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5 Tips for Writing a Stellar Vanderbilt Supplement Essay


Vanderbilt is one of the United States' highest-ranked colleges. With an acceptance rate of just 7 percent, it's ranked as extremely competitive. It's no surprise—Vanderbilt is known for having a wealth of appealing programs, including its school of medicine, the Peabody College of Education and Human Development, and Blair School of Music.

Because it's extremely competitive, you'll need to set yourself apart as a prospective student. That doesn't mean just your grades and impressive extracurriculars; it also means writing a killer essay to go along with your application.

In this guide, we'll tell you everything you need to know about Vanderbilt's supplemental essay, including some ideal topics, some pitfalls to avoid, and even some analysis of past Vanderbilt essays that have worked.

Feature Image: Dansan4444/Wikimedia Commons


The Vanderbilt Supplement Basics

Vanderbilt's application is fairly straightforward. They accept multiple application formats, including both the Common and Coalition Applications, as well as Questbridge.

What application you use is up to you. There are many reasons to choose one or the other, but regardless of which application you pick, you'll still be writing just one supplemental essay prompt from Vanderbilt. Choose whichever application works best for you.

In addition to the essays required for your Common, Coalition, or Questbridge Application, Vanderbilt requires one supplemental essay. There are two prompts to choose from; you’ll select one to respond to in a short answer essay of no more than 250 words.

However, having just one supplemental essay means that you'll need to put a lot of attention into making your essay as good as it can be. You only have one chance to prove yourself in your essay, so make it count!


body_coffee-8A little latte art never hurts.


What Are the Vanderbilt Supplement Essay Prompts?

Vanderbilt has two prompts for their supplemental essay. You’ll be asked to select one and respond to it in 250 words or less. The prompts are as follows: 

Vanderbilt University values learning through contrasting points of view. We understand that our differences, and our respect for alternative views and voices, are our greatest source of strength. Please reflect on conversations you’ve had with people who have expressed viewpoints different from your own. How did these conversations/experiences influence you?

Vanderbilt offers a community where students find balance between their academic and social experiences. Please briefly elaborate on how one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences has influenced you.

Each prompt asks you to describe and reflect on a different aspect of your experiences and values, so we’ll break down how to answer them individually.

Supplemental Prompt #1: Diversity

Vanderbilt University values learning through contrasting points of view. We understand that our differences, and our respect for alternative views and voices, are our greatest source of strength. Please reflect on conversations you’ve had with people who have expressed viewpoints different from your own. How did these conversations/experiences influence you?

In this prompt, Vanderbilt is asking you to
describe how you interact with and learn from people who are different from yourself. College campuses are diverse communities filled with people of different races, ethnicities, nationalities, and religious and political beliefs. This essay is your chance to show Vanderbilt that you’re the kind of student who’s open to learning from and with people from many different backgrounds–and that you’ll be kind and compassionate in the process. 

To answer this question, think of a specific conversation (or series of conversations) you’ve had with a person or group who expressed views that are different from your own. You’ll want to tell a compelling story about the experience, so try to remember details like how the conversation started, why the people involved felt invested in the conversation, what the outcome was, and, most importantly, how you were influenced by the conversation. 

Rather than giving a play-by-play, “they said/I said” of the conversation, focus on describing how you and the other people involved expressed yourselves and treated each other. Did you have a shouting match in the hallway at school, then apologize later because you realized that yelling isn’t a good way to express your views? Did you have a heartfelt, tearful conversation wherein you finally came to understand someone you’ve been at odds with for years? And most important of all, how did you come to these realizations, and how have they affected who you are and how you treat people who are different from you today? 

Remember to keep your essay focused on the people involved in the conversation, how you treated each other, and how you were affected by the interaction. This essay isn’t the place to harp on how you were right and you totally owned your opponent with your awesome debate skills. Instead, Vanderbilt wants to see that you can engage civilly and empathetically with people who are different from you–and that you’re open to learning new things from others. After all, learning and growing with people from different backgrounds is a key part of the college experience. 


Supplemental Prompt #2: Extracurricular Activities

Vanderbilt offers a community where students find balance between their academic and social experiences. Please briefly elaborate on how one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences has influenced you.

The question is straightforward—Vanderbilt is asking you to discuss one of your extracurriculars in depth. This doesn't just demonstrate to the admissions office that you're dedicated to your interest, but also that you have passions outside of school. Vanderbilt wants to know that you'll bring something besides academics to campus, and this is the space to tell them about it.

Keep in mind that Vanderbilt isn't looking for a list of activities or just a short discussion of one of your extracurriculars. They specifically ask for one, but you have 250 words to cover—which means you should spend some time unpacking not just the activity itself, but why you do it and why it matters to you. Be thoughtful; really think about your activities and why you do them beyond that they look good on your college application.

Don't just pick the extracurricular activity that you think Vanderbilt would want to hear about. If you're a champion Mathlete but you really feel fulfilled when you're making short films with your friends over the weekend, you should be writing about the short films. If your short film was played at a local film festival but you find more meaning in the time you spend knitting, write about knitting!

It's not about being impressive here. Plenty of other applicants will be discussing their charity work or science team victories. Use this space to discuss yourself, and why the things you do matter to you. If the most impressive thing in your repertoire and the thing that's most personally meaningful line up, great! But don't feel like you can only write about things like academic success, leadership roles, or entrepreneurship. Write about what's meaningful to you and Vanderbilt will see your personality—which is really what they're looking for—shine through.


body_plantReading Vanderbilt essays that worked is like planting a seed for your own success.


Vanderbilt Essays That Worked: Analysis

To give you a sense of what an effective Vanderbilt supplemental essay looks like, we tracked down an example of a successful Vanderbilt essay.

Keep in mind that this is a response to an older prompt. However, it still gives you a good idea of what admissions counselors are looking for in a thoughtful response. Consider this essay from an admitted Vanderbilt student:

Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences. (150-400 words).

While all my extracurricular activities have helped me shape my values, there is one in particular I have enjoyed the most: picking tangerines from my grandmother’s orchard. Picking tangerines was often to me simply a burden. I had to wake up at six every Saturday and drive fifty miles to help my grandmother reap good tangerines. On the whole ride I would think to myself: I would rather be reading poetry and ponder upon ways to change the world. As far as I was concerned, reaping tangerines was not going to help me do so. The orchard belonged to my grandmother, who to save money had to “hire” me and my mom. There was no wage; the only working benefit was being able to taste a few fresh tangerines for free. At age thirteen, such benefit was enough. At seventeen, I was not so sure if it was. Working at the orchard usually involved scratches, itching, worms, climbing up the ladder, getting hurt, and demanding, long hours of physical labor.

But as I worked through the years with tangerines, I began to recognize all the beauty my labor had. Everything in the orchard began telling their own stories. A tiny, pruned tree took pride in its small fruition, all the while a chunky tree demanded attention for its crooked children. Their offspring–tangerines–told by their taste who their trees were; some of them edgy, some of them warm, and some of them implicitly angry. Bugs would tell me which tree needs my help. No tree is without a hope. Within a few days of assistance, all the trees fought back those tiny enemies and always claimed victory. They became ever more proud, stronger, and complete. Enemies came back; but this time the trees didn’t need my help. Some tangerines would go bad–in extreme cases would give up under negligence. We grieve. But we simply carry on. We learn to proceed more carefully, and we let go.

The orchard is for me a story of life–human life. It makes all the complications of our lives more simple, easier to grasp, and more available at my tongue, hands and feet. So as of right now, my Saturday is always booked for the orchard. I hope by next year this time around, however, my orchard will be at Vanderbilt.


This essay was successful--the applicant was accepted at Vanderbilt! The fact that it was successful shows you that it contains features that Vanderbilt likes to see.

The writer of this essay discusses the unconventional “education” they received while working in their grandmother’s tangerine orchard. This topic is striking because it’s an extracurricular/work experience that few other applicants have likely had. The applicant’s creative interpretation of “extracurricular activities or work experience” from the prompt makes their essay stand out from others that discuss more common experiences.

Not everybody had this same experience, but that doesn't mean that you can't use some of the same ideas in your own work. The writer draws a clear line between their experience working the orchard and the person they are now—you could do a similar thing by connecting the person you are with the activity you've chosen to write about. What have you learned about yourself because of what you do?

The writer is also able to connect what they learned through working the orchard to the kind of student they will be at Vanderbilt. By drawing an analogy between the tangerine trees and the challenges we go through in life, the applicant conveys their core values. More importantly, they write about where those values come from—something you could easily do by referencing the importance of the activity you choose.

What's most important to take away from this essay is the way that the writer connects the experience of working the orchard to the person they became. No matter what your education was or what activity you choose to write about, you can do a similar thing in your own essay!


body_essay-19Don't be afraid of multiple drafts—they make the difference between a good essay and a great one.


5 Key Tips for Writing Your Vanderbilt Essay

Vanderbilt is a prestigious school, but there are some essay standards that hold true no matter where you're applying. Follow these steps to write an essay that's sure to impress!


#1: Start Writing

Starting is the step that sounds the easiest, but it's actually the hardest. No matter what you have to do to start writing, whether it's freewriting, brainstorming, or just pumping out a first draft as fast as you can, you need to do it. At this point, don't worry about quality or being impressive. Just get words down on paper so that you can edit them into shape later—if you spend too much time worrying about starting with a perfect beginning, you'll never make it past that point.


#2: Edit

Step two is when you can start worrying about quality. Read your essay aloud and see if you can spot problems with word choice and flow. If you're struggling to read it, change words and add punctuation as necessary.

Also think about your overall point. Does it make sense? Are you able to trace your logic all the way through without a problem? If not, find ways to connect your thoughts from beginning to end.

Be thorough in cutting extraneous words. 250 words isn't a lot, and you'll want to make sure you're making your essay count by picking vibrant, active verbs and clear language. Don't worry about being flowery or busting out the thesaurus, but do be sure that your wording doesn't feel tired or dull.


#3: Seek Feedback

One of the best ways to find holes in your logic or other issues in your essay is to get others to give you feedback. Find people who want to see you succeed, but preferably not those who aren't going to give you criticism if you need it. Teachers and other mentors are a good choice, if they're available.

Don't feel like you have to use every piece of feedback you receive, but do consider all of it. Your essay should always be your own work, so try to rephrase suggestions in your own words or rewrite confusing passages how you would write them, not how others suggest.


#4: Take a Break

With deadlines looming and other essays to write, it may be tempting to just rush through after getting feedback and fix everything. But take some time away from your essay, focusing on other college application duties or on other things entirely. Anywhere from a couple days to weeks to months can be good for improving your essay, though do leave yourself time to revise.

Taking a break lets your mind forget what you've already written, so that when you come back to revise you do so with fresh eyes. This way, you can see holes in your logic or places where your language isn't as tight as it could be. You'll never be able to completely shed your attachment to your essay, but spending some time away from it can give you a whole new outlook on your work!


#5: Revise

Now that you've had some time away and you have notes to incorporate, it's time to revise. Revision can be something you do multiple times, combing through your essay for errors and places to strengthen it, but eventually you are going to have to turn it in. Don't get caught up in perfection—focus on making your essay the best you can. Check it for spelling, grammar, and punctuation errors to be sure it's clean and easy to read, and send it off!


What's Next?

Starting your essay is often the hardest part. If you're unsure where to begin, check out this guide to starting a college essay perfectly, and don't be afraid to just dive right in!

A good essay is just one part of a successful Vanderbilt application. If you want to really wow the admissions office, be sure your grades and test scores are up to snuff, too!

Vanderbilt University may not be an Ivy League school, but that doesn't mean your application can't be Ivy League-ready. Use these tips for getting into Harvard to shape your college application, and you'll have no problem getting into any school you choose!



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Melissa Brinks
About the Author

Melissa Brinks graduated from the University of Washington in 2014 with a Bachelor's in English with a creative writing emphasis. She has spent several years tutoring K-12 students in many subjects, including in SAT prep, to help them prepare for their college education.

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