Founded in 1819 by Thomas Jefferson, the University of Virginia boasts impressive academics, competitive sports team, and a long list of notable alumni. Though over 20,000 students attend UVA, the school has an admissions rate of 26%—meaning you'll have to work hard if you want to be a Cavalier.
One of the best ways to boost your chances of admissions is by writing great UVA essays as part of your application. In this article, we'll break down what the UVA essay prompts are and how you can write responses to each prompt that will make you stand out.
What Are the UVA Supplemental Essay Prompts?
Neither of the UVA essays has a hard word count, though the instructions recommend that you write around half a page, or 250 words. For the first UVA supplement essay, you're required to write a response based on the school within UVA that you're applying to. For the second UVA supplement essay, you get to choose the topic that resonates most with you.
UVA Essay Prompts
Here are the UVA essay prompts for 2020-21:
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 significant experience that deepened your interest in studying in the School of Architecture.
- School of Nursing—Describe a health care-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.
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 Essays, Analyzed
Looking for advice on how to write amazing UVA essays? Let's break down how to answer each prompt.
UVA Prompt #1
The instructions are the same for all of the first UVA essays:
"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."
Let's look at how to answer each one.
College of Arts and Sciences—What work of art, music, science, mathematics, or literature has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you, and in what way?
This prompt gives you an opportunity to examine many different fields. The key is to pick something you're passionate about.
Passion doesn't always have to be a good thing. You may be passionate about why Pride & Prejudice is the worst book ever written. This essay asks about something that has surprised, unsettled, or challenged you—you don't need to pick your favorites here.
Consider picking something that has reframed your perception of the world. Have you read a book that opened your eyes to another culture? Has some fact of science truly blown your mind? Go with something that has shifted how you view and conceptualize the world. Again, it doesn't have to be in a good way.
Describe an engineering feat that serves the common good and why it inspires you to study engineering.
This prompt allows you to think out of the box! In order to ace this essay, go big...sort of. You're supposed to identify an engineering advancement that has somehow made life better for humanity. While that could be a huge advancement (like CRISPR, for example), it could also be something smaller (like car airbags) or less glamorous (like sewage systems).
Our recommendation is that you a) pick a feat that's particular to the subset of engineering you want to study, and b) try and pick something that's not obvious. So for example, while CRISPR is a huge advancement in bioengineering...lots of people are probably going to write about it. You want to stand out, so spend some time researching your field until you find a unique advancement that speaks to you.
And of course, don't forget to explain how the impact of this advancement inspires you!
School of Architecture—Describe significant experience that deepened your interest in studying in the School of Architecture.
Inspiration comes in many forms—what's important for this prompt is to think about an experience that has inspired you. Also, keep in mind that this prompt isn't asking you about a specific building or project that you love. Instead, it wants you to tell a personal story about how architecture has inspired you...and how that inspiration led you to choose architecture as a major.
The trick for this essay prompt is connecting your experience to architecture. For example, maybe you wanted to be an architect because you visited the Academy of Sciences in California, and you thought their underground aquarium was amazing. That inspired you to want to learn to build structures that create that sense of awe in others.
Whatever you choose, you should be sincere about your inspiration. Anything that sounds trite will be really obvious to the admissions committee. They'll read thousands of applications about wanting to make the tallest building in the world—make yours sound different.
Describe a health care-related experience or another significant interaction that deepened your interest in studying nursing.
Don't feel like you need to highlight a huge moment here—rather, focus on something that's significant to you even if that experience was small!
The key to this prompt is to make sure that you're highlighting something real that happened to you or someone important to you. The more personal you can make the experience, the better.
Saying something like "I want to solve cancer for everyone" is less impactful than saying that you have seen firsthand how cancer affected your grandmother. Nursing is a personal profession—lean into that for this essay.
Kinesiology Program—Discuss experiences that led you to choose the kinesiology major.
For this prompt, focus on one or two experiences and discuss them in detail. Don't give an entire overview of your history—describing something more fully will resonate more than trying to cram a lot of experiences into a relatively short essay.
Be honest about what drove you to kinesiology—don't write what you think the admissions committee wants to hear. Write what's true for you.
UVA Prompt #2:
The instructions are the same for all of the second round of UVA prompts: "Answer one of the following questions in a half page or roughly 250 words." You only need to pick one of these questions to answer.
What's your favorite word and why?
With a prompt like this, it can be tempting to want to impress the admissions committee with your knowledge of esoteric vocabulary. Don't go that route, unless you have a true connection to a strange, rarely used word.
Pick a word that's meaningful to you—something that's very specific to you. The key here isn't to pick the most interesting word, it's to have the most meaningful and memorable experience to back it up. If "family" is really important to you, you need to have a good reason—simply saying you love your parents isn't enough.
Focus on the "why" rather than the word and you'll be on the right track.
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.
This prompt offers you a chance to show off a side of yourself that the rest of your application doesn't highlight. Take advantage of it!
Do you have a passion for collecting Minnie Mouse figurines? Do you have to run four miles every single morning? Do you stop everything you're doing whenever the Red Sox are playing? Do your parents always make fun of you for pronouncing a word strangely? Whatever your quirk is, now's the time to celebrate it!
Write freely and without embarrassment—a quirk is a quirk! It's not supposed to seem normal. The admissions committee won't judge you for your quirk. They want to learn the interesting parts about your personality.
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?
The topic you choose doesn't have to be high-brow or exceedingly academic—rather, you need to pick a topic that'll inspire thought-provoking conversations. If that conversation is, "What does Kim Kardashian say about the future of advertising?" that's fine! As long as the topic is important to you.
As with the other prompts, the word "why" is the most important of this prompt. You need to have a strong reason for wanting to explore this topic. If you want to talk about Kim Kardashian, that's cool—as long as you can indicate why this is a topic worthy of discussion.
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?
As with the other prompts, the "why" is the most important part of this question. Whatever message you land on, make sure you have a good reason for it.
Avoid trite or cliched phrases, like "Be the change you wish to see in the world." The admissions committee will have seen thousands of these—and those words are probably already written on Beta Bridge.
What do you have to say? What message is personal to you? What lesson have you learned that you specifically can communicate?
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.
First and foremost: don't make something up here. Don't say that you spent months devoted to petitioning for the expansion of healthcare in your community if you didn't. Trust us: admissions counselors can sniff out a lie a mile away. You don't have to have done something monumental in order to have contributed to the "greater good."
For example, maybe you realized that cars were driving too fast through your neighborhood, so you went to your neighborhood association and convinced them to install speed bumps. Or maybe you saw that the local library didn't have enough children's books, so you held a donation drive to build up their collection. The action doesn't have to be huge, but you do need to explain why you got involved, and how that made your community better.
Keep in mind that this prompt is specifically asking you to talk about a time when you took action. For a lot of people, it's easy to be unhappy with a situation, but they never get so motivated that they do something about it. UVA wants to build a community of doers, and this prompt is designed to let you showcase your motivation and compassion.
How to Write UVA Essays
Here are some general tips for how to write UVA essays that will wow the committee.
#1: Be You
Your UVA supplement essay is a chance to show the admissions committee who you are. Take that opportunity to flesh yourself out. You're not simply a collection of A's and B's printed on a transcript. You're a real person! Show that in your UVA essays.
#2: Feedback Is Cool; Plagiarism Is Not
It can be tempting to bounce essay ideas off your peers, parents, and teachers. That's fine! But don't rely on them too heavily. Your work should be your own—from the ideas to the execution. There's a fine line between receiving helpful feedback and using that feedback in a way that misrepresents your work and ability. Seek out help, but know that you have the first and final say.
#3: Play With Form
Your UVA essays don't have to follow the traditional five paragraph structure. UVA encourages you to play with form. That means you can submit a poem, if you want!
Take advantage of the freedom from structure to write in a way that feels authentic to you. If that means starting every sentence with the letter "E", then go for it! As long as your work is well-written and engaging, the form doesn't matter.
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Hayley Milliman is a former teacher turned writer who blogs about education, history, and technology. When she was a teacher, Hayley's students regularly scored in the 99th percentile thanks to her passion for making topics digestible and accessible. In addition to her work for PrepScholar, Hayley is the author of Museum Hack's Guide to History's Fiercest Females.