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How to Write the Vanderbilt University Supplemental Essay 2017-2018


We’ve updated this guide for 2018-2019!

Located in the midtown area of Nashville, TN, Vanderbilt University is one of the country’s premier private research universities. Founded by business magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt in 1873, the university is one of the oldest in the country and one of the most selective with an overall acceptance rate of 10.7% for the class of 2021.


There are three undergraduate colleges: the College of Arts & Sciences, Peabody College, and the School of Engineering. Known as the “Ivy of the South,” Vanderbilt’s location in Music City, its renowned sports programs, and its high quality of life make this school a very popular choice for high-achieving students all over the world. To help make you an extraordinary candidate, CollegeVine is here to provide some key tips to strengthen your supplemental essay.


Vanderbilt only has one supplemental prompt — so your essay needs to be great!


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


Vanderbilt University Application Essay Prompt

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (400 words)

This common question seems to demand a simple, straightforward response. However, since this is Vanderbilt’s only supplement, it is important that your response illustrates your character and personality. Treat this prompt in the same manner that you would treat a more creative one. Use the same writing skills that you used in your common application: show don’t tell, vivid figurative language, detailed narration, etc.

Step 1: Choose the extracurricular.

Any activity that has mentally or physically changed your perspective on life will work, but the best ones are those that you’ve devoted a lot of time and effort to, and are preferably related to the theme of your application: surmounting challenges, learning to be a team player, adjusting to new environments, etc. However, your supplement does not have to directly connect to your major or your common application essay.


For example, if you’re planning to study biology on the pre-medicine track and your common application essay was about how volunteering at a hospital opened your eyes to the healthcare situation in this country, your supplement does not have to also be about something medicine-related. Perhaps it could be an artistic endeavor such as painting or photography that opened your mind to abstract thought and creative expression. In fact, it would add flavor to your candidacy if through this prompt, you can demonstrate your depth in multiple fields.


Notice how although medicine and art are very different, they both support the idea that you are an open-minded student who relishes the opportunity to look at and change the world with different perspectives.


Secondly, your activity does not have to be something that is seen as “prestigious” or something in which you’ve won many awards. Choosing something that you actually care about as opposed to an activity you participated in merely for awards will often lead to a more moving essay. If you’re a championship debater but your true passion is sailing in the summertime, a well-crafted essay about sailing and how it has served as your mind’s escape from this chaotic world would show the admissions team a relatable, worldly side of you apart from the high-achieving academic side that your activities and achievements list already demonstrate.


Keep in mind that this does not mean that you have to choose an out-of-the-box activity. You simply have to convey a common experience in an emotionally engaging way.

Step 2: Decide how you want to start your essay.

Instead of a paragraph describing what you do, you could use a tipping point in your journey to lead the discussion of the activity’s influence on you.


Weak example: In high school, I participated in model congress. It was very difficult for me at first, because I am not a great public speaker and don’t know much about politics. However, after a lot of research and many unimpressive performances at tournaments, I finally was able to overcome this at the Yale Model Congress tournament in my junior year where I was awarded best delegate after a speech in a full session of over a hundred students about environmental regulations, which I am very passionate about.


Stronger example: DECORUM!” A hush falls over the room with the sound of the gavel pounding against the desk. “Speakers for a two-minute speech in negation,” the chairman of our committee demands, looking out toward the hundreds of students dressed in Western business attire with their placards held high in the air. Mine meekly joins them.


“Senator Smith?” The chairman points the gavel directly at me and my face grows hot under the realization that I will have to give a speech in front of hundreds of more talented, better-spoken peers. When I arrive at the podium, I thumb the engraving that reads “Yale Model Congress 2016” and open my mouth. No sound comes out so I clear my throat twice.


“Senator Jones,” I start out weakly. “This proposed piece of legislation reminds me of my aunt’s chihuahua. All bark, no bite.” Scattered bouts of laughter erupt in the room. Subtle attempt at humor, check. “We all want to protect our environment, but this bill provides very little specifics, and the ones provided are a mere slap on the wrist for the huge corporations that pollute our rivers, lakes, air, and environment.”


You can clearly see how the beginnings of the two different essays differ in sentence structure, use of diction, imagery, and altogether effectiveness of displaying character and writing skills. Be careful to not go overboard with flowery language or fluff though; a 400-word limit requires you to be concise.


Your essay does not have to begin this way; you can start with a memory, a detailed description of an object or event you have built, or an excerpt of a speech or story you’ve penned. You have a lot of creative jurisdiction here, but the most important component to an introduction is the captivation of your audience.


Note: The stronger example weaved two different passions into one essay (model congress and environment conservation). You can definitely do this and it may lead to a stronger supplement, but be wary of trying to cram multiple unrelated extracurriculars into one essay. It will distract the reader from your message.

Step 3: Flesh out the idea that you’ve introduced.

Using the same writing skills, elaborate on why you chose to write about this activity. If woodwork in your basement was a peaceful way for you to spend quality time with your siblings, show your reader why family time is priceless to you.



Away from the banging on the bathroom door on weekday mornings, the loud thumps of feet rushing down the stairs to catch the bus, and the occasional stress-induced yelling match, the soft hum of the sander traversing the piece of wood in our basement on Saturday mornings was my solace. It was the only time during the week that I saw my sister crack a smile.


You can also use this area to include a few bragging points. If you founded a club or an organization that had grown in membership size, you can point out how the number of people who showed up to a meeting was overwhelming and further motivated you because you didn’t want to let them down. If you’ve won several awards, you could point out that the trophies did not compare to the process, as even before you started winning, you have pursued the activity for six years.


For example:

It wasn’t just about the teary eyes after I’d finished a sonnet, or the shiny trophy that exclaimed ‘Youth Poet Laureate 2016.’ It was about imbuing meaning into the abstract shapes we call ‘words’ on a page. It was about the inexplicable smile that props up my cheeks when someone else understands all my emotions without me having spoken a word, just by reading ink on a page. It was about being understood.


This step is the most important in revealing your character, so make sure you dedicate adequate space and time (more than 200 words).

Step 4: Relate this activity to how it has prepared you to…

After you’ve figured out what you want to write about and how you want to style your essay, the next step is to relate this activity to how it has prepared you to pay it forward in college and beyond.


Although the prompt only explicitly asks for a description of your extracurricular, the true purpose of the supplement is to see what kind of a student you would be at Vanderbilt. Therefore, it’s important to include this element as a form of reflection on how your activity has impacted you.


For example, if you participated in a cultural interest-based club in high school, you can discuss your yearning to be exposed to more cultures that are represented in your community, cultures that are present at Vanderbilt University due to its diverse student body. This is also a great spot to conclude by relating back to elements of your application theme, such as a change in attitude toward social responsibility.


We hope this guide has made the essay writing process a little easier!


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