Brooke Elkjer
12 min read 12th Grade,Essay Breakdowns

UVA Essay Examples: Breakdown + Analysis

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What’s Covered:

 

The University of Virginia is a large public research university in Charlottesville, Virginia. The university boasts a long history of academic excellence since Thomas Jefferson founded it in 1819. The UVA campus is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and, with its red brick buildings, large quads, and Jeffersonian architecture is considered to be one of the most beautiful college campuses in the nation.

 

With an acceptance rate of 24%, UVA is considered a “most selective” school. UVA uses the Common App and additionally requires that students submit two supplemental essays, which should be around 250 words each (though there is no hard word count).

 

In this article, we will walk the strengths and weaknesses of two school-specific essays that were submitted for Prompt 1. We also have a breakdown of a Prompt 2 submission. By reading former applicants’ essays and seeing what they did right and what they did wrong, you can learn how to improve your writing to better impress UVA admissions officers!

 

UVA Supplemental Essay Prompt #1

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—What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?

 

  • School of Engineering and Applied Sciences—Describe an engineering feat that serves the common good and why it inspires you to study engineering.

 

  • School of Architecture—Describe a significant experience that deepened your interest in studying in the School of Architecture.

 

  • School of Nursing—Describe a healthcare-related experience or another significant interaction that deepened your interest in studying nursing.

 

  • Kinesiology Program—Discuss experiences that led you to choose the kinesiology major.

UVA Essay Example #1

 

What work of art, music, science, mathematics, literature, or other media has surprised, unsettled, or inspired you, and in what way?

Cringing when thinking about human sacrifice in “Vida y muerte en el Templo Mayor,” I puzzled over the motive behind the Aztec practice of killing a person to appease the gods of nature.

 

After a lengthy discussion with Mexican friends, I learned that Aztec civilization considered humans just one part of the natural world, rather than the dominant species. Only when the gods of nature are satisfied, they believed, can worldly creatures live in peace.

 

That’s when I recognized how I’ve been looking at the world from an anthropocentric model. Whether in the Four Heavenly Kings of Chinese mythology, or in the Bible story of Noah’s Ark my Christian grandma told, these stories revolve around humans’ survival and prosperity, and nature is just a backdrop. 

 

The Aztec “nature-centric model,” truly challenged my perspective. Humans might not be as superior as we think; everything may not be about us. Reflecting on my motivations for advocating sustainability, I’m guilty of preserving the Earth for the sake of our human offspring, not for the Earth’s own sake. 

 

The Aztec perception of humans’ relationship to nature inspired me to reconceptualize my own perspective. I expanded my framework from humanity to all creatures: why not consider the elephants our siblings, or the trees our cousins? 

 

I reject the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, but their belief that we are but a tiny part of nature resonated deeply with me. Rather than protecting Earth with self-interest and fear, I now treat Earth with empathy and love.

Breaking Down UVA Essay Example #1

 

This UVA essay, which was submitted as the school-specific supplemental response for the College of Arts and Sciences, is well-structured and well-written. It answers the prompt while providing valuable personal information about the applicant.

 

Cringing when thinking about human sacrifice in “Vida y muerte en el Templo Mayor,” I puzzled over the motive behind the Aztec practice of killing a person to appease the gods of nature.

 

With this introduction, the student achieves the most important part of this essay: answering the prompt. While many college essays prompt ask for students to explore their development or identity and leave room for flexibility, this prompt is very specific. It asks the student to first identify one work of art, music, science, mathematics, literature, or other media. This student identifies their topic of discussion— “Vida y muerte en el Templo Mayor,”—quickly, but keeps it interesting through using a complex sentence structure.

 

After a lengthy discussion with Mexican friends, I learned that Aztec civilization considered humans just one part of the natural world, rather than the dominant species. Only when the gods of nature are satisfied, they believed, can worldly creatures live in peace.

 

In this section, the student provides some context for the essay that follows. They also show their desire to understand other cultures and position themself as open-minded and slow to dismiss others.

 

That’s when I recognized how I’ve been looking at the world from an anthropocentric model. Whether in the Four Heavenly Kings of Chinese mythology, or in the Bible story of Noah’s Ark my Christian grandma told, these stories revolve around humans’ survival and prosperity, and nature is just a backdrop. 

 

While overall this essay is a great example, this paragraph is its weakest link. That’s because this paragraph makes the error of telling, not showing. The student uses the summarizing phrase “that’s when I recognized” (which should generally be avoided) then continues to tell readers what they learned. Rather, the student could have provided a piece of dialogue from their discussion with their friend or used self-reflective questions to show us the message of this paragraph.

 

An example of how this paragraph could be improved:

 

“So you’re telling me that your culture doesn’t view humans as the main characters?” I asked my friend, still slightly baffled. When I got home, I went down a Google rabbit hole, obsessively researching Aztec beliefs. I landed on a page about the anthropocentric model. Had I been learning this model all along without even knowing? I thought about my Christian grandma’s stories—Noah’s arc, the Four Heavenly Kings, Genesis. They all revolve around humans’ survival and prosperity, and nature is just a backdrop.

 

This revised paragraph is much more captivating and would have strengthened the overall essay.

 

The Aztec “nature-centric model,” truly challenged my perspective. Humans might not be as superior as we think; everything may not be about us. Reflecting on my motivations for advocating sustainability, I’m guilty of preserving the Earth for the sake of our human offspring, not for the Earth’s own sake. 

 

The Aztec perception of humans’ relationship to nature inspired me to reconceptualize my own perspective. I expanded my framework from humanity to all creatures: why not consider the elephants our siblings, or the trees our cousins? 

 

These paragraphs are great because they relate the story we are reading back to the student writing it. Presumably, this student is declaring environmental studies or environmental science as a major. That means that, while readers are learning about the student’s values, they also learn that values are the central motivation behind this student’s career choices. This self-reflection is important and looks great to admissions officers!

 

I reject the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, but their belief that we are but a tiny part of nature resonated deeply with me. Rather than protecting Earth with self-interest and fear, I now treat Earth with empathy and love.

 

This conclusion perfectly summarizes the growth that the student has described! It shows the self-reflection that they have experienced, with some of their beliefs staying the same and others changing.

 

UVA Essay Example #2

 

Describe a significant experience that deepened your interest in studying in the School of Architecture.

During my freshman year, my studio art class arranged a field trip to the National Portrait Gallery. To say I was excited was an understatement. Although I have lived near DC all my life, I never had the chance to visit its art museums. This trip would be my first time. 

 

When we arrived, I stood in the courtyard, waiting for directions. I don’t remember what spurred me to look up, but when I did, the sight of a floating steel and glass canopy above amazed me. It was unlike anything else in the room. The undulant form of the ceiling reminded me of being underwater, looking up to see waves dancing. What struck me the most was how its sleek and modern design juxtaposed the gallery’s Greek revival architecture. 

 

I’ve gone back several times since then, each time appreciating something new from the ceiling—in the shelter, it provides from the outside elements to the beautiful grid of shadows it leaves on the ground and walls on sunny days. Inspired by the relationship between the ceiling and the rest of the gallery, I have sought out ways to combine contrasting styles like classic vs. modern, organic vs. geometric, hard vs. soft, and fine art vs. crafts in my art. I’ve become hyper-aware of the physical spaces I occupy and their functional yet artistic characteristics. While studying architecture at UVA, I hope to continue exploring these relationships and apply them to my architectural style. 

Breaking Down UVA Essay Example #2

 

This essay clearly answers the prompt and provides a tangible example for readers. While it could be considered boring and, at times, unengaging, there is also beauty in its simplicity that gives it an authentic feel. It lacks the bells and whistles that often accompany college essay writing and just tells the writer’s truth. While I wouldn’t submit this essay if you are applying to creative writing, it works well for this writer and this writer’s intentions!

 

During my freshman year, my studio art class arranged a field trip to the National Portrait Gallery. To say I was excited was an understatement. Although I have lived near DC all my life, I never had the chance to visit its art museums. This trip would be my first time. 

 

Here, the writer sets the scene. The prompt asks about an experience and, through this introduction, it is clear that the experience will be visiting the National Portrait Gallery. 

 

This paragraph could be improved through editing the second sentence: “ To say I was excited was an understatement.” Because this writer engages with a simple style (with little imagery or elaborate descriptions), they can use descriptive language strategically to emphasize certain scenes, emotions, or aspects of their story. Because they are applying to Architecture, their excitement about art is important and this excitement could have been emphasized through more elaborate language. This would also make the essay more engaging from the start and draw the reader’s attention.

 

When we arrived, I stood in the courtyard, waiting for directions. I don’t remember what spurred me to look up, but when I did, the sight of a floating steel and glass canopy above amazed me. It was unlike anything else in the room. The undulant form of the ceiling reminded me of being underwater, looking up to see waves dancing. What struck me the most was how its sleek and modern design juxtaposed the gallery’s Greek revival architecture. 

 

This paragraph is where the writer shows that their simple style is not due to lack of ability or effort, but is intentionally authentic. Through the phrase “I don’t remember what spurred me to look up” the writer lets readers know that they aren’t going to tell us anything that isn’t true. This value placed on authenticity is important and tells us a lot about the student. 

 

 

In this paragraph, the student uses elaborate language to emphasize the important part of their story (a strategy we mentioned as a potential improvement for the last paragraph). The description of the ceiling—“The undulant form of the ceiling reminded me of being underwater, looking up to see waves dancing”—is interesting and engaging. It creates an image of the ceiling in the reader’s mind, but also makes the reader want to hear more!

 

I’ve gone back several times since then, each time appreciating something new from the ceiling—in the shelter, it provides from the outside elements to the beautiful grid of shadows it leaves on the ground and walls on sunny days. Inspired by the relationship between the ceiling and the rest of the gallery, I have sought out ways to combine contrasting styles like classic vs. modern, organic vs. geometric, hard vs. soft, and fine art vs. crafts in my art. I’ve become hyper-aware of the physical spaces I occupy and their functional yet artistic characteristics. While studying architecture at UVA, I hope to continue exploring these relationships and apply them to my architectural style. 

 

This final paragraph ties it all together. We learn that the National Portrait Gallery’s architecture isn’t just cool, but is inspirational for this student. Additionally, through this paragraph, admissions officers learn that this student has thought out their decision to apply to UVA’s Architecture school. They are familiar with architectural styles and already think like an architect. A student who is ahead of the game and passionate about their field of study is very important to admissions officers!

 

UVA Supplemental Essay Prompt #2

Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words.

 

  • What’s your favorite word and why?

 

  • 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.

 

  • 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?

 

  • 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?

 

  • 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.

 

UVA Essay Example #3

 

We are a community of quirks, both in language and in traditions. Describe one of your quirks and why it is part of who you are.

I haven’t let another person cut my hair in four years. Bangs, layers, a fringe, a bob, I have been my own hairdresser. With only me, a mirror, and scissors in hand, I enjoy having complete control over my appearance. Cutting my hair is liberating; it’s like removing dead weight off my shoulders. Messing up isn’t a concern, as I know my hair will grow back. I am proud of the freedom I have with my hair, but I haven’t always been this way. 

 

In traditional Quechua culture, women have long, braided hair. One braid indicates that a woman is single, while two means she is married. Growing up surrounded by women who kept their hair long, I desperately wanted to stand out but was too afraid to break tradition. I love my Quechua heritage, but as a young girl, I thought it was silly to have braids when I wasn’t even allowed to date. Why did it matter if others knew I was single? 

 

Eventually, my parents agreed to let me cut my hair, and for a moment I’d been looking forward to for so long, I wanted to be the one to do it. Like every time I’ve cut my hair since then, I felt like a new person. Looking back to who I was then and who I am now, I know 12 year old me would think I look cool, and she’s the only person I want to impress.

Breaking Down UVA Essay Example #3

 

This essay is fun and interesting! Readers learn about the student’s personality, family history, and values. It is well-structured, engaging, and original.

 

I haven’t let another person cut my hair in four years. Bangs, layers, a fringe, a bob, I have been my own hairdresser. With only me, a mirror, and scissors in hand, I enjoy having complete control over my appearance. Cutting my hair is liberating; it’s like removing dead weight off my shoulders. Messing up isn’t a concern, as I know my hair will grow back. I am proud of the freedom I have with my hair, but I haven’t always been this way. 

 

For a short essay, a lot of words are given to this introduction. That being said, this introduction also provides a lot of the essay’s content. First, the student identifies their quirk—cutting their own hair. This topic is interesting and automatically makes readers think “oh, that’s cool!” but then the student takes it a step further by engaging readers with a small cliffhanger—“ I haven’t always been this way.” Cutting your own hair isn’t a quirk that inherently requires a deeper meaning, but this student draws us in by letting us know that there is one.

 

In traditional Quechua culture, women have long, braided hair. One braid indicates that a woman is single, while two means she is married. Growing up surrounded by women who kept their hair long, I desperately wanted to stand out but was too afraid to break tradition. I love my Quechua heritage, but as a young girl, I thought it was silly to have braids when I wasn’t even allowed to date. Why did it matter if others knew I was single? 

 

This essay’s second paragraph is where we get to know the student, which should always be a priority when writing any college essay. We learn about the student’s Quechua heritage and how it affected their childhood. We also learn about the student’s capacity for self-reflection, which seems to have existed from a young age—“I thought it was silly to have braids when I wasn’t even allowed to date. Why did it matter if others knew I was single?”

 

Eventually, my parents agreed to let me cut my hair, and for a moment I’d been looking forward to for so long, I wanted to be the one to do it. Like every time I’ve cut my hair since then, I felt like a new person. Looking back to who I was then and who I am now, I know 12 year old me would think I look cool, and she’s the only person I want to impress.

 

Finally, the last paragraph brings things full circle and draws a connection between the young girl’s confusion about Quechuan braids and the current writer’s passion for cutting their own hair. The last sentence of this essay is particularly powerful—“I know 12 year old me would think I look cool, and she’s the only person I want to impress.” 

 

The beginning of this final paragraph is the only part of this essay that could use some rewriting. This essay is generally well-written, so the confusing sentence structure of “Eventually, my parents agreed to let me cut my hair, and for a moment I’d been looking forward to for so long, I wanted to be the one to do it” throws off the essay’s flow. Similarly, it is difficult to parse through the sentence “Like every time I’ve cut my hair since then, I felt like a new person.” 

 

After improving the language of these two sentences, this would be a top-notch essay! This student’s personality really shines through.

 

For more information and ideas about all of the UVA supplemental prompts, check out CollegeVine’s Guide to the UVA Essays. 

 

Where to Get Your Essay Edited for Free

 

It’s important that you submit the best essay you can to the University of Virginia, both for your peace of mind and your admissions chances. To make your essay stand out, you will need other people to give you feedback and ideas of areas for improvement. CollegeVine’s peer essay review tool can help. Other students will edit your essay for free, and you can edit your peers’ essays to help you improve your writing skills!

 

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Brooke Elkjer
Blog Writer

Short Bio
Brooke is going into her senior year at the University of Southern California and is originally from Dallas, Texas. She is pursuing a Bachelor’s degree in English and a Bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience. Brooke is the associate literary producer for the intersectional feminist production company on campus, ART/EMIS. She also is a Resident Assistant (RA) and a student worker for the Thematic Option Honors GE Program. In her free time, Brooke enjoys reading, writing, and watching Gilmore Girls.

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