Vanderbilt is one of the United States’ highest-ranking colleges. With an acceptance rate of just 10 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.
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 answering 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’s only one prompt with a 400-word limit, so you won’t have to choose between prompts.
However, having just one prompt 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!
A little latte art never hurts.
What Is the Vanderbilt Supplement Essay Prompt?
Vanderbilt has just one prompt for their supplemental essay, which must be answered in 400 words or less.
Please briefly elaborate on one of your extracurricular activities or work experiences.
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 400 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.
Reading Vanderbilt essays that worked is like planting a seed for your own success.
Vanderbilt Essays That Worked: Analysis
Vanderbilt doesn’t use the same prompts from year to year, but that doesn’t mean that looking at past successful essays can’t be useful. Consider this one from an accepted Vanderbilt student:
“Never help a child with a task at which he feels he can succeed,” Maria Montessori once said. School was about letting my curiosity lead me and teaching myself at my own pace. For example, at the start of 7th grade, I was handed the Algebra I book and told to complete it anytime in the next two years. I was intrigued to have a real textbook, but a bit overwhelmed, as the math looked like a foreign language. After reading a chapter, I’d take a stab at the problem set right away. It wasn’t about getting the problems right or wrong; it was about trying to understand the material. As frustrating as this process was, each time I conquered a new idea, my exasperation was transformed into new energy. I learned how to solve problems independently and to know when to ask others for help.
When I did get to high school, I was surprised at how well prepared I was. My two strongest skills, time management and the ability to work well independently and in groups, made the transition easy for me. The Mesa Sands experience shaped me outside the classroom, too. One of my strongest qualities is trustworthiness. Because my school did not have a set structure or rules, I’ve in effect worked under an honor code from the time I was three years old.
This essay was written for a different prompt, but the fact that it was successful shows you that it contains features that Vanderbilt likes to see.
The writer of this essay discusses their education at a Montessori school, which doesn’t take the same approach to education as many other schools. Throughout, they refer to the school’s teachings and how they shaped their learning, not just but the things they were taught, but the way that they were taught.
Not everybody had this same educational 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 how they were brought up 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 discuss academic strengths without referring to their GPA, which Vanderbilt is no doubt already familiar with. Instead, they discuss their strengths as traits, like adherence to an honor code, trustworthiness, and time management. More importantly, they write about where those traits 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 attending their unique school 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!
Don'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.
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. 400 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!
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!
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 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.