Dartmouth's Writing Supplement: Celebrate Your Voice
Let’s flash forward a few weeks.
It’s New Year’s Eve. Merriment reigns around the globe but your bedroom (or wherever your computer is located) is the exception to this festive rule. Rather than celebrating the arrival of your graduation year, you’re frantically completing your college applications before the glittering ball drops in Times Square. “I just have to finish these writing supplements…” you tell yourself as you reach for some Red Bull when you really should be sipping sparkling cider. (You’re likely under-aged, so no champagne for you.)
The cursor blinks on your screen—like it’s taunting you—as you ponder the prompt and its exacting instruction: “Please respond in 300 words or less.” You groan. Economy of prose isn’t your thing. Maybe you’ll curse the admission officer (me…) who required a couple of “extra” essays before your application could be considered “complete.” (We’ll assume the personal statement to the Common Application is finished...)
But here’s the thing: these “extra” writing samples are really valuable. Quite often, the answers you provide on the writing supplement to the Common Application are my favorite part of an application. Why? Well, when you “engage the sup,” as one of my former colleagues liked to say, you add a jolt of voice to the mix of grades, test scores, and recommendations that frame your application. While your personal statement is an essay that every college receives, the supplement is college-specific so the questions reflect the vibe of that place. And when the “sup” is done well, your persona floats to the surface where we can see it and appreciate it. (That image sounds like a Disney cartoon: I’m imagining Dory smiling from beneath a blue wave…)
Don’t misunderstand me: the traditional elements of an application are very important parts of the admissions process. A robust GPA in a rigorous curriculum is always noteworthy, but that data point cannot showcase your voice.
While the academic data tells about your academic preparation and readiness for a rigorous Dartmouth classroom—a place that is usually a discussion-oriented environment with 20 students or less—the voice of all those qualified applicants shapes the personality of our undergraduate community. And so Dartmouth’s writing supplement coaxes you towards a fuller, and original, interpretation of your best self. It helps us see the thoughtful, funny, skeptical, kind, athletic, messy, reflective, romantic, introspective, independent—to name just a few qualities it might showcase—person who produced the numbers.
While I've never been a particular fan of The Who, Tommy and friends did ask a salient question when they crooned “Who are you?” We want to know that, too. Whether you're an offensive lineman or a poet (or a poetic offensive lineman), your objective is the same: frame a narrative through your application that introduces you to the admission officer who is reading your file.
Of course, by "reading" I mean evaluating, since that's the task at hand in a competitive admissions process. At Dartmouth, there are more qualified applicants than we can accept and enroll, so your narrative helps us shape the class and define its texture. So as your fingers dance across the keyboard, keep this question in mind: who is the person that these responses introduce to the admissions reader? What do you want me to know about you as I “meet” you in this electronic format?
To tease that perspective out of you, Dartmouth requires two short questions (only 350-400 words, max) in addition to the Common Application. But one quick clarification: “short” does not mean “casual.” Each answer can capture your voice in a compelling, dramatic way if it’s done well.
Here’s our logic:
The first question—and the shortest of the duo—channels Dr. Seuss’s “Oh, the Places You’ll Go” as we wonder “Why Dartmouth?” It seeks some basic but important information: How or why did the college make your final college list? Simply put, what attracted your application? At 100 words, it’s just a couple of sentences, which is more than a tweet but less than a paragraph, and it’s certainly not an “essay.” Don’t over think it. It’s not calculus: there’s not an absolute answer to the question. If you struggle to answer it, that might be instructive.
The “Why Dartmouth” response can take many forms. For example, the College is renowned for its excellent teaching and experiential learning. Does Professor Randall Balmer’s class on “Religion, Politics, and the Presidency” or the always-popular Thayer course on “Design Thinking” intrigue you? Tell us. Maybe Professor Ross Virginia’s arctic research makes your palms sweat? (That could pose a problem if you’re on a polar ice sheet…) Are you intrigued by Dartmouth’s programs in quantitative social science, comparative literature, engineering, French, geography, or linguistics? What captures your imagination? Perhaps the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network (DEN) or the Dickey Center for International Understanding calls out to your innovative or global impulses.
Maybe your rationale is more emotional than logical. You had a visceral reaction to the profound sense of place that defines Dartmouth’s historic campus. You loved the sight of Baker Tower against a brilliant blue sky or you felt a kinship with the outdoorsy, independent students you encountered on your campus tour. In short, you could see yourself in Hanover, skating on Occom Pond or kayaking on the Connecticut River during summer term. A “warm fuzzy” reaction animates your idea of “Dartmouth” and that’s useful information for us to know. Your college will be your home. “Fit” counts.
The “Short Response” channels an autobiographical impulse in 250 to 300 words, and six questions offer multiple options to do so.
Maybe you want to tell us about your passion for food (cooking it or eating it), or athletics (watching it or playing it) or technology (using it or tinkering with it). Are you a political junkie? A global citizen? A jazzy hipster? A stand-up comedian? A good neighbor? Do you prefer bowties or combat boots? There’s no right or wrong answer. Something makes you hum or animates your way of being. Tell us what it is.
And that’s it. Those are the required, “extra” 350 words that Dartmouth asks you to add to your application. What you tell us is up to you.
Think about how these “extra” pieces of writing might shine a different light on your candidacy. Be candid and straightforward. Argue your case. Be authentic. And try to finish it before New Year’s Eve. You shouldn’t be staring at a computer screen that night.