This is your chance to showcase a side of you that isn’t captured by your grades, standardized test scores, academic interests or your common app — so take advantage of it!
When it comes to selecting a prompt, read through the five options and immediately eliminate the ones that don’t speak to you. After you’ve narrowed down to two (maybe three) options that resonate with you, jot down a couple topics that could work to answer each prompt. You’ll find during this brainstorming that out of all of the topics you come up with, one will develop in your mind more than the others. That’s when you’ve found your prompt!
For this essay, avoid choosing a word that’s generally self-explanatory or cliche. Example of this could be “happiness” or “love” because these words are often overused and the meaning can generally be inferred without an additional story. You want to choose something that is both personally meaningful to you and something that is attached to a greater story.
For instance, if you are multilingual and your grandmother would always offer you a specific piece of advice in another language, you could use a word related to that advice in that language. Perhaps there is a story attached to the reason why she gave you that advice, or perhaps it is what you remember the most from her. Tell a story around this idea and your essay will be much more personal and impactful.
You could also show off your nerdy side here or highlight your interests. Perhaps your favorite word is “emulsion” because it is relevant to your two favorite activities: chemistry and cooking. You could discuss your love for each of these subjects and, like the previous example, tell a brief story on how the word relates to your personal experiences.
When choosing a word, you could also consider alternate meanings by considering meanings outside the traditional dictionary definition. In this case, you could contrast the traditional meaning with your own personal interpretation of the word in order to point out any differences and highlight your own personal connection to the word. Again, the key for this essay is to be personal.
In terms of writing your essay, you want to make it clear what your word is without directly saying “my favorite word is _____.”; always start your essay with an interesting opener and a thoughtful conclusion. Since the essay is short at 250 words, you want to be fairly straightforward without being too stale or obvious.
Prompt 1 Option B: We are a community with quirks, both in language and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.
Chances are, you have a unique quality that makes up who you are. This essay is all about pinpointing that quality and describing it in terms of its importance to your identity. Perhaps you have an odd fascination with insects or you collect unconventional objects. This is a perfect essay to discuss these facets of your life.
You must make sure to connect your quirk to your personality and individuality. Don’t simply describe the quirk; ask yourself why this quality is important to you and consider how your individuality would change had you not possessed this characteristic. You want to highlight your personality in this essay, whether it be through humorous writing or a creative story.
For example, if your quirk is having to do a cartwheel every morning before school, you can write a story mapping out your day, with emphasis on your daily cartwheel. Perhaps this is the only way to get your blood pumping and prepare you for the day ahead. Perhaps doing cartwheels ensures that you always start your day with a positive attitude, allowing you to tackle any obstacles during the day.
There are endless possibilities for quirks you could write about, as each person is different and has unique habits. Your quirk could be a unique mannerism such as a “weird” laugh or a unique daily routine you have. Perhaps your quirk was the object of ridicule in your earlier years, but now you’ve become confident in yourself and your unique qualities. Show UVA what makes you you and how proud you are to be yourself — weird quirks and all!
Prompt 1 Option C: Student self-governance, which encourages student investment and initiative, is a hallmark of the UVA culture. In her fourth year at UVA, Laura Nelson was inspired to create Flash Seminars, one-time classes which facilitate high-energy discussion about thought-provoking topics outside of traditional coursework. If you created a Flash Seminar, what idea would you explore and why?
For this essay, you want to consider your interests and how you want to share these interests with others. Your Flash Seminar should reflect something you’re passionate about, yet also be unique enough to not already exist. For example, you don’t want to create a seminar about something like “Cell Biology” or “Classical Literature.”
For instance, if you love science and have always been intrigued by astrology, you could create a Flash Seminar called “Is there a Scientific Basis for Astrology?” If you love politics and are passionate about film, you could create a seminar called “Hidden Political Messages in Modern Film.”
With any topic you choose, make sure to explain your choice. Why are you passionate about the topic and why do you think there should be a discussion about it? Perhaps you want to share your passions with others through a unique perspective or perhaps your proposed question has puzzled you in the past, making you eager to hear the thoughts of others. Discuss your reasons for creating the class and the goals you hope the class achieves.
Prompt 1 Option D: UVA students paint messages on Beta Bridge when they want to share information with our community. What would you paint on Beta Bridge and why is this your message?
Like the previous question, you want to consider the topics you’re passionate about and want to share with others. You could interpret “message” as a form of artwork such as a painting, or you can interpret it more literally as a message or phrase.
For instance, if you’re passionate about redesigning the roles of modern women, you could describe a painting that includes a dichotomy between traditional and more progressive roles of women. Perhaps half the painting includes black and white images of women performing household tasks and the other half uses vivid colors to portray women in positions of power and independence. Maybe you’ve been empowered by several strong women in your life and want to advocate for gender issues such as equal pay.
Maybe there is a quote or phrase from a novel that you’ve read that stuck out to you and want to share with UVA’s student body. For instance, if a quote from Thi Bui’s The Best We Could Do resonates with you due to a similarity with your immigration story, you could paint this message on the Beta Bridge in order to create a sense of community with those who share similar backgrounds.
No matter what you choose to paint, make sure you have a personal connection to the art. Ensure that you answer the “why” aspect of the question and discuss the reasons why the message is important to both you and others.
Prompt 1 Option E: Rita Dove, UVA English professor and former U.S. Poet Laureate, once said in an interview that “…there are times in life when, instead of complaining, you do something about your complaints.” Describe a time when, instead of complaining, you took action for the greater good.”
The first step with this prompt is defining what “the greater good” means for you. Your first thought might be to interpret this phrase on a societal level—perhaps your city is experiencing a homelessness crisis, so you took action by volunteering at a shelter. Or maybe you were dissatisfied with the decisions of a local law maker, so you participated in a peaceful protest. These are strong examples of taking action rather than complaining; however, it’s easy for these societal level examples to come off as unoriginal, so make sure you discuss why you were drawn to that particular issue, potentially discussing any personal ties you may have.
Equally valid responses might interpret “the greater good” on a family, school, or local community level. You might discuss the time when you founded a robotics club at your school to satisfy your peers interest in engineering extracurriculars. Or perhaps your parent is consistently overrun with household chores and work, so you take on laundry duty, so they have one less thing to worry about. The key takeaway for this prompt is that UVA wants to know how instead of remaining passive in regards to a certain issue, you have taken action to improve the lives of the people around you.
Obviously supplemental essays are about the admissions officers getting to know you better, but don’t make the mistake of writing this essay solely about yourself. Although the story of how you taught yourself to code despite your school not offering a course in programming is impressive and personal, it doesn’t show the reader how you connect with the world around you.
This is the last of the five prompt options and we recommend choosing the prompt you have the strongest connection to. Remember, there is no “best” prompt; regardless of the prompt you choose, ensure that you reveal something about your personality and give the admissions committee a closer look at your background.
Architecture only (250 words): Describe significant experience that deepened your interest in studying in the School of Architecture.
This “significant experience” could take the form of visiting an architectural landmark, living in a neighborhood of a certain style, or even simply watching a documentary on Antoni Guadi that solidified your decision to pursue architecture.
If you’ve traveled to a place with intricate and unique architecture, or you visited a site that excluded aesthetic excellence, this is the place to discuss that.
Perhaps you were intrigued by the ancient architecture and designs featured in ancient Greece. Or perhaps you were fascinated by a particular home you saw while driving through Hollywood Hills due to its unique modern characteristics. Be detailed when describing the instance or location, and allow the reader to visualize the design. That being said, be careful not to write a completely descriptive essay; with every purely descriptive sentence, make sure there is an accompanying sentence that addresses why that particular description is significant.
Your goal for this essay is to use an experience as a tool to describe your interest in architecture. Maybe you loved the detailed engravings embedded into ancient European architecture, or maybe you love the intersection of minimalism and functionality, or on the flip side, perhaps there is a building in your city that you particularly dislike and you’re curious about what drove certain architectural decisions. Make sure to convey the passion you have towards architecture and show a genuine interest and love for unique designs.
For those of you interested in kinesiology, or the study of how the body moves, you must complete this essay. There could be several reasons why you chose this field of study but make sure to choose something that is personal to you and had a large impact in terms of exciting your interest in the subject.
For instance, if you volunteered in a hospital and often worked with patients recovering from physical injuries, you could discuss watching people slowly regain mobility. You could discuss how you were amazed by the body’s ability to recover and how a person could transition from immobility to mobility. Maybe you have a more personal connection and witnessed a friend or family member experience the same recovery. If so, you could definitely include this in discussing your motivation for pursuing kinesiology.
You could also discuss the science and mechanics behind kinesiology if you did not necessarily have a defining moment that influenced you to choose the field. Perhaps you are interested biomechanics behind kinesiology and were always intrigued by how the body interacts with itself. If you have played sports before, you could draw a connection between the two here and discuss how your interest in sports influenced your interest in the body’s mechanics.
Engineering and applied sciences only (250 words): Describe an engineering feat that serves the common good and why it inspires you to study engineering.
The key words of this prompt are “engineering feat,” “common good,” and “inspire”; a response is incomplete if it doesn’t address these concepts. The modern world operates on engineering feats, giving you a wide array of options. You could choose a more obvious and revolutionary feat like the invention of the airplane or computer, or you could look around your everyday life and choose something that appears mundane but the world could not live without.
If you opt for something like an airplane, then you want to make it clear that you’ve put significant thought into your response. A bad essay might focus on how the airplane revolutionized history by allowing human kind to fly, something inventors previously believed impossible, and that this invention is inspiring because it made the impossible possible. While all of this is objectively true, it’s hardly interesting and tells the reader little about how you think. A better response might instead discuss how the airplane has sped up the process of globalization and allowed for the mixing and mutual understanding of cultures that were once isolated from each other. Then the essay might go on to mention how this cultural exposure has served the common good, and how the impact of engineering is intersectional, which is why you want to study it.
An example of a smaller feat could be the invention of the mechanical pencil. You could argue that the mechanical pencil serves the common good by reducing waste because it allows users to efficiently replace the graphite and eraser without having to stop to sharpen the pencil every 10 minutes. One could say that this new type of pencil is inspiring because it proves that even tools as old as a pencil can be improved upon.
These examples demonstrate that you can be extremely creative with this essay by approaching it from different directions. Just make sure your final essay addresses the key ideas listed in the first sentence of this explanation.
Nursing only (250 words): School of Nursing applicants may have experience shadowing, volunteering, or working in a healthcare environment. Tell us about a healthcare-related experience or another significant interaction that deepened your interest in studying Nursing.
This prompt is essentially asking you why you want to study nursing. You want to trace your previous experiences and consider whether they impacted your decision to study health care. Perhaps an experience volunteering at a hospital changed influenced your love for nursing, or perhaps you realized nursing comes naturally to you after caring for an ill friend or family member.
If you worked or volunteered at a hospital, you could discuss a specific interaction you had with a patient. For example, maybe an elderly woman recently exited surgery and you were assigned to assist with her recovery. Perhaps the woman would often tell stories about her past experiences to you, reminding you of your own grandmother. Maybe it’s this deep interaction with patients that has attracted you to nursing.
You want to be personal in your response; don’t simply state that you want to study nursing in order to help people. These answers are cliche and vague, as they don’t really highlight a particular experience that you had.
Arts and sciences only (250 words): What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?
With so many fields classified under arts and sciences, you have a variety of ways to approach this answer. If you’re studying biology, for example, perhaps a unique experiment in the lab opened your eyes to the intricacies of life. If you want to study math, maybe you struggled with learning a theorem and want to discuss how you overcame this challenge. Maybe Toni Morrison’s Beloved introduced you to the darker side of literature that made you both uncomfortable and intrigued.
You want to discuss why and how the work challenged or changed you rather than simply describing the work itself. The key here is to draw a personal connection and explain how the work impacted you by describing your personal reactions to it.
For example, if you found reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales challenging whether it be due to the language or content, you could describe the obstacles you encountered while analyzing the text. You could then conclude with discussing how working through these obstacles forced you to look at literature from a different perspective, thus allowing you to find unique symbols in the text that you otherwise would have skipped over.
Remember, the purpose of these essays is to showcase your identity to the admissions officers. You want to highlight your personality and convey your passions in order to allow the reader to get a better sense of who you are.
We hope this guide has allowed you to tackle UVA’s application with the utmost confidence. Happy writing!
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